Thursday 19 October 2017

Wonderfully Wexford: My surprise staycation in the sunny southeast

Home holidays

Wexford town was founded around 800 AD by Vikings - and remained in Viking hands until a Norman/Irish alliance in 1169 laid siege to the settlement
Wexford town was founded around 800 AD by Vikings - and remained in Viking hands until a Norman/Irish alliance in 1169 laid siege to the settlement
Eleanor and John enjoyed the bumper rides at Pirates Cove
John Greene

John Greene

Everybody has a favourite second team they quietly support. Growing up, mine were Tottenham in soccer and Kerry in Gaelic football. Yes, a strange mix, but there's no accounting for what appeals to a young boy.

I didn't have a second favourite team in hurling - or, being from Longford, a first favourite team for that matter. My brother, did though: Wexford. So I sort of adopted them by default and we both had a particular fascination with Tony Doran and his flowing locks - at least that's how I remember him.

We had no connection with Wexford and yet this purple and gold jersey was to be found around the house, growing more tattered as the years passed so that it may well have been a jersey once worn by Doran, which had been pulled and ripped by defenders as he bore down on goal.

Anyway, strange as it may seem, since those days in the 1980s I've harboured a curiosity about Wexford - one I've never really managed to satisfy. I've read a bit, taken a day trip or an overnight trip . . . each time adding a bit more to my store of knowledge about this fascinating county with its storied history and friendly inhabitants.

So, as we pointed the car south on Easter Sunday morning for a three-day family adventure, I think even the children picked up on my excitement.

Our home for the next few days would be the famous Clayton Whites Hotel in the heart of Wexford town, but there was business to be taken care of first, in the form of an Easter egg hunt in Wells House & Garden. With favourable weather, there was a marvellous upbeat atmosphere as families combed the woodland for clues, explored the craft shops and took part in the various other activities, including archery lessons, which formed part of the afternoon's entertainment.

Tired but happy after a great afternoon, it was on then to Wexford town, approaching from the north-east, across the familiar bridge spanning the River Slaney. A dip in the hotel's pool restored our energy and we took a walk down by the Bullring - once the site of bull-baiting, a very popular pastime in Ireland in the 18th century - along the quay and around the medieval streets of the town, before returning for dinner in the hotel's superb Terrace Restaurant. In fact, we ate in the restaurant on both nights of our stay. With four very different sets of taste buds to cater for we always worry that there won't be something to suit us all, but we needn't have worried because the food is excellent.

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we set off to Pirates Cove in Courtown, where the kids had an absolute blast. The crazy golf layout is one of the best I've come across. The bubble rollers - endless fun in the pool in water-tight giant bubbles - and the bumper boats were also a big hit.

From there it was on to New Ross to take a tour of the Dunbrody famine ship. On my last visit to Wexford a few years ago I made an unscheduled stop here, did a quick tour and found it fascinating. I was curious to know what the rest of the family would make of it, and if it would be something that would appeal to two young children (aged eight and six). As it happened, there were other children on our tour and the guide did a brilliant job of including them in everything that he did.

The famine ship is an amazing experience. The tour begins in the visitor centre with the story of the famine and a portrait of life in Ireland in the mid-19th century. Before boarding the ship, you watch a short film which portrays an impoverished family leaving home with the few belongings they had and setting off for a ship that would take them to the New World.

The replica ship transports you back in time with costumed performers telling the story of life on board as it sailed across the Atlantic.

While conditions weren't too bad for the wealthier passengers, the poorer ones were kept below deck 23 hours a day, living in filth and squalor. The mix of sadness and excitement felt by the emigrants really comes across. This tour is highly recommended, and suitable for all ages.

After another swim, another stroll around the town and another fabulous meal in our hotel, it was time to rest and prepare for the final day of our visit.

At this point, I have a confession to make: until this trip, I had never heard of the National Heritage Park. That, as I now know, is to my shame! It's an extraordinary place - an outdoor museum depicting 9,000 years of Irish history. The park nestles in natural forestry and wet woodlands on the outskirts of Wexford and is a real treasure.

We spent several hours in the company of the wonderful Susan O'Gorman, a hurling and history fanatic, who brought the park to life for the four of us with her knowledge, humour and stories. The park features recreated settlement dwellings and villages, a fully reconstructed early Christian monastery, forts and tombs, and you can even pan for gold.

A more recent development at the park, as we learned from Susan, is that you can now stay overnight in a replica of a 1,500-year-old Irish ringfort and try to live as our ancestors did. Initially, this was aimed at educational tours but families and groups of friends are now availing of it. The sleepover involves dressing up in period costumes, learning to light fires and you can also take in a tour of the park.

When the time came to leave the park - and Wexford - and head back up the N11, there was sadness in the car. One brief stop, for a last look over the Slaney, from the vantage point of the Ferrycarrig Tower House, and we were on our way home.

"Aww... do we have to go?" came the voices in unison from the back seat of the car.

GETTING THERE

Clayton Whites Hotel is renowned as one of Ireland’s best four-star hotels. Located in the heart of Wexford town, it features luxurious contemporary accommodation, a range of dining options, the award-winning Wexford Leisure Club including a 20m pool and the Tranquillity Spa and Wellness Centre. The hotel is on Abbey Street, five minutes’ walk from the railway and bus station with onsite parking for guests. Visit www.claytonwhiteshotel.com or call 053 912 2311 to book your stay. Current rates: Two nights stay with full Clayton breakfast and dinner on one evening in the elegant Terrace Restaurant from €129pps.

Co Wexford offers a wealth of entertainment, whether it’s the great outdoors, exceptional food, cultural and historic attractions, shopping, festivals or just good old-fashioned family fun on one of the many beautiful beaches. For more information visit www.visitwexford.ie

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