Taking place this weekend, European Heritage Open Days offer a unique opportunity for the public to visit rare and historic sites. Mark Bain highlights some of the jewels on our doorstep
It is the weekend when Northern Ireland throws open the doors of history for free. The grand old houses and buildings that grace both the cities and countryside, museums, castles, parks and monuments - more than 300 sites in total - will be showcasing the character that built the province as European Heritage Open Days take place tomorrow and Sunday.
"We will have more than 300 properties and events open free of charge this weekend (September 14 and 15), many of which do not usually open to the public," says Iain Greenway, director of the historic environment division with the Department for Communities.
"I hope everyone enjoys the variety of our historic environment on offer. European Heritage Open Days provide a great opportunity to see behind closed doors.
"Our heritage in all its expressions is part of us. It is key to our experience and identity, and key to sharing our unique way of life.
"The theme this year is arts and entertainment, and a programme of cultural events hosted in venues across Northern Ireland has been organised, providing the opportunity to explore our heritage of art and entertainment and its links to our community and its built and cultural heritage.
"You can also experience our rich heritage through events organised by Historic Environment Division and others including events at our State Care Monuments and various talks and tours."
The open days take in a variety of historic places including cottages, mills, private houses and even a secret bunker.
In Belfast there is a chance to get immersed in life aboard the unique vessel HMS Caroline, the lone survivor of the Battle of Jutland during the First World War.
Visitors can see the new quayside visitor centre and exhibition space dedicated to telling the personal stories of those who served on the 'Carry', before stepping aboard to see a powerful film on the drama of Jutland and experience impressively restored cabins and deck areas.
The Strand will have tours throughout the day from its expert projectionist Alan McClurg. On the tour you will see the art deco and shipyard-influenced design.
Other offerings include the traditional 1940s terrace house in east Belfast's Cregagh estate, which was the childhood home of George Best. George lived here from the age of two until he left for Manchester United, aged 15.
For the more adventurous, there is a chance to see a Cold War-era bunker in Co Armagh.
For a full list of the events taking place tomorrow and Sunday visit discovernorthernireland.com/events/European-Heritage-Open-Days
1. NI's Secret Bunker
Derrylettiff Road, Maghery, Portadown
Deep down below a field on the outskirts of Portadown lies a relic of the Cold War.
The former monitoring bunker, sitting 15 feet underground, was part of a network of similar structures all over the UK built to study the effects of nuclear explosions and the resulting radioactive fallout. Find out how we would have coped if the Cold War had ever turned hot.
Guided tours will be given by original crew members who will be dressed in period uniform, between noon and 5pm tomorrow.
Booking is required: email email@example.com or tel: 07921 167775.
2.George Best House
16 Burren Way, Belfast
The address in east Belfast is the childhood home of Northern Ireland footballing legend George Best.
George lived here from age two until he left for Manchester United, aged 15.
The house is now operated as self-catering tourism accommodation and is decorated with mementos and images from George's life and career.
Opening times tomorrow are from 10am-1pm.
Booking is required: email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 9045 8114.
3. Jewels of Marble Arch Tour
Meet at Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre, Marlbank Road, Florencecourt, Co Fermanagh
A guided tour of some of the jewels of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark.
A fantastic opportunity to take a trip through some of the most eye-catching scenery and geographical marvels Northern Ireland has to offer.
Sites being visited include Cavan Burren Park, Blacklion Market House, Hanging Rock, Cladagh Glen (with optional nature walk), and a guided tour of Marble Arch Caves.
Warm, waterproof clothing and walking boots are essential. Please bring your own packed lunch. Finish time is approximate.
The tour is on Sunday from 10am-3pm. Booking is essential and is available at www.marblearchcavesgeopark.com.
There is an Irish language tour tomorrow from 10am-3pm, again booking is essential.
4. Lock Keeper's Cottage
Lagan Valley Regional Park, Lock Keeper's Lane, Belfast
The late 18th century Lock Keeper's Cottage has been restored to how it would have looked in the early 20th century, when the last lock keeper, George Kilpatrick, lived there with his wife and 10 children while working for the Lagan Navigation Company.
Come in, sit by the fire and hear the tales of life and work on the Navigation, from Lagan Valley Regional Park Heritage Guides. The Industry Barge hails from the later years of the Lagan Navigation. She was launched in 1920 and had a long life - mainly carrying coal along the Lagan Navigation, before finishing up as a sand barge on Lough Neagh in the 1970s. She even played a part in the Second World War.
