The Hidden Rural Wonders of North Westmeath
This article was published in the Westmeath Examiner on Saturday 2nd January 2020 - full article and an additional gallery of images below
When we regain the freedom to move around our counties again, there could be no better time to hit the road and explore the rich archaeological and historical heritage that lies on our own doorstep. One of the most impressive Medieval sites lies in the outskirts of a tiny but picturesque little village called Fore, a short distance from Castlepollard. Here you will find a monastic settlement with a complex of Medieval buildings sitting in the hollow of a scenic valley, surrounded by woodland. The Ben of Fore, the second highest point in Westmeath, provides a backdrop. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place with a fascinating history. Not only that, you’ll most likely have the place to yourself. No need for social distancing here - it’s one of Westmeath’s best-kept secrets.
The imposing Fore Abbey, thought to have been founded by Hugh de Lacy in 1180, dominates the landscape but there is much more to see. The 3-kilometre looped walk is highly recommended to take in the full-scale of the site while enjoying the natural landscape. You have two options: start at the main car park and head to the abbey first, or start at Nancy and Nelly’s cottage, walk through the woods and finish at the abbey. I opted for the latter.
St Féichín founded a monastery in Fore in 660, where the ancient Church of St Féichín now stands. The 10th century ruins stand on a raised terrace, overlooking the valley. Later additions to the church were carried out in the 12th and 15th centuries. Look out for the small carving of a monk standing on the curve of the arch as you walk from the older part to the newer chancel. It’s quite beautiful and easy to miss. The only surviving pre-Norman building of the complex, the church is a simple one with a lintel above the door. This once carried an image of a cross, now barely visible, but has gone down in history as one of the 'Seven Wonders of Fore’. Legend has it that it was raised by St Féichín’s prayers. Believe of that what you will. The other wonders include the ‘mill without a race’, ‘monastery built on a bog’, ‘water that flows uphill’, ‘well whose water won’t boil’ and the ‘tree that won’t burn’.
The seventh wonder, ‘anchorite in a stone’, refers to the religious recluse buried in the Anchorite’s Cell. This building stands further up the hill, though it was not part of the early monastic settlement. It comprises a 15th century tower attached to a 19th century mausoleum of the Grenville-Nugent family. There isn’t a direct path up to the mausoleum from the church so if you’re nosy like me, be prepared to wade through some long (and wet) grass on an incline to take a proper look. Local man Peter told me about its resident hermit Patrick Beglin who died there in 1616. As the legend goes, he is buried under a slab – an inscription in Latin tells us so. Unfortunately, there is no access to the interior at present, but I believe that a key can be collected from a local pub, if you know the right people.
And now to the abbey. The viewpoint from the hill above is just spectacular. I was blessed with a gorgeous blue-sky winter’s day. The frost had begun to thaw and was dripping softly off the trees. A foggy haze was rising over the hills and the sun made a welcome appearance, shining a soft golden light on the abbey. After months of lockdown restrictions, this was one of those utterly life-affirming moments.
The Anglo-Norman abbey complex is made up of a series of buildings, domestic and otherwise, dating from early to late Medieval times, including a church with two towers and a monastic house with links to the Evreux monastery in Normandy. The priory was built around a central cloister which was open to the sky – a small section of the ornate arched colonnade is still standing.
An interesting feature is the 13th century columbarium where pigeons were kept to provide food for the community. It’s in relatively good condition with its stone cavities still visible - you can reach it by climbing up some narrow steps. A majestic arched gateway leads you out of the complex – follow the tree-lined avenue and this will bring you back to the start of the looped walk.
The rich history of the site cannot be overstated but that’s not to say that there isn’t something for people of all ages to enjoy. Kids will love the art installations, the fairy houses and other quirky features hidden in the trees, while nature lovers will be overawed at the sheer beauty and peacefulness of the place.
A delightful stone cottage stands at one end of the trail, marked by a bright red pump. Modern paintings in the windows by a local artist commemorate the friendship of two local women Nancy and Nelly who used this woodland path to run between each other’s homes as children. I don’t use the word lightly but there is a little bit of magic here.
A short drive from Fore will bring you to the crystal-clear waters of Lough Lene. In a county known for its concentration of lakes, this is arguably the most beautiful. A haven for a diverse range of wildlife, it is a Designated Area of Special Conservation. What struck me most was the absolute silence and air of tranquillity; not a sound but the gentle lapping of water against the shore. It’s worth taking a moment to sit at the end of the jetty, take a gulp of fresh, clean air and enjoy the solitude. A special place.
A further detour will take you to Multyfarnham Friary which dates to the 15th century. What is unique about this place is the extraordinary life-sized reproductions of the Stations of the Cross dotted throughout the grounds. Reputedly modeled on residents of the village at the time, they are almost 100 years old.
On a foggy day, the figures appeared eerily ghost-like through the trees. Up close, the detail and facial expressions are haunting and filled with emotion. An experience not to be missed.