Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Wicklow: Birthplace of Tourism

JOHN TREW enjoys surprises exploring some top attractions…

TOURISM IN IRELAND is claimed to have started in Wicklow, with scenic Glendalough being the biggest draw, because it was close enough to Dublin to provide a great day out for passengers of the city’s bantering jarveys in their jaunting cars. Development of hundreds of hotels followed, unleashing a wave of mass international tourism that has resulted in fleets of massive coaches parked beside historic remains.

So that’s why, as a venerable travel journalist, I chose to spend a wonderful week of exploration AROUND two of today’s most- visited sites on Tourism Ireland’s Top Ten — the world-renowned Monastic City of Glendalough and the even more ancient prehistoric sites of the Boyne Valley further North.

I will start in County Wicklow where tourism began; it also happens to be where my career — indeed my life — almost ended… Just after WWII, my mother took me by steam train to Bray on our first-ever holiday in “The Free State” where butter and bacon were not rationed and she could get cheap Sweet Afton ciggies. One sunny day, I was splashing around in the over-crowded kiddie’s pond on the promenade when I slipped on the slime and disappeared under the cloudy water. I still vividly recall swallowing sandy sea-water until I passed out.

Amazingly, a passer-by saw me underwater; he kicked off his shoes and overcoat before jumping in; he gave me the full life-saving procedure and I brought up about two gallons of Bray brine in front of my dumbstruck mother. My saviour turned out to be an RAF airman who was wearing his uniform trousers hidden under his overcoat because it was an offence to wear British uniform in De Valera’s Ireland. He made a swift exit and we have never been able to trace the man who made it possible for a fellow human being to have enjoyed such a happy and productive life as I have done.

Enough of this personal trauma… let’s get on with the holiday craic that I hope will inspire you to head south to explore The Garden of Ireland.

Fine dining in Ireland in a room with a celebrated view

THE NAHE GLENVIEW HOTEL is just off Exit 9 of the famous N11, so it’s a straight drive from anywhere in the country. It stands on a promontory halfway up Big Sugarloaf Mountain with a remarkable panoramic view down the wooded Glen of the Downs towards Greystones. “We would also have had a great view of the sea if Little Sugarloaf had not got in the way,” is the candid remark of the type I found in a brilliant book published last year to mark the hotel’s Centenary and is packed with revealing stories of celebrity guests, local characters and long-serving staffers plus fascinating facsimile menus and wine lists through the decades. Glenview has always been an up-market place, but a four-course gourmet ‘luncheon’ for £1.70 seems particularly good value in 1975!

Frankly, the book succeeds because of the gossip about the international film stars involved in films being shot in and around nearby Ardmore Studios which made the area becoming known as The HOLLYWOOD OF EUROPE..

What a cast of Glenview guests! Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor having boozy lunches at Table 10; Katherine Hepburn hardly moving from her room throughout the filming of The Lion in Winter; Kim Novak, Laurence Harvey and Robert Morely drinking four bottles of chilled Chablis every luncheon; plus local regular guests: Bob Geldof,John Boorman and our own Liam Neeson.

We toured all round for three days to Wicklow Town and my favourite MOUNT USHER GARDENS where we popped in to meet up with Philomena and Head Gardener Sean. We drove along roads renamed after movies shot around us, EXCALIBUR DRIVE, BRAVEHEART DRIVE etc, I have always savoured the knowledge that that the so-called iconic Scottish movie, Braveheart ,beloved of SNP zealots, was largely filmed in Wicklow, around the Sally Gap behind the Glenview hotel!

Although a popular Leisure Club has been added to the Glenview in recent years —which my wife Karen sampled throughout our stay — it is still essentially a very good Traditional Irish Country Hotel, owned by the Crean family since 2006. It’s the preferred wedding reception Hotel of the local élite, with beautifully terraced gardens with a wee stream;a photographer’s dream.

Excellent food is always a big draw and the hotel’s fine dining Woodlands Restaurant also has a bonus in the spectacular panorama from the windows.I also enjoyed the value-for-money meal in the hotel’s less - formal Bistro alternative. With such high values and chefy skills on display, I was somewhat surprised that the otherwise decent breakfast buffet ran out of fried eggs three days in a row.I rarely eat a fry,but when I do, I like to go to work on an egg. This is my only complaint about the Glenview, so it gets 4.9 out of 5 from me.

Gracious old Greystones and Bustling Bray

GRATEFUL to get an affirmation email from the stately home and gardens, KILLRUDDERY ESTATE, offering Press admission. It was signed ‘Anthony’. This turned out to be none other than Anthony Ardee, son of the 15th Earl of Meath, himself; I gathered he is not only the PR man, but does a lot more jobs like managing the farm to keep the estate afloat in these difficult times,. This is because his family, the Brabazons, have inhabited the estate (now 800 acres) for 16 generations! Unique.