You're invited on aboard to hear more of her tales and learn about the history of the Lagan Navigation between 11am and 4pm tomorrow.
5. Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum
Darling Street, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
How many places can you get a haircut and explore the golden age of steam travel at the same time?
It's a rather unique combination, but why not visit the world's only railway museum in a working barber shop in Enniskillen?
The Johnston family's decision to combine traditional barber skills with their interest in local railway history has led to one of the most unique and fascinating attractions in Northern Ireland.
Headhunters Barber Shop and Railway Museum boasts one of the largest collections of Irish railway memorabilia. Starting at the reconstructed booking office, where the ticket collector invites you to step on board, your journey recreates railway travel through Fermanagh and the border counties until the closure of the lines in 1957.
Don't forget to visit the large model railway and railway art exhibition, and you can get a hair cut too... Open tomorrow from 9am-5.30pm and Sunday from 1-5pm.
6. Medieval Combat Group at Narrow Water Keep
Warrenpoint Road, Newry
If you've been inspired by Game Of Thrones and want to learn how to wield a sword of your own, here's your chance by taking part in introductory Historic European Martial Arts workshops for a variety of medieval swords.
There will be a series of demonstrations and workshops tomorrow, from 12-4pm. Registration is not required by participants but places will be limited to 16 per class and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. Participants should be aged 15 and older.
There is also the opportunity to find out more about the use of the sword in the medieval period, meet historical fencers from the Medieval Combat Group, and watch as they clash.
For those who like their combat a little more civilised, Historical Fencing NI will be giving the public an opportunity to find out about our European martial heritage.
Find out more at: Facebook.com/MedievalCombatGroup, www.medievalcombat.co.uk
7. Look Out in the Blackout at the NI War Memorial
Talbot Street, Belfast
Learn about air raid precautions and the evacuation of children.
Listen to 1940s music while you make your own identity card and ration book and take part in some hands-on Dig For Victory activities. Dress up in authentic uniforms and have a souvenir photograph taken as a pilot, a Home Guard soldier, an air raid warden or a nurse in the Belfast Blitz. This is a free family event with activities suitable for all ages.
The Northern Ireland War Memorial is an accredited museum in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter which tells the story of the local contribution to the war effort during the Second World War.
Objects on display relate to the Belfast Blitz, the Home Guard, the role of women and the presence of US forces in Northern Ireland.
Open tomorrow from 10.30am until 4pm.
8. Twilight Theatre presents Legend at Kilclief Castle
Strangford, Co Down
If you like your history brought to life there are plenty of options for entertainment and, among the attractions this weekend, the legends of ancient Ireland come to life as actors from Twilight Theatre transform into characters from the Irish mythological cycle and tell their tales in a dramatic and lyrical style at Kilclief Castle in Downpatrick.
It's a family-friendly event that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages tomorrow from 2-4pm.
9. Origami House, Kells
Whappstown Road, Ballymena, Co Antrim
Rather than visit one of our historic old houses, check out our historic new one. Award-winning architect Jane Burnside, and author of Contemporary Design Secrets: The Art of Building a House in the Countryside, welcomes you to her home and studio, The Origami House.
As seen on BBC House of the Year, the Origami House is an extraordinary contemporary white and glass house set in beautiful landscaped gardens on the edge of the Glens of Antrim.
It's open from 12noon-1pm tomorrow. Book via https://getinvited.to/heddfc/
10. Lissan House and Demesne
Drumgrass Road, Cookstown, Co Tyrone
If you're still keen on the grand old houses of the country, what about a visit to one which has been lovingly restored by a local community?
Lissan House is situated at the centre of a 267-acre demesne of undulating parkland at the foot of the Sperrin Mountains in Co Tyrone.
In the beginning of the 17th century, the house and estate was purchased by Thomas Staples and it remained the family home for nearly 400 years.
In 2006, Hazel Dolling, the last of the Staples of Lissan, left the house and estate to the Lissan House Trust, an independent charity tasked with the restoration and preservation of the property.
The Regency tea room will be open and guided tours will bring the exploits of this colourful family to life.
Open tomorrow and Sunday from noon-5pm.
For more information, visit discovernorthernireland.com.