We started with afternoon tea in the F.E. McWilliam gallery in Banbridge. A very interesting gallery with F.E.'s old studio preserved for our delectation and loads to entertain the eye. The fare in the cafe is fine too and we are presented with a few free scones as we leave. A nice foretaste of the friendly reception we got everywhere we went - except for one little exception.
On then to Newforge House through undistinguished farming country - albeit with well trimmed hedges. Each village a riot of Union Jacks on utility poles. Newforge House is warm and comfortable, and a with great bed but it's way too intimate for my taste. There are only five guest rooms and we are all herded into the small living room for tea. Why tea, by the way, it's clearly G & T time. Five disparate couples sit around awkwardly whispering to each other while drinking the most God awful grey brew. It's quickly clear that the whole purpose of this herding is to get us to look at the dinner menu and place our orders early. There's a disturbing lack of choice for such a highly rated establishment: salmon or fillet of pork for the main course. We strike up a conversation with an amiable couple who rise up against the hegemony of the tea by fetching a bottle of ~Prosecco from their room and sharing it with us. They later provide good company at a disappointing meal. A very good aubergine risotto followed by two pork chops in gravy, concluded by an average cheese board - for about €50 a head.
The grounds provide little diversion apart from a very well appointed chicken run - so we get on the road. Getting through Belfast on Saturday morning is no bother - a dual carriage-way runs through it and gets us on to Carrickfergus. We nod at the well-maintained and tourist infested castle and keep going. We've obviously chosen a Loyalist route as the Union Jacks persist as we travel onwards towards Larne and beyond. The scenery improves as we follow the coastal route north of Larne and get our first glimpses of the Scottish coast through the hazy sunshine.
We stop in the clean and well-appointed town of Ballycastle, from where the Rathlin Island ferry departs. Beside its small ferry port, and cheek to jowl with its famous Granny Rock (see image below), we come upon the jewel in the crown of this town. Its Morton's fish and chip shop. Attracted by a sign advertising fresh haddock we check it out. There is a short delay as everything is cooked fresh but when our fish and chips arrive they are the best I have ever tasted. The batter on the fish is thin and light and the chips are crisp on the outside and floury within. Potato perfection. This interlude proved to be the culinary highlight of the weekend.
And so on to the Giant's Causeway.