Thursday 29 September 2016

Kilkenny: Cottage industry in Henry's Kingdom...

Short breaks in Ireland

Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30

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I've always liked the phrase 'it takes a village to raise a child'.

The child gets to bond with people other than their parents; parents get to have a break. It's a win-win situation. Since having a child, I've taken this philosophy a step further. As much as I can, I bring the village on holiday.

Holidays post-baby can be something of a shock. Everyone says you'll never sleep again. No-one warns you that you'll never really holiday as you know it again. Nothing quite prepares you for the fact that the daily grind of looking after children, as wonderful as they are, doesn't abate on holiday. And on holiday you have to do it all without the help of whatever childcare you've built into your daily lives. Probably while suffering a low-lying constant hangover.

Subconsciously, you're expecting at least some measure of R&R. What you get can be interrupted sleep routines and the non-stop reality of young children that doesn't allow for time spent sitting in the sun reading a book. It can be tough going.

I look back on holidays in year one with a shudder: a trip to Dingle where she gave out (screamed) for practically the entire seven-hour car journey there; two weeks in Spain during the dreaded four-month sleep regression where she woke almost hourly. Brutal stuff.

So I've come to identify my ideal holiday as somewhere within a two-hour driving radius of Dublin, with as many family members as possible.

I must admit I've been eyeing The Stables Farmhouse in Kilkenny for some years on the Trident website. With six double bedrooms and one single, I'd pictured a weekend away with a large group of friends. Post-child, I realised this would result in evenings spent frantically shushing drunk people in danger of waking the baby, and mornings seething resentfully on our own while our childless friends lay in bed until lunchtime.

The terrace of The Stables with its view of the grounds. It's an ideal spot for watching the setting sun while sipping a beaker full of the warm South.
The terrace of The Stables with its view of the grounds. It's an ideal spot for watching the setting sun while sipping a beaker full of the warm South.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival takes place in August.

Family, on the other hand, are charmed by the presence of your child on holiday, and only too happy to mind them for an hour or two. For them, it's a welcome novelty. For you, a chance to go lie on the bed, read a book, do nothing. It's also completely allowable, after a particularly bad night of repeated wakings, to burst into the grandparents room anytime after half-seven, throw the child on their bed shouting "look how adorable she is in her pyjamas" and run from the room before they have time to object.

The Stables is actually three buildings set around a courtyard. It sits on a hill overlooking a small valley, and unlike many Irish holiday-homes, which tend to be sterile new builds set in what might be ghost estates, this is in its own grounds; beautiful gardens with tennis courts and rose gardens. We sat on the terrace each night drinking wine and watching the sun set.

The main house, a sprawling stone building, includes a lovely country-style kitchen with an old fashioned conservatory where we ate meals and hung out, a dining-room, a living-room with a wood burning stove, a television-room, and several double bedrooms and bathrooms.

The lodge across the courtyard had two more double bedrooms and a single as well as its own living room and kitchen. The stables have been converted into a games room, with a TV area, table tennis and a pool table. It's an absolutely stunning property.

You could be lazy, and spend your entire holiday here. Which, of course, we weren't. The nearest village is Ballyhale, home of Henry Shefflin. Just further down the road is Thomastown. It's a lovely picturesque market town, set on the River Nore. For lunch, stop in The Blackberry Cafe. We sat outside and people-watched over sandwiches and coffee. They also provide books and toys for children, always handy. It's worth a stroll around the town to check out the art shops and second-hand clothes stores.

On the way back to the cottage, you pass the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey. I would also hugely recommend a trip to Mount Juliet Estate. Scones and tea for one is only €6, which is far more reasonable than many a café, but in really luxurious surroundings. The grounds on a sunny day are breath-taking. To work up an appetite, park beside the house and go for a walk over the river and through the paddocks.

Embarrassingly, because logic tells me how bad it is, Circle of Friends is still one of my favourite films. It was largely filmed in Inistioge, another beautiful Kilkenny village. On previous trips, I had lunch in one of the restaurants on the waterfront overlooking the river. On this trip we went further up the hills surrounding the village, to Woodstock Gardens. The shell of Woodstock House, burnt in 1922, remains to this day. Like something out of an Elizabeth Bowen novel, it's fairly spectacular. The grounds are sloped, further up the hill (in hindsight bringing a pram was challenging, if you have a sling or some sort of baby rucksack for walks, this is the time to use it) is an arboretum, a beautiful, peaceful walled garden and a restored Turner Conservatory. Back down near the car park is a picnic area and playground, so bring supplies, you could get an entire day out of this spot alone with kids.

