Wexford: Paradise, with strawberries
The sunny southeast
Gemma Fullam heads south (and gets wonderfully lost) in the strawberry-rich southeast.
For anyone who lives in Leinster, Wexford is synonymous with summer, because in those abundant months, little roadside huts appear all over the province, filled with the Model County's bounty of strawberries, apple juice and, later, new potatoes.
As I drove south-east on a Saturday evening after work, despite the teeming torrents falling from the skies, in my mind I was headed for sunshine, sanctuary and scarlet strawberries.
Reader, I got lost.
Hopelessly, impossibly, utterly lost. Partly because my phone's battery died and, with it, Google maps, and partly because at the best of times I find it hard to tell left from right, let alone navigate the maze of backroads that is rural Co Wexford.
So it was an up-to-high-doh, stressed-out me that landed up to Kilmokea Country Manor on a wet night in July. Normally, if I get grouchy, the crotchety mood has a habit of overstaying its welcome. However, the minute I crossed the threshold of the 18th-Century rectory, to be greeted by the man of the house, Mark Hewlett, something strange happened.
You've heard of instant karma; well, this was instant calm. It was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and everything beyond is Technicolour.
The felicitous mood prevailed the next morning as I awoke in the one of the Peacock Room's American four-posters to the faint strains of Bach's choral masterpiece, his Mass in B minor. My mother was due to arrive at lunchtime, and wanting to explore the gardens before then, I followed Bach to breakfast.
Two perfectly poached eggs and some excellent coffee later, I ventured out into the gardens - and the glorious sunshine. Kilmokea's sublime seven acres - part of the Wexford Garden Trail, see visitwexford.ie - are open daily from March to September, and host regular events including guided meditations, fairy house painting and open-air theatre.
I made my meandering way from the luscious rose garden to the organic vegetable potager - which has everything from Jerusalem artichokes to camomile in its elegant box-bordered beds - across the road to the delightful Fairy Village and Myrtle Wood. There was something new around every corner: a bamboo walk; a wooden dragon, christened Smaug because of his resemblance to The Hobbit's winged beast; a minature Norman motte and Viking settlement; an ancient horizontal mill and oh, my - the planting. Exquisite.
Read more: 10 great reasons to visit Wexford
I sat for an hour or more in the dappled sunshine, amid the blossom and the birdsong, soaking up nature's healing balm, until noon brought my mother and thoughts of lunch. We set off for nearby Duncannon and Dunbrody House.
Dunbrody, owned by celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, is a small hotel set in a gorgeous Georgian house. It also has a cookery school, a spa and a pub, which had a barbecue in full swing when we arrived. We were booked in for Sunday lunch (€35 for three courses) in the main house. The portions are perfectly pitched, so even if you're normally a main-and-dessert type, as I am, you'll be well able for this triple treat.
Dunbrody Country House
After a faultless meal of salad, pan-roasted hake and a dreamy chocolate dessert, we headed down the hill for a stroll along Duncannon's expansive strand. It could have been Costa Del Anywhere, as we walked and talked, with the afternoon sun glittering on the waves and Hook lighthouse - the oldest operational one in the world - visible in the clear blue distance.
The area has a rich history, as its location meant it was of vital strategic importance in times past. Duncannon Fort, which overlooks the town, was built in 1588 in anticipation of an invasion by the Spanish Armada; it was attacked by Cromwell in 1649 and the Bubonic Plague struck a year later.
The fort is currently closed for renovations, so it was a toss-up between JFK's homestead, which is just outside New Ross, or Tintern Abbey. We plumped for Tintern, as it was nearer, and the sunshine was too precious to spend a minute more than necessary in the car.
The Abbey - which has much rare flora and fauna in its vicinity, including wild asparagus, the whiskered bat, and pale-bellied geese - is known as Tintern de Voto (Tintern of the vow). In 1200, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, survived a dreadful storm at sea and made good his promise to God to found an abbey by way of a thank you. Marshal brought Cistercian monks from Tintern in Wales, and its namesake became one of the richest monasteries in Ireland. In the 16th Century, the Abbey and its lands were granted to Anthony Colclough, and the Colcloughs lived there until 1956, at which point it was handed to the State.
"We're black with foreigners this year. I don't how they find us, but they do," said the ticket lady as we paid our €4 entance fee. Tintern is off the main track all right, but you can see why tourists make the effort; it's gorgeous. Having done the tour and had coffee and cake in the tea rooms, we strolled up to the Colclough Walled Garden, also on the Garden Trail. Restored by volunteers, the garden, which dates from 1814, is a labour of love and utterly magical. The two-and-a-half acre plot is abundant with vegetables and fruit - it even has peaches (growing outside!) - trees and flowers of all description and, to crown the perfection, a river runs through it.
The sunny southeast
Back at Kilmokea, it was time for dinner. The menu is small, but perfectly formed and most of the produce comes from the organic potager or is sourced locally.
It was a peerless feast of beetroot and oranges, spicy monkfish, and a delectable concoction made with those heart-shaped bites of sunshine, the Wexford strawberry. We ate our repast - cooked to perfection by Emma Hewlett, Mark's wife - in the beautiful dining room, looking out over the tops of the topiary as the sun slowly set in the sky.
The next morning, after a quick dip in the pool (there's also a jaccuzzi, a sauna, and a small gym) and more eggs for me and salmon for mother, we bade farewell to Mark and Emma; it was like leaving old friends.
Interestingly, legend has it that Kilmokea, which is near the confluence of the three sisters, the Nore, the Barrow and the Suir, is where Cessair, Noah's grandaughter landed in 2242BC to escape the Great Flood. She had the right idea. Paradise found.
With a side of sunshine and strawbs.
Gemma stayed in the Peacock Superior Bedroom, €95pp B&B, at Kilmokea Country Manor and Gardens, Dinner, €50pp, comprises locally sourced produce and vegetables and salads picked straight from the organic vegetable garden at Kilmokea or provided by David Ward, an organic farmer.
Upcoming Kilmokea events include: September 2, 10am, Guided Garden Meditation with Linda Shalloe, €7.00; September 8, 11am, Cooking From The Garden. Emma and Geraldine share some of their Kilmokea recipes, using many ingredients from the garden, €10.00; September 10, 11am, The Best of Beautiful You. A morning of peace, nurture and being within your Divine nature. €20.00; September 16, 10.30am, Bryan Barrett's introduction to energy and reiki, €20.00. Kilmokea Country Manor and Gardens, Great Island, Campile, New Ross, Co Wexford, tel: (051) 388-109, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see kilmokea.com.
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