There are many reasons why Westmeath makes a great day trip, but one thing makes it a great destination: its lakes. Some, such as Lough Ennell and Lough Owel, are popular spots for watersports and angling. Others, such as Lough Derravaragh, are integral to Irish mythology.
Legend has it that is where the Children of Lir were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, condemned to 900 years of wandering.
Head off the beaten track, and you’ll find plenty of lakes for the angler or picnicker who prefers a bit of solitude, too. Loch Bán (literally "the White Lake", in Irish) is one standout among the lesser-known lakes. On a crisp winter’s morning, it’s a mass of mists and waving ferns and reeds. In summer, it’s a sweet spot for swimming.
Westmeath also offers water of the faster-flowing variety. Here, bang in the middle of Ireland, the dairy farms of Westmeath meet the River Shannon.
Athlone is the river’s gateway town, a cosmopolitan crossroads where you can just as easily rent a cruiser, or stay put and explore its medieval castle and artsy Left Bank.
Just a few miles outside Mullingar – Westmeath’s main town – you’ll find the beautiful parkland estate of Belvedere House overlooking Lough Ennell. A hunting lodge might seem the last place you’d expect to find exquisite ceilings depicting fire-breathing dragons, but even more curious is the Jealous Wall.
A Gothic folly
The Jealous Wall is a huge Gothic folly (a mock-up of a ruined abbey) built by the lodge’s owner, Lord Belvedere. It was intended to block his view of his brother’s nearby residence, the grander Tudenham House.
The same “Wicked Earl” notoriously locked up his wife for 31 years on a spurious charge of infidelity. Not an entirely moderate man, it seems.
The seven wonders
If you’re wondering at the Jealous Wall, however, just wait till you get to Fore. The tiny village is home to the remains of St Fechin’s 7th-century monastic settlement – the largest Benedictine site in Ireland, and site of the fabled Seven Wonders of Fore.
The Seven Wonders are “miracles” associated with St Fechin (a tree that won’t burn, a monastery built on a bog, water that won’t boil and so on). They’re a pretty lighthearted take on the folk tales associated with the saint, but there’s no doubting the curious nature of this place.
How has it remained under the radar for so long? Perhaps that’s the eighth wonder in the making, you’ll just have to visit Westmeath to find out.