Admittedly, I instigated a visit to the Nicholas Mosse store in an old mill in Bennettsbridge for the sake of research for the piece. I wasn't necessarily expecting much from what is essentially a shop. Actually though, we really enjoyed it. There's a little bit of at-work-behind-the-scenes display going on, and the cafe serves a delicious lunch, along the pies, quiches and salads line. Not to mention the handily adjacent field of cows which provided much entertainment for Herself.

Relaxed affair: shopping in Kilkenny.
Relaxed affair: shopping in Kilkenny.

Kilkenny City itself was about a 20-minute drive away. We tried the Kilkenny Shop's restaurant for lunch, it's the perfect place for eating with small kids - spacious, so you don't feel like you're on top of other diners when your child inevitably gets to the food-throwing part of the meal, and they do a baby-bowl. It's also right opposite the castle. This time I visited with the father, who had actually had a behind-the-scenes trip with his own father as a 12-year old, before work had begun, so was able to give an added perspective to the changes the renovations have wrought.

On the whole, our eating-out took the form of lunches. But if you are looking for something special for dinner, Kilkenny now boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants - Campagne, in Kilkenny City, and the Lady Helen Restaurant in Mount Juliet. I haven't tried Campagne, but restaurateur Ronan Ryan recently told me he rates it as one of the top restaurants in the country. I tried the Lady Helen on a previous visit and it's well worth a visit for the experience. Don't rule it out if you have children in tow, they couldn't have been more accommodating of our then seven-month-old, and there were several other children dining at the same time.

On a practical note, there is a SuperValu in Thomastown for a big food shop, and a well-stocked Centra in Knocktopher. Based on experience of self-catering homes that have barely had two saucepans, we now bring everything, including a steamer, on holiday. This house had literally everything you could need, and a good starter kit of basics (I've stayed in five-star holiday homes that didn't have washing-up liquid).

Holidays in Ireland are best thought out with a plan B - what do you do if it rains all week? We were lucky enough to get some of the only sunny days this summer, but this trip would have been fairly waterproof even if we'd had a week of rain. I've spent many a holiday in Ireland grimly trudging along wet beaches trying not to admit how miserable it is. We spent most of our week in Kilkenny pottering around the villages and Kilkenny City, having tea and cake and going for short walks. All of which would have still been doable if we hadn't been so fortunate with the weather.

By the end of the week, we had summarily abandoned the yearly family trip to Dingle, hitherto an almost sanctified institution. Another trip next summer, during the Kilkenny Arts Festival, was already being planned. Make sure you make the booking before the piece comes out, the mother instructed. The booking has been made. I see this becoming an annual trip.

Take three...

Shopping

Shopping in Kilkenny is a lovely relaxed affair with its market-town feel. Serendipity Boutique, Peaches Boutique, and Lola Rose are all within walking distance of each other. As is Folkster, 27 Patrick Street, Kilkenny (folkster.com), which has something of a cult following among fashionistas and celebrities, including Angela Scanlon, Vogue Williams and Amy Huberman. It's an absolute treasure trove, a mixture of vintage and their own label Folkster. A great spot for debs dresses or daywear.

Adventure centre

For children who are old enough to require something more than throwing the odd ball and being pushed around in a trike to keep them entertained, Castlecomer Discovery Park includes tree-top activities, pedal boats and canoes, fishing, a train, orienteering trails, an elf and fairy hut village, an interactive coal-mining experience, and for the adults, a cafe. There is actually a 'timber tumbles' playground for toddlers, and if this all sounds rather exhausting, lots of opportunities for more sedate walks.

Castlecomer Discovery Park

For children who are old enough to require something more than throwing the odd ball and being pushed around in a trike to keep them entertained, Castlecomer Discovery Park includes tree-top activities, pedal boats and canoes, fishing, a train, orienteering trails, an elf and fairy hut village, an interactive coal-mining experience, and for the adults, a cafe. There is actually a 'timber tumbles' playground for toddlers, and if this all sounds rather exhausting, lots of opportunities for more sedate walks.

Festivals

We visited Kilkenny city on a Monday and there was still a relaxed but buzzy Saturday afternoon feel to the place. With its many coffee shops and pubs, especially those situated with a picturesque view of the river, it's the perfect host for a festival. It's hardly surprising it hosts two of the country's most famous. The 22nd Sky Cat Laughs Festival will take place June 2 to 6 next year. The Kilkenny Arts Festival takes place August 5 to 14 next year. Mozart is next year's composer of choice.

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