The Republic of Ireland is at its best a vibrant and heady mix of wild isolation, wilderness and bruising weather combined with a gentle, more calm sense of peace, culture and close community. The southeast corner of Ireland is the perfect example of this. A two hour drive from Dublin and a four hour ferry journey from the UK, it’s known as the ‘Ancient East,’ and is lush, green and bursting with historic stories, unexpected landscapes and stunning beaches.
Busier in the summer from local visitors, the pull here is the speed and the proximity of the Pembroke to Rosslare ferry that runs all year round. This gives anyone from the UK an easy chance to explore this amazing landscape for a short weekend in any season. Unlike the arguably more famous west coast and Wild Atlantic Way, Wexford and the surrounding areas appear sheltered and historic, full of tales of Viking invasions, Norman knights and 5000 years of a remote landscape being shaped. From windswept hills to wild clifftops overlooking the Celtic Sea, there’s rich variety here and a lot
10AM A PENINSULA VISIT
Hook Lighthouse stands on the end of the Hook Peninsula, a 45 minute drive from Wexford town itself. As I drive through the morning sea mist I recognise a different feel in the surrounding landscape. Settlements become more dispersed, the wind stronger and the air saltier. The lighthouse is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world still being used for its original purpose. It’s an incredible feeling to stand at the top in the wind and reflect on the unchanged, 180 degree sea view, and the many perils this lighthouse, and many others like it, have warned mariners of over the years. I leave the lighthouse with a newfound respect for many of the sailors who braved our shores hundreds of years ago.
Sea blasted and caked in sea-spray, I head slightly inland for some respite at Tintern Abbey and Colclough Walled Gardens. Tintern Abbey was built in 1203, and while wandering around I learn that its full name is Tintern de Vote, meaning ‘of the vow,’ after a promise the Earl of Pembroke made that he would build an Abbey where he could first find shelter after his boat got caught in a fierce storm. It’s a peaceful and tranquil place, the hidden Colclough Walled Gardens stealing the limelight after a incredible effort by a team of volunteers to rescue it from overgrowth. After finding it down a wooded walking trail, I walk around marvelling at their work, which since 2010 has restored the garden to its original layout as it was in the 1830s. Welcome bursts of colour from around the world and a beautiful geometric planting design are impressive sights, and leave me impressed at the sense of community and passion behind this sensitive restoration.
Hungry, I stop in the nearby small village of Fethard and find shelter for some thick, warming, freshly made seafood chowder at Neville’s Pub (www.nevilles.ie, 051 397160, from €11). Afterwards, I meet Graham from The Irish Experience and Hook Head Adventures (http://www.theirishexperience.com, 0353 876612299, guided kayaking from €44.50 per person) and with kayaks attached to the back of his Jeep, we head to Baginbun beach, a sheltered bay with a white sand beach that’s perfect for gentle paddling along the stunning cliffs. From the water, the spectacular remoteness and ancient beauty of southern Ireland is immediately apparent. The rolling hills leading down into the water and sky high cliffs around me are enough to make me feel very small. We paddled into remote beaches and explored caves and tunnels on the way back, with the wind firmly guiding us shorewards.
Back in Wexford, I feel like I’ve spent the day in the elements, and enjoy cosy recuperation at La Cote (www.lacote.ie, 053 1922 122, from €22.95), a warm, friendly seafood restaurant on Wexford’s seafront. The food is as comforting and delicious as it sounds, and I enjoy roasted monkfish with prawn gnocchi and potato rosti while recounting my day exploring the unspoilt Hook Peninsula. After food I stroll around town, taking in the smell of coal fires on the breeze and hearing many of the local pubs gear up for the night. I head to the Thomas Moore Tavern (www.thomasmooretavern.com, 053 917 4688) for a night cap, and find a warm fire and weekend music in full swing. Everyone is practising for the Wexford Fringe Festival, and there’s no doubting a local music and arts scene that is thriving here. I leave for my bed later than intended, with joyfully, the party showing no signs of letting up.
I rise early to make the most of the sunshine and head out into Wexford town for breakfast. Coffee in hand, I walk down to look at the fishing trawlers that lie in wait, looking back at what could easily be the best view of the town. The wind lashes the boat’s moorings and whistles through their rigging, and I wonder what the conditions might be waiting for a collection of sailing boats that are heading towards the edge of the harbour and the Celtic Sea beyond. Pubs are cleaning up from Saturday night, and there’s a gentle and easygoing, friendly atmosphere around the town.
After enjoying the calm buzz of a Sunday morning in Wexford’s coffee shops, I drive north to Curracloe Beach. Although this beach was made famous as the enormous stretch of sand at the opening of Saving Private Ryan, its Sunday morning use is far more provincial. Locals enjoy long walks and slow walks along the shoreline picking up an array of different shells, and I find myself lazing in the marram grass with a book for an hour soaking up calm isolation and relative protection from the wind the sand dunes give.
I continue my journey north from Curracloe Beach and head to the road that connects Dublin with this part of Ireland. During the busier seasons this stretch of coastline is a haven for visitors from the rest of the country, however today I’m travelling slightly inland to the town of Gorey for lunch. I find a pretty Irish town in the grips of a Sunday afternoon, with wood smoke billowing from the chimneys and groups of families and friends frequenting the local coffee stops. I head to the Book Cafe and Bistro (www.bookcafebistro.co.uk, 053 943 0585, from €10) for a warm Irish stew and spend a while admiring the piles of books stacked on every corner of furniture, along with the enormous cheesecakes being consumed by hungry families tired from a day on the coast.)
I’d stayed a while at the Book Cafe and Deli, so I checked my return ferry time and decided it would be worth making the journey back south in time for a final Guinness at some seafood chowder at one of the oldest pubs in town, the Thomas Moore Tavern. It was then a short drive to the harbour of Rosslare for my ferry home. I boarded for the evening crossing as the sky over the horizon was darkening and settled in for the four hour crossing towards Wales. Although the distance between Pembroke and southeast Ireland is only eighty miles, I’ve explored what’s felt like a different world in South Ireland this weekend and, as is the case every time I go to this part of the world, I leave a little bit behind me as we sail into the night.
Faythe Guesthouse, The Faythe Guesthouse is an old period house built on the grounds of a former castle in Wexford town offering bed and breakfast.
http://www.faytheguesthouse.com/ (from €50.00 for a double room, bed & breakfast).
Killiane Castle Country House & Farm, Killiane Castle Country House & Farm is surrounded by beautifully historical grounds dating back to the 15th century. http://www.killianecastle.com/ (from €57.50 pp for a double room, bed & breakfast).
Kelly’s Resort, Rosslare is one of the most family friendly hotels in Ireland. Something for everyone at this four star hotel & spa. http://www.kellys.ie
HOW TO GET THERE
Pembroke - Rosslare ferries with Irish Ferries, from €79 pp with car. London to Pembroke Docks is 4 hours.
Flights from most major UK airports to Dublin. A two hour drive from Dublin to Wexford