We learned all about them at a guided tour of the Elizabethan-Revival mansion conducted by such a gracious and knowledgable lady that I assumed that she was a member of the aristocracy, but when asked, she modestly described herself as “a family friend”. Although the number of rooms was considerably downsized in the 1950s, the towering portraits of the Earls reflect the power and influence which are still embodied in the magnificence of the exterior which remains largely intact.

The Orangery is a vast conservatory with a glazed domed roof modelled on London’s Crystal Palace, filled with classic marble statues including Napoleon and Wellington. It is a popular spot for fancy wedding ceremonies and canapé receptions. I wonder how many brides will be photographed embracing Dublin-born Wellington in this 200th centenary year of his triumph at Waterloo?

My favourite part of Killruddery are the Gardens, claimed to be the oldest in Ireland, dating back to the 1600s. One of the early designers was a pupil of Le Notre, creator of the Gardens of Versailles. My friend David Kirk, author of those delightful books on Mount Stewart and Tollymore you see in National Trust shops etc, told me a couple of years ago that although he preferred the neighbouring Mount Usher Gardens, Killruddery’s plantings are a must-see for the Green Fingered Brigade (in which I serve as a humble subaltern).

How right he was! We followed the map to explore huge borders and other superb features packed with ponds and fountains, trimmed trees, shrubs and perennials giving continuity of colour and interest through the season, with daily openings from May ro September, (weekends only in April and October).

I was exhausted after an hour or two, but I managed to have a break in the ornate Ornamental Octagonal Dairy Tearoom. As World-President of T-POTS, (The Preservation of Tea and Scones) I hereby award this sanctuary of refreshment my Highest Accolade. What a marvellous place! It was designed by an eccentric noble neighbour of the Earl, and now serves up bakery goods to die for, plus life-saving soups concocted from whatever veggies are at their best in the Walled Garden.

To add to my delight as we savoured our Cream Tea in the sun, I heard the familiar voice of Andrew Crockart hailing us from behind. My long-standing friend Andy is best known as a former big cheese in UTV, producer of great documentaries in the good old days, Long retired and living with wife Doreen in a seaside house with the best view I know, he now indulges his passions for railways, fine arts, French canals, good wine and historic engineering.

It was this latter interest which prompted Andy’s visit to Killruddery. Its world-famous Water Clock, created from old bike wheels,saucepans etc by the ingenious 13th Earl, was due to be opened for public view that day, but for some reason it stayed closed. Instead, he was allowed to peruse an antiquarian book about the horology behind what is famed as the most accurate water clock ever invented. As we viewed the clock-face on the impressive Clock Tower, I could not help but remark that it was 25 minutes fast. Andy retorted: ”Maybe all the rain this summer has got into the works, causing acceleration!”.

The Georgian Gem of the Boyne Valley

UNKNOWN TO ME, Andy Crockart is a friend of Michael McMahon, a fellow railway engineering nut who happens to run the superlative B&B COLLON HOUSE in the Boyne Valley which is the location of the other Top Ten attraction I was due to visit on the way home.

It’s a prizewinning Georgian gem, off the N2 heading North in the centre of sleepy Collon, which also boasts a surprisingly good Malaysian Restaurant, the Moon Soon, where lots of Michael’s guests have dinner. That’s because it’s a B&B and his partner John the head chef, concentrates on producing Co Louth’s best Full Irish in the panelled dining room before devoting the rest of the day to tending the breathtaking Gardens which seem to have appeared on RTE more often than Eurovision. I give the whole Collon House experience five stars.

Our ornately decorated bedroom featured a four-poster bed with a high mattress which required a small step ladder to ascend. I feared I would break an ankle going to the loo half-asleep, but my bladder got the message and I slept an uninterrupted eight hours for the first time in ages. This meant that I was refreshed enough to take in two of the local must-see attractions. By another spooky coincidence, we happened to visit the BATTLE OF THE BOYNE CENTRE on the Twelfth Day of July. It has improved since we were first there a few years ago; the parterre gardens have matured beautifully and we watched two impressive enactments of Military Horsemanship and Musketry. I discovered that it was the former manager of my local Boots, Boyd Rankin, who played the musketeer part perfectly.

We were too late arriving at the BRU NA BOINNE CENTRE to join the last tour bus to NEWGRANGE, claimed to be Ireland’s No.1 tourist attraction. Instead we toured nearby KNOWTH, an equally fascinating World Heritage Site, with one-third of Europe’s entire portfolio of Megalithic Art. Some of the designs on the stones have a contemporary vibe. (I wonder what my mate, the late Ulster Museum archaeologist, Laurence Flanagan would say about that description!)

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