Garden of Ireland and its heavenly delights
In the latest instalment of a new series about exciting places outside Dublin, Barry Egan decamps to Wicklow to get to the bottom of the Garden of Ireland
Life goes with a certain swing out this way. Enda has just come off the golf course in the Garden of Ireland. Five-thirty of an evening; all is good with Wicklow and, by association, the world. . .
From this vantage point up at Druids Glen Resort in the Wicklow hills with the sun uncharacteristically shining you could almost be in St Lucia. To add to the sense of Caribbean calm, every one of my guests has a glass of champagne in their hands.
It's just another beautiful day in Wicklow, says Nigella Lawson doppelgänger, the pleasantly pukka Eleanor Hickson.
"A genuine Montana cowboy even walked through my door one day - a great high for a horsey girl!" positively purrs the artisan baker (Killiskey Bakery) and B&B owner in Killiskey, Ashford. She further reveals that "once my breads are baked and the house is put in order, it's all about fun on my days off from running my B&B and my bakery."
"It is really hard to describe my feelings for Wicklow as I just love it so passionately," she continues. "The magic formula of Wicklow is a mixture of great people, very friendly, very open; wonderful scenery which can match anything else in Europe in terms of its unique geographical mix of great coastal scenery, fantastic mountain-walking, the absolute beauty and mysticism of Glendalough, the world-class gardens of the aptly named Garden County; an amazing horsey and social scene, a vibrant business community, and in addition, Wicklow's easy proximity to a vibrant capital city which makes it very easy to escape to from the urban rat race."
Everyone at the table is in thrall to her as she explains a perfect afternoon "on my cherished day off - rare! - " would be to take her beautiful white horse, Sting, on "a lovely ride through enchanting lanes lined with foxgloves, and the views are of the Wicklow coast and the mountains ahead. How perfect!" she hoots "For lunch it would be Romany Stone in Ashford, a most enchanting restaurant in the middle of the village - or else Byrne & Woods in Roundwood, another great restaurant which has attracted a strong and loyal following."
"Then a gorgeous walk with my little dachshunds," Eleanor says, referring to Minnie and Rolly (the latter is named after "the fat dalmatian" in 101 Dalmatians) "on The Murrough Beach in Wicklow or Brittas Beach would be a perfect afternoon activity, followed by the most wonderful sociable evening with my friends in either Hunters Hotel Ashford, Bel Air Country House and Equestrian Centre, Chester Beatty's Pub in Ashford, or Tinakilly House - and if the evening is bright and seasonable, the perfect evening would be a walk in beautiful Glendalough, rounded off by a dip in a mountain rock pool."
"Ohh, bliss!" she says with impossibly perfect enunciation.
The curvaceous dark-eyed beauty is waxing lyrical about "when I want a little gardening inspiration I wander around the world famous Mount Usher Gardens, designed in the English Romantic style, and it's also important not to forget the joys of Powerscourt Gardens, voted Number 3 in the National Geographic Top 10 sightseeing attractions in the world.
"The Powerscourt Waterfall is also a sublime experience, which has to be kept for that super-special romantic date when one of the world's most iconic waterfalls in superb scenery is just a breathtaking experience to be reserved for kissing only!
"And talking of romance," she adds, "Kennedys Café in Enniskerry is surely the only place for that first romantic date full of potential, where Santina, the owner, cocoons her customers in a feminine and foodie environment which is now legendary for the quality of her fare and the genuinely charming ambience."
To an outsider like me, Wicklow has always appeared so close to Dublin yet so far in other ways - it straddles the worlds of ordinary folks, ageing Anglo-Irish grandees and aristo/artistic types like Guinness scion, The Honourable Garech Browne - "I met him at Paolo's [Tullio] funeral," says Henrietta Bisgood of Faux Fini Interiors - in his 18th century hunting lodge 'Luggala'. Or film director John Boorman in his sprawling rural kingdom in Annamoe. (Daniel Day Lewis and his wife Rebecca Miller lived on a farm near Annamoe once upon a time.)
Tonight, they are all, without exception, exceedingly agreeable and even prepossessing about their beloved if not unique county. Someone refers to being in a well-known Wicklow resident's house at a party and spying an actual Monet painting on the wall.
Henrietta Bisgood ("the name goes back to the Spanish Armada in Galway") is an enchantress of the highest order. "I used to come to Woodstock House" - which is now the Druids Glen Golf Club, from where An Taoiseach shuffled off an hour ago - "when I was a child for New Year's Eve to the family there. They used to have Old Father Time going out one way and a baby brought in the other. When you arrived you would put your coat on as you went into the house because it was so cold. Everyone used to hover around the fire and take it in turns. So your parents would come up and go - 'Move!' And everyone would shuffle along."
