THE historic Crosskeys Inn in Co Antrim, which holds the title of the oldest thatched pub in Ireland, is in the running to be named BBC Countryfile's Pub of the Year.
A former 17th century coaching inn at Grange Road in Toomebridge, it is a regular stop-off for weary 21st century travellers who also drop in for the famed traditional music nights.
Although the local watering hole has long featured high up the list in the pub section of several tourist websites – including Ireland Before You Die – landing in the top five for the Countryfile competition came as a complete surprise to owner Vincent Hurl.
"Someone from Countryfile must have come in for a pint and liked it," said the unassuming owner, who bought the pub in 2001 and has plans to increase its tourism reach further with an approved £1.2 million extension.
"We're are always getting strangers in the bar; tourists drop in from all over the world, so no-one would have passed any remark.
"It really is a tremendous honour as this is the first time a pub from Northern Ireland has been nominated."
The building dates back to 1654 – Vincent says lecturers from Queen's University were able to pinpoint the year through studying a fallen wooden beam – and it was once a coaching stop on the old Belfast to Derry Road.
And as was the norm back in the day, it also trebled-up as a general rural store and post office.
Now, plans are afoot to increase the offering to a modern-day bed-and-breakfast without interfering with the traditional appearance of the building.
"I am hoping to press ahead with a project to open 10 bedrooms and restaurant, plans for which have already been approved," Vincent said.
"The stumbling block has been finance as the banks have not been as keen to offer support packages for rural development.
"Yet, when tourists come to Northern Ireland, it is a genuine rural experience they want. I hope to have the financial situation sorted soon as this project has been 12 years in the making and would create 29 jobs for the hospitality sector."
In a listing of the top five pub as nominated by Pete Brown, author of The Pub, on the Countryfile website, Crosskeys Inn is described as "a must for those who want to experience pubs as they once were".
It continues: "It still has a thatched roof above the whitewashed walls. That can sound a little flat in print, but it fills you with pleasure when seen with your own eyes".
Vincent is now hoping that others feel and same and get voting via the Countryfile website – www.countryfile.com/article/pub-year – and help consolidate Crosskey's place on the tourist map. Deadline for voting is February 28.