I would not be described as a keen cyclist. Indeed my own bicycle has been helping hold up my garden fence for the best part of three years.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself trying out a professionally designed off-road mountain biking trail while on a weekend break at Blessingbourne Estate in Co Tyrone.
Whilst I may not have set the course speed record (not the fastest one anyway), I have to say it was an exhilarating experience and I felt quite a sense of achievement when I got to the finish line.
The mountain bike trails take in various parts of the 550 acre estate and for those who are serious about the sport, loops off the main Woodland trail offer technical and challenging routes that I suspect are not for the faint-hearted!
For someone who is naturally inquisitive, particularly when visiting somewhere for the first time, Blessingbourne has plenty of places to explore. Central to the estate is a busy working farm with a large herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle as well as a plethora of assorted animals including horses, goats and dogs.
The lakeside walks let you escape from the hustle and bustle of modern living and then there’s the random items collected by family members over the years including carriages, record players, penny farthings, bathchairs a Romany caravan and even a helicopter! The item I found most fascinating was the original 1825 London-Oxford Stagecoach with its original livery.
The estate, which has been owned by the same family line since its creation in the early 1600’s, is overlooked by the impressive Elizabethan manor house. Whilst it is an historic building it is very much a family home and there is something quite quirky about walking into a room full of fascinating artworks and family heirlooms and then spying a TV in one corner and a dog dozing in the other.
Naturally a place of this size has fascinating stories. Nick and Colleen Lowry, the current owners of the house and estate have a vast array to tell, whether they be about the haunted carriage in the barn, the fairy tree in the garden, the history of the US Army based there during World War 2 or even how the Thai Ranat instrument made its way to their sitting room.
The quality of accommodation on the estate is also high. Families and groups can stay in apartments in the Courtyard. These have been finished to a high specification and are very comfortable. The adjoining coach-house allows large groups to dine in one place and it has also been known to host the odd party or two.
Pets are also welcome in the apartments and even if you don’t own a dog, you can borrow one of the dogs from the estate to accompany you on your walks. The most popular accommodation choice is the Gate Lodge, a fairytale cottage which sleeps five people in three bedrooms and has attained 5* self-catering status. It was definitely a cosy retreat after a day outdoors enjoying the estate.
Blessingbourne has such a laid-back atmosphere you feel disconnected from the rest of the world but another advantage the estate has is that Fivemiletown is literally on its doorstep. The shops, restaurants and services in the town are well within walking distance so if you don’t want to cook, you don’t need to.
I’m as guilty as the next person of driving through South Tyrone and not thinking of stopping. I’ll not make that mistake the next time as it would seem I’ve been missing out.