Ever kindly welcoming the stranger...A Porchfield Walk

DAN DALY

Mention the word “Trim” to my dog Sadie and her eyes light up. She wags her tail vigorously and shakes and contorts with excitement as I try to put the lead on her. It’s all because to her, Trim means a walk and I bring her around the Porchfield as often as time and dependants allow.

I stop in the castle car park. It’s a splendid sunny day in a summer that has been greyish so far. The little green falls down to the castle walls; to my right is an old Russian cannon which was brought back from the Crimea after the war in the 1850s. It’s pointing towards Gulliver’s Childcare Centre which advertises childrens activities without the apostrophe. I always imagine the cannon shot it away.

We cross the pedestrian millennium bridge with the town motto “Super Peregrino Benigni” which means “ever kindly welcoming the stranger.” It is very apt indeed for a bridge that accommodates tourists from all parts of the world. As we walk across, the town of Trim and the old four-eyed, medieval bridge is to my left. It is known as Old Bridge and is the oldest unaltered bridge in Ireland, standing today much as it has over the past seven hundred years. Up in front and again slightly to the left is the elevated St Mary’s Abbey or Talbot’s Castle where Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, attended primary school. Straight ahead on high is the Yellow Steeple, the remains of the bell tower of St Mary’s Monastery which is partly cocooned in scaffolding.

There is a tarmacadam path from here right around the Porchfield, a 92-acre site of medieval farmland now in public ownership. The walk was extended last year. The new part is a little over two metres wide-custom made for social distancing. But how strange to have to veer away from people in this most hospitable of towns! In all, the paths cover a little over four and a half kilometres. It’s here that I release Sadie and off she tears into the newly mown hay. We now walk along the Boyne; the water level is low and I note the swept greenery at the bottom of the river.

A young couple rest on the steps that lead down to the water and two children play at the edge. A young man throws a ball in the river and his dog dives in to retrieve it. Sadie looks on and must wonder how dogs differ. Across the river in the little buttercup coloured, triangular field, four donkeys graze, until they are easily enticed to the fence by a group of admirers.

We come to the coolness of the underpass beneath the new bridge. The traffic rumbles overhead. The path now swings left parallel with the road. The field is tinged with yellow and there is no need to warn Sadie that you don’t play with sheep because I notice that the recently numerous sheep and lambs have been removed. One day two lambs chased her. She just looked at me as if to say what do I do now? The shade of the hedge is refreshing but the whirr and whoosh of traffic encroaches onto the peace. Through the bushes I can see the bus stop with a couple of people wearing white masks. Inside the mowed edge of the path are nettles, yellowing at the base, thistles, assorted flowers and long grass. After a kilometre we swing right, and we are now parallel to Old Lackanash Road and the estate.

There is a ditch along the footpath and Sadie vanishes into it. The road goes quiet for a minute or so and I hear children laughing and dogs barking. Sadie patters up beside me and then runs on ahead. The track in the grass alongside the path is testament to the number of joggers and Trim’s impressive athletic tradition. A kilometre later we swing right and inland towards peace and then left, where rests the ruins of Newtown about 200 metres away in front.

The old log seat that was uprooted by Storm Ophelia has been restored and it’s time for a rest. It’s hard to believe that there was once a thriving community in this spot. Early in the thirteenth century an abbey was founded here and it became the medieval cathedral of St Peter and Paul. Two monasteries and a small church were also established. A new town, Newtown, was then planned to provide economic support to the monastic cathedral. To the east of the cathedral in the church, is the tomb of Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife Jane. They are known as the jealous man and woman because the two figures do not touch. The tomb is said to have a cure for warts.