Chief executive of Druids Glen Resort, Edward Stephenson describes Wicklow people as "welcoming, hospitable and particularly patient when dealing with influx of migrants from Dublin."
"I'm from Tralee," he adds, brilliantly.
"Wicklow for me is where I want my final resting place to be," says Deirdre O'Donovan of Wicklow Tourism.
"Every time I get into my car and head inland towards Aughrim or The Wicklow Gap, or towards Ballyknocken near Blessington, the amazing mountain and lake views really grab me with excitement, and I feel a true sense of belonging to this beautiful county. I have come to really appreciate this. It took me a long time to fully appreciate living here as I worked abroad a bit. So I think 35 years would be about right!"
Wicklow people are, says Deirdre, "very open."
"Open to adventure," adds Henrietta.
"Open to people," adds Eleanor
"They like hunting," says Henrietta's partner Peter Winckworth of Greville Lifestyle ("agents for lifestyle gifts for Avoca Hand Weavers and Harvey Norman"). "They like shooting. They like riding. They are an outdoorsy bunch. They are great gardeners. Great huntsmen. Great fishermen. Great business people. It's all there."
"They're great people," says Kerryman Ed.
"They are very good-looking men," adds Ms Hickson.
"I'm happily married," says Gina Arcari who runs Dita Eyewear Europe. "I don't look any more."
Eleanor is, she laughs, "gazing worshipfully" at fine young horse-jumper Darryl Walker who is sitting in our midst in his full riding attire.
"Calm yourself, Eleanor!" laughs Henrietta.
"I meant in a horseman's sense!" Eleanor explains, helpfully.
"He has a fine seat is what you meant," teases Henrietta.
"Quite," says Eleanor.
I ask Darryl in his infeasibly tight white jodhpurs, what are Wicklow women like.
"Someone asked me do I only date Wicklow women?" he says.
And do you?
"No!" laughs Darryl, who looks like he has stepped gaily off the cover of a Jilly Cooper novel
I ask the ladies what are Wicklow men like.
Deirdre: "Wicklow men in general are friendly. However - not always straightforward! They are very cautious especially when it comes to asking for a date."
Eleanor: "The Wicklow man, from my point of view, is not fazed by too much, and laid back to the point of being horizontal. Nothing is ever so important that it can't wait until the next day, and this can be infuriating, but a Wicklow man's arsenal of charm ensures you always end up smiling anyway, " says Eleanor smiling.
I ask Wicklow's answer to Nigella is she single.
"Single, and ready to mingle. I'm having fun dating."
Gina Arcari did not, she relates, have such a fun time living in the humming hamlet of Enniskerry. "I felt like such a blow-in, Not accepted. No one wanted to know you. No one wanted to talk to you. Quite bluntly, unless you held the right position people wouldn't talk to you. That was quite blatant," says Gina, who has long since moved to Ashford, where "we were welcomed with open arms. There was a lot of clubs. It started with the cricket and a lot of people had hunting - obviously - in common. Another guy did shooting and that started off another club."
"But in Enniskerry," she continues, "I am very good friends with what you would class as 'old money', very good friends with some land owners and farmers - they were all fantastic people. It was actually the 'new money' coming in that I didn't gel with at all. It is more the D4 set - for want of a better word - who have moved in and adopted an attitude.
"I will give you an example. A certain business man who I will not mention," she begins, giving me chapter and verse. "Well, myself and my husband walked into the pub one night and he said hello to me and he completely blanked my husband because my husband is a butcher. No other reason. That was the sort of person that was moving into Enniskerry and I didn't like it at all."
"My husband Kevin - of Colm Leavey's butcher's in Lambs Cross - was actually asked to deliver meat to the back door, the servant's entrance, of a big house. . ."
"That is not an Enniskerry thing," says Henrietta, leaping to the village's defence. "I've always loved it. I think in the last 20 years Enniskerry has had lots of people move in, and some of them didn't gel as well with the locals.
I can remember Ben on the forge, he was a farrier. You could go into him and chat away for hours. All the kids used to do it. Ben was married to my nanny, Mary, when I was a child. She is still alive. They were lovely characters.
"The locals are very warm and friendly and very hospitable in Enniskerry, where I have lived all my life, but I know what you mean about the blow-ins being maybe not so friendly," Henrietta says.
"I think there are some terrible counties in Ireland," says Eleanor. "How would you like to live, say, in Roscommon. . ."
Everyone gasps audibly at the table. Eleanor pauses before returning to her theme of counties where she wouldn't want to live in Ireland.
"Or Offaly?" adds Eleanor.
"Why don't you throw Cavan in there while you're at it!" jokes Edward as the laughter echoes across the Wicklow hills. Somewhere out on the fairways of Druids Glen Golf Club, Enda Kenny is thinking to himself: at least the incomparable Ms Hickson didn't mention Mayo.