Step back in time at Kilmokea
Ireland's still a great country, isn't it? I'd like to think so. Anyway, I have proof positive. My girlfriend and I got the late morning train to Waterford station and hadn't realised it was a bit of journey to New Ross. The Irish Rail inspector who checked our tickets on the train overheard us asking someone the best way to get to New Ross and kindly offered us a lift
Barry, originally from Worcestershire in England, was going to his granddaughter's birthday party later that afternoon, he told us as he drove us the 28km to New Ross. Somehow, I couldn't imagine the train ticket inspector in, say, Germany, driving you forty minutes to your destination?
Anyway, it was a warm sunny summer's day in this part of Ireland, southwest Co Wexford, and we went for a long walk around the beautiful historic town, which dates back to the 6th century.
William Marshall, the Norman knight, and his bride Isabella, as described in the Chronicles of Ros, set about, in 1189, "building a lovely city on the banks of the Barrow". They succeeded.
The area is absolutely awash with history. A short stroll to the quay and there is a life-sized bronze sculpture of the late great John F Kennedy (unveiled by his sister, former US Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, in 2008).
JFK, whose ancestors came from four miles up the road in Dunganstown, famously addressed the people of New Ross on June 27, 1963, as we were reminded during the Kennedy gathering a few weeks ago.
In terms of ancestors, many of ours sailed to Amerikay back in the day on cramped ships like the replica of an emigrant sailing ship, built in 1845, which is moored on the quay.
The Dunbrody famine ship is definitely worth a visit. Once inside its hull, you get a sense of what it must have been like to have been on board during that horrendous journey.
Afterwards, we had a cup of coffee in The Hall of Fame Cafe, upstairs in the Dunbrody Famine Ship Visitors Centre, that looks out on the river Barrow and the ship itself, and thought of the poor souls who had made that voyage.
The maritime life in this part of Ireland is a rich one, a local told me: bird watching on the mudflats of the Barrow river as well as snorkelling and swimming – cold weather or not.
Visitors to this largely unspoilt area of the country are also blessed with the likes of the Hook Peninsula – where the term 'By Hook or by Crook' comes from.
The Hook Lighthouse is, they say, the oldest in Europe. Other places worth checking out include Duncannon Fort, and Tintern Abbey.
We found a lovely place on South Street to have lunch, Philip and Patsy Roger's Cafe Nutshell. We had two of the most delicious new season crabs with crisp salad followed by Tuscan plum tart.
We were walking down the road when a car drove by, stopped, reversed and the driver and its passenger got out: it was local legend and artist Mick Mulcahy and his girlfriend Vera .
We chatted for twenty minutes in the sun, made a plan to go for lunch in Dublin in a few weeks, then, just as mysteriously as they arrived, they were gone again.
We then made it to the incomparable Kilmokea Country Manor – an 18th century Georgian stone rectory on seven acres of heritage gardens – just in time for late afternoon tea in the conservatory overlooking the walled gardens.
It was like entering another age, a place of old world elegance, old paintings, creaky floorboards, big windows and even bigger heart and soul.
We retired to the drawing room for an hour or so, reading, sipping tea and eating scones with home-made jam and cream. There was no television in the drawing room, so we did that strange thing and just talked.
Mark and Emma Hewlett have restored the rectory, built in 1794, to something truly special. They are also two true characters who understand the meaning of hospitality – never in your face but always there when you want a glass of port or a scone.
A walk in the gardens upon arrival revealed that Emma's late father was both a Reverend and a lover of roses: there is a little plaque to him among the beautifully tended roses. Later over a glass of beer, Mark told me that he worked for Emma's father in London and eventually started dating her.
She went to Africa to work for a charity. They used to send each other dictaphone tapes – with long verbal letters telling each other what they were up to and how much they loved each other.
Emma would listen to Mark's tapes in the bath in Africa. Finally, Mark took himself over to Africa in a Land Rover and they drove together through sandstorms and the like.
The rest is history – they moved to Ireland, where Emma is from, bought this old rectory, restored it into something magnificent and have three children, Joshua and twins Myles and Cosmo.
Our room was magical. You could lie on the four-poster bed and gaze out on the world. As I read, my girlfriend had a hot soak in one of those grand standalone baths. It was all very Downton Abbey.
My girlfriend was already blissed-out because Emma had given her a 90-minute reflexology massage and treatment while I read yellowing copies of National Geographic from the 1980s.
Appetites whetted, we had the most wonderful dinner of Cashel blue cheese salad to start and rack of lamb as a main course – needless to say they used all local and organic vegetables.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast of organic salmon and eggs with fresh OJ, we went for a three hour walk, exploration even, in Kilmokea's famous gardens.
The vibrant colours and intoxicating sweet scents of the Camellias, Eucryphias, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, candelabra primulas, next to the trout lake and the duck pond and beyond is mesmerising. We even found an old pet cemetery on our long walk.
Recession seemed far away as we walked among the birds on trees overhead and squirrels scuttling around your feet. There was more than a little bit of magic to be found here.
It is easy to see why Emma and Mark are putting on open-air garden theatre in the summer (today, Sunday July 7, 6pm: The Wind In The Willows, and Sunday August 4, 6pm, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night).
We then had a dip in Kilmokea's indoor swimming pool, followed by jacuzzi and a sauna and a mini game of football on the croquet lawn.
Mark told me before lunch that the location of the house is just where "the Three Sister Rivers, the Suir, Nore and Barrow, meet before flowing out into Waterford Harbour."
Late that afternoon, Mark drove us to New Ross where we had just enough time to say goodbye to JFK on the quay, before heading home again.
I think we left a part of ourselves in the woods of Kilmokea.
Kilmokea Country Manor & Gardens, Great Island, Campile, Co Wexford.
Telephone: 051 388 109
Hidden Ireland, PO Box 31, Westport, Co Mayo.
Telephone: 098 66650, or 01 662 7166 www.hiddenireland.com