Beyond the wall I can see the Celtic Crosses in the graveyard. I notice two heads moving among the crosses and then they rise and come up out of the cemetery and ascend the stile. The resurrected turn out to be two jolly women with a frisky little bichon frise. Beside the stile I notice the sign “Slí na Sláinte,” which ironically offers some healthy living advice at the entrance to the cemetery. A little late methinks! Local people are still being buried in this ancient churchyard. The Echo Gate isn’t far from here on the Dublin Road. Your voice is reflected back by the walls of the Victorine Monastery. Beyond the ruins and cemetery is Marcie’s Pub, old and fabled and now sadly as still as the graveyard, where once upon a time many a walk was interrupted and dogs were welcome.

We now take the path along the river leading back to the castle and Trim. Not to be outdone by Paris and its river beaches by the Seine, there are five little beaches along this stretch of the walk. I see Betty and her friend rambling along and following in the distance, frothing at the mouth and panting with a worrying intensity comes Lainey, the St Bernard.

Sadie still makes the mistake of being cautious around the big dogs though it’s the little fellows, tiny Napoleons with big attitude that cause her grief. We arrive at the two seats shaped like bottle corks and shaded by three small trees. Sitting as they are on the bank of this magical river of myth, perhaps a Celtic giant swigging a great bottle will arise from the river bed one day and reclaim one of the corks.

The water is clear and clean and curls around an island of reeds. Some bulrushes stand stoutly in midstream though many are now bending with the flow and others are turning golden just under the rippling silver surface. A yellow boat hangs on to the bank on the opposite side from where lawns sweep up to impressive houses. A lawnmower hums away to the right and the constant zip and hum of traffic flows away to the left in the direction of Newtown Bridge and its blue eyes. Clumps of sheep wool rest at the path’s edge.

The Porchfield was farmed by the settlers, each household being allowed a strip of land on which they grew wheat, oats, barley and cultivated pasture. The still visible strips of ridge and furrow testify to the intense use of the land. It is thought that Porchfield comes from perch or the French word porte though there may be other explanations. As we approach the underpass again there is an arch cast adrift in the field just to the right which was once part of a bridge over a canal. The “Path Floods Warning,” recalls a time that seems like a distant memory.

As we exit the underpass we head across the open field. I kick the mown hay as I go. The smell recalls memories of sunny days in Kerry meadows. Not all the hay has been cut and much of it, now yellowing and splashed with purple, still bends to the gentle breeze. The reaper used to come on the third Sunday in June when the annual “Hay Making Festival”, a celebration of all things old and traditional was held but a grimness has gripped our world for the moment.

Just past the great sycamore tree we walk up the slope to the Sheepgate and rest on the wall. It is the only surviving gate of medieval Trim and tolls were collected here. As if in a great amphitheatre, various couples and groups lie around on the grassy incline looking down onto the great castle keep, silhouetted in a slight evening shadow. The flags of Ireland, the EU and the Office of Public Works flutter on the keep. Three acres are enclosed by the curtain walls of the largest Norman castle in Ireland and it was here that Mel Gibson filmed part of 'Braveheart' in 1994. St Patrick’s Church spire rises behind the castle.

We just do the old walk and return to the Millennium Bridge. Sadie always insists on going left around the back of the castle. The remains of the moat are on the right, the Boyne on the left. We come out onto the great lawn on the south side and here you can see the impressive barbican gate. An elegant, elderly couple in bright clothes walk towards us, chatting amiably, ambling along with a philosophical ease.

We return to the castle green and car park where we commenced our stroll. A young man is up on the little apple tree, under which sit a couple of girls who don’t pay him the slightest bit of attention. His only hope would appear to be to fall. A boy and a girl play hurling. A family takes turns sticking their heads in the stocks and smile as the camera is aimed at them.

People sit at the three brown picnic tables and family groups lounge on the grass. A little boy rolls down the slope towards his little sister who laughs and jumps out of the way.

Reluctantly Sadie leaps into the back of the car and I hand my parking ticket with forty five minutes of the two hours remaining to an incoming motorist. Super Peregrino Benigni.

'The Porchfield Walk' by Dan Daly featured in the Meath Chronicle's Christmas Cheer publication.

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