Sunday Life

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How Omagh is answering Northern Ireland's call for great staycations

From the American Folk Park to Abingdon’s trove of rare vintage collectibles and Gortin Glen, time to visit Omagh

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John Toner at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

John Toner at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

 Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

Silverbirch Hotel

Silverbirch Hotel

John Toner at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

Sitting in an armoured car with a heavy machine-gun attached in rural Co Tyrone is not a situation this Londoner ever imagined finding himself in but there I was - fatigues, helmet and all.

I had not discovered a miraculous time machine but had paid a visit to the Abingdon Collection, an astounding array of ephemera collected over half a century by curator and owner Philip Faithfull.

His incredible collection of curiosities at his home just outside Omagh ranges from vintage sports cars and 1950s gas pumps to incredibly well-preserved Second World War vehicles and weaponry.

It represents one of the largest collections in private ownership with over 2,500 items on permanent display and is dedicated to his father Jack Faithfull who served in the Worcester Regiment and also his uncle Ivor who died on a North Atlantic Convoy.

As you wander around and through the densely packed rooms stuffed with period artefacts like gleaming jukeboxes, vintage cars and bayonets, it's impossible not to feel like you're travelling back through time.

Mr Faithfull is keen for his collection to be used for educational purposes, particularly around the Nazis and the Third Reich of which he has a remarkably pristine and extensive hoard of items.

Walking my partner and I around them he revealed he often gives guided tours to schoolchildren and uses donations made to the collection to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

After coming face-to-face with Elvis (sort of), pretending to be a GI for a bit, sitting in some stunning classic cars and being reminded of the horrors of war, it was time for my partner and I to check in to our hotel.

We had made our way to Omagh for a break from Belfast city life, and enjoyed a stay at the delightful Silverbirch Hotel.

Recently reopened following the easing of lockdown restrictions with new social-distancing measures in place, the Silverbirch is well situated to enjoy the delights of Co Tyrone and is just a short drive from the stunning Sperrin mountains.

Family-run since 1978, the Silverbirch has a reputation in the region for quality as a hotel, wedding and country music venue.

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Silverbirch Hotel

Silverbirch Hotel

Silverbirch Hotel

After a long drive from Belfast and a journey through time at the Abingdon Collection my partner and I both had a hunger on us and we headed to the Baretta Bar & Grill for some dinner.

The restaurant offers up an array of hearty, traditional favourites which was great news given how hungry we both were.

We shared a portion of buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese mayo and a serving of goat's cheese fritters and candied walnuts as a starter which were both delicious.

For the main I went with a medium-rare 10oz rump steak, served with caramelised onion puree, vine tomatoes and triple-cooked chips. The locally sourced steak was oozing with flavour and was wonderfully cooked while the triple-cooked chips were some of the best I've ever had.

My partner, feeling a bit veggie, decided to have the roast butternut squash risotto with more candied walnuts and crispy kale which was healthy in both portion size and content.

After washing all that down with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it was time for bed as we had a busy schedule taking in more of Omagh's delights the following day.

We were lucky enough to be staying in one of the hotel's spacious executive double rooms which comes complete with a stylish modern bathroom, leather sofa and complimentary robes and slippers.

Thanks to the massive double bed in our room, we had a sound and restful night's sleep before setting out for the Ulster American Folk park the next morning.

The park, also recently reopened with new Covid-19 measures in place, allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of those brave Ulster emigrants who set sail for the New World in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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 Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

The park, along with the Silverbirch, has been awarded the 'We're Good to Go' industry standard mark, certifying they have carried out Covid-19 risk assessments and have the required processes in place to keep visitors safe.

Meandering through the snapshot journey of Ulster's history, it was impossible not to find yourself immersed in it and captivated by it, for the second time in two days we felt as though we were travelling through time.

To walk in the footsteps of the bold migrants who set sail for the New World centuries ago is a real pleasure and reminds us of how privileged our lives are today. We wandered through the well-trodden pathways of rural Ulster complete with a bustling Victorian street and welcoming farmhouses, before boarding the Brig Union ship and emerging in the New World to marvel at life on the American Frontier.

The exhibit buildings, socially-distanced of course, allowed visitors inside to explore them safely whilst offering up a host of daily demonstrations of traditional crafts.

The in-character hosts showed us a range of traditional skills including forge work, wool spinning, turf cutting, decorative straw work, American woodcraft and patchwork quilting.

After all that history and frontiersman work, it was again time for some more grub so we headed into Omagh and to Serendipity Cafe, a charming, bohemian eatery which had prepared a picnic for us to take on the last stop of our tour - the Gortin Glen Forest Park.

Located six miles from Omagh at the western gateway to the Sperrin mountains, the forest park is a magical, natural wonderland of walkways, adventure playgrounds and beauty spots.

Sat on a bench with the sun splitting the trees we opened our picnic box from Serendipity which was stuffed with buns, cakes, sandwiches, salads and cookies. It was way more than we could eat between the two of us but we gave it a good go.

As the wind moved gently through the trees and we sipped our coffees in the autumn sun the feeling was serendipity indeed.

Travel factfile

The Silverbirch Hotel is currently offering autumn break deals including breakfast and an evening meal for just £110 a night.

The offer includes a delicious 4-course evening meal, a full Irish breakfast plus free parking and wi-fi.

For details see silverbirchhotel.com/offer

Sunday Life