Waterford: Castles and crystal in Ireland's oldest city
Eleanor Goggin returns to a childhood holiday haunt and tries her hand at Waterford Crystal...
I'm ashamed to admit that I only realised the other day that Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland. More evidence of my lack of application at school. The Vikings arrived and conquered and the city of Waterford was founded in 914.
A city steeped in history and dear to my heart. We went on holidays to Dunmore East, very close to the city, when I was young. So, when driving recently to Waterford from my native Cork with plenty of time on my hands, I decided to head to Dunmore to see how much it had changed.
Thankfully it hasn't. It's still the pretty picturesque fishing village of my childhood memories. Thatched cottages and beautiful cliff walks. Visitors and locals sitting outside cafes basking in the sunshine. People strolling through the streets eating ice creams. It was everything I had hoped for.
I remembered Tramore, which is a short drive from both Waterford city and Dunmore East, as a hive of hedonism. Lots of amusement arcades and fairgrounds. Bars and cafes. Nothing much has changed here either, except it has a wonderfully old-fashioned feel to it.
And the beach is magnificent. Five kilometres of golden sands - hence the Irish name: trá mór or big beach. Surf-related shops abound and there was a decidedly 'holiday' feel which I imagine continues throughout the year.
I was staying at the historic Waterford Castle, virtually in the city but on an island. A ferry takes you across - and while it only takes two minutes, I immediately felt I was on holidays. I had 'left the country'.
The castle was originally home to the Fitzgeralds, a Norman family who owned it from the 15th Century onwards. Mary Frances Fitzgerald lived here from 1775-1855 and was by all accounts a formidable dame. She was at one stage engaged to the Duke of Wellington but finished that dalliance in order to marry her cousin John Purcell.
My ancestors on my mother's side are all Fitzgeralds which gave me an ill-founded sense of ownership for the duration of my stay. My bedroom managed to combine elegance with homeliness. Many original features in the castle have been retained and it's home to enough antiques to create a whole series of Antiques Roadshow. The Great Hall houses two original Aubusson Louis XVI-style wool tapestries, which were original to the castle, one of a christening party and the other a hunting party.
Dinner in the oak-panelled Munster Room was sublime. Green asparagus, cured duck, poached egg, truffle dressing and hollandaise, followed by the most melt-in-the-mouth fillet of beef with Jerusalem artichokes, foie gras and jus, interspersed with amuse bouches and sorbets and followed with a passion fruit gel, chocolate mousse and sea salt ice cream. Is it any wonder nothing will fit me?
Crystal glass is to Waterford as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris - and a trip to Waterford Crystal in the centre of the city is a must. Two brothers, George and William Penrose, set up the original company in 1783 and chose Waterford because of its geographical location as a port.
The company thrived with the help of John Hill, their expert glass maker, whose decision to polish the glass after cutting in order to remove the frosted look was the stroke of genius that gave the glass its signature appearance.
While they were very successful, the company was forced to close, primarily because of high levels of taxation, in 1853 and production halted for nearly 100 years when, in 1947, two Czech glassmakers, Bacik and Havel, became so enamoured with Waterford cutting patterns that they had seen in the National Museum of Ireland that they decided to reinvent the company.
The company has gone through its ups and downs but currently employs close to 300 people at their Waterford premises which was opened in June 2010 right in the heart of the city. Some 750 tonnes of crystal is melted down and 45,000 pieces are produced here annually.
Mary, our tour guide, was a mine of information and it was great to see the various stages of production. The master blowers shape the crystal using wooden moulds. One of the moulds I encountered was marked 'Honda Classic Trophy'. Next is the blowing area where older men who have been with the company for years were blowing down tubes and producing glowing pieces of crystal. It's a fascinating tour. The furnace is working 24/7 - and if it breaks down it takes two weeks to be up and running again... and costs a cool two million to do so. I'd hate to be the person responsible for its demise.
I tried my hand at cutting a piece of glass, but I don't think it's something I have a natural talent for. After all, it does take eight years to become a master craftsman.
In close proximity to Waterford Crystal is Reginald's Tower, Built at the beginning of the 13th Century, it has been used as a mint, a prison and a military store. It's open daily for one-hour tours. And right next door is The Reg - a much-loved pub, where after a scrumptious lunch of crispy chicken wings and John Dory we headed for the Bishop's Palace, a museum of some note. From a lock of Napoleon's hair to the hucklebuck shoes of Waterford showband Star Brendan Bowyer, it's a treasure trove of stories - and Annie, our guide was more than happy to share them with us.
John Roberts, an architect who was born in 1712, was responsible for this beautiful building, along with the town's two cathedrals, Catholic and Protestant, plus Mount Congreve House which is in Kilmeaden just outside the city.
Mount Congreve is hugely impressive, with 70 acres of gardens, including a four-acre walled garden, and is home to the largest collection of plants in Ireland. The colours were amazing. With 16km of winding paths I only got time to do a fraction of it, but I'll be back to see some more in a different season.
And in the meantime my brave attempt at a piece of cut glass takes pride of place in my home to remind me of a wonderful trip.
Established more than 200 years ago and committed to making the everyday extraordinary, Waterford is renowned for creating the finest crystal of unsurpassed beauty and quality and bringing people together through celebrations and social gatherings.
Hand-crafted by master craftsmen at the House of Waterford Crystal, precision skill and artistic excellence come together to transform raw materials into premium luxury crystal.
Visit www.waterford.co.uk for details and a wide range of glassware, barware and crystal gifts.
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