On the coastal edge of cultured and laid-back southeast Ireland, Jacob Little discovers that the market town of Wexford offers good food, music, bracing seaside and a strong sense of history
The southeast corner of Ireland is known as the ‘Ancient East’ and is lush, green and bursting with historic stories, unexpected coastal landscapes and stunning beaches. The town of Wexford was founded in 800AD by the Vikings and is deeply rooted in Irish history. Today, there exists a delightful maze of medieval streets on the estuary of the River Slaney which leads down to the Irish Sea. And there’s a strong focus on craft shops, art galleries and locally sourced food to discover over a weekend break.
Wexford is a town blessed with culture and heritage. In 2008, the new National Opera House opened, and you can enjoy world-class performances from an array of theatrical talent here. Alongside is the magnificent Selskar Abbey on the edge of the old town walls, well worth a visit and which puts Wexford’s location into perspective. The curving lines of the surrounding streets, hugging the abbey on all sides, are the main draw of the town and are ancient in origin.
Against a setting of colourful buildings and period architecture, the mix of crafty cafés such as the Blue Egg Gallery (blueegggallery.ie), and arts hubs including Green Acres (greenacres.ie) creates an enticing and atmospheric environment to spend time in. A short journey either north or south from Wexford town provides some of the main additional draws of the area, with famous beaches and unspoilt peninsulas to explore for miles around.
10AM PENINSULA VISIT
I’m discovering the environs of Wexford today. My first port of call is Hook Lighthouse, which stands on the end of the Hook Peninsula, a 45-minute drive away. As I drive through the morning sea mist I start to recognise a different feel in the surrounding landscape. Settlements become more dispersed, the wind stronger and the air saltier. With a medieval tower built 800 years ago, this lighthouse is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. It’s an incredible feeling to stand at the very top, in the wind, and reflect on the unchanged 180-degree sea view and the many perils that this lighthouse, and others like it, have warned mariners of over the years. I leave the peninsula with a new-found respect for those who braved our shores hundreds of years ago, and those who guided them (hookheritage.ie).
12PM ANCIENT ABBEY
Sea blasted and caked in sea-spray, I head slightly inland to Saltmills for some respite at Tintern Abbey and Colclough Walled Garden. The Cistercian abbey was built around 1203, and while wandering around I learn that its full name is Tintern de Vote, meaning ‘of the vow,’ after a promise the Earl of Pembroke made that he would build an abbey where he could find shelter after his boat got caught in a fierce storm (heritageireland.ie/en/south east/tinternabbey/).
1PM GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
The Colclough Walled Garden (colcloughwalledgarden.com) was created more than 200 years ago by the Colclough family, who lived at the abbey from the 1560s to the 1960s. Since 2010, it has been the focus of a major restoration project and volunteers have returned it to its 1838 incarnation, with an Ornamental garden section and a Kitchen garden section. After finding it down a wooded walking trail, I walk around marvelling at their work – welcome bursts of colour from flowering plants and a beautiful geometric design make for an impressive sight. I take my leave, admiring the sense of community and passion behind this sensitive restoration.
2PM LUNCHTIME REFRESHMENT
Hungry, I stop in the nearby small village of Fethard and find some thick, warming, freshly made seafood chowder at Neville’s Pub. It bolsters me up for an afternoon’s sea-borne activity. From €11 (+353 51 397160, nevilles.ie)
3PM OUT ON THE WATER
Afterwards, I meet Graham from The Irish Experience and Hook Head Adventures and, with kayaks attached to the back of his Jeep, we head to sheltered Baginbun Bay, which has a white-sand beach that’s perfect for gentle paddling beneath the stunning cliffs. From the water, the spectacular remoteness and ancient beauty of the south coast of Ireland is immediately apparent. The rolling hills leading down to the sea and the sky-high cliffs make me feel very small. We paddle into quiet beaches and explore caves and tunnels on the way back, with the wind firmly guiding us shorewards. Guided kayaking from €44.50pp (+353 87 661 2299, theirishexperience.com)
8PM EVENING RELAX
Back in Wexford for the evening, I feel that as I’ve spent the day in the elements, I am due some cosy recuperation at La Cote (+ 353 53 9122122, lacote.ie, mains from €22.95), a friendly seafood restaurant on Wexford’s seafront. The food is as delicious as it sounds, and I enjoy roasted monkfish with prawn gnocchi and potato rosti while recounting my day exploring the Hook Peninsula. After dinner I stroll around town, taking in the smell of coal fires and hearing many local pubs gear up for the night. I head to one of the oldest pubs in town, the Thomas Moore Tavern (+353 53 9174688, thomasmooretavern.com) for a night cap, and find a warm fire and music in full swing. Everyone is practising for the Wexford Fringe Festival, and there’s no doubt that the music and arts scene is thriving here. I leave for bed later than intended, with the party showing no signs of letting up.
8AM BREAKFAST CALLS
I rise early to make the most of the sunshine and head out into the town for breakfast. Coffee in hand, I walk down to look at the fishing trawlers moored up there, looking back at what could easily be the best view of the town. The wind lashes the boats’ moorings and whistles through their rigging, and I wonder what conditions might be waiting for some sailing boats heading towards the edge of the harbour and the Celtic Sea beyond.
11AM NOSE IN A BOOK
After enjoying the buzz of a Sunday morning in Wexford’s coffee shops, I drive north to Curracloe Beach. Although this beach was made famous as the enormous stretch of sand at the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, its Sunday morning use is far more provincial. Locals are enjoying long and slow walks along the shoreline, picking up an array of shells. I find myself lazing in the sand dunes with a book for an hour, soaking up the calm isolation and enjoying the relative protection from the wind.
1PM IRISH STEW IN GOREY
I continue my journey north from Curracloe Beach and head towards the road that connects Dublin with this part of Ireland. During the busier seasons this stretch of coastline is a haven for visitors from other parts of the country, especially the capital, however, today I’m travelling slightly inland to the town of Gorey for lunch. I find this pretty Irish town in the throes of a typical Sunday afternoon, with groups of families and friends out and about catching up over food and drinks. I head to The Book Café & Bistro for a dish of Irish stew, and spend a while admiring the piles of books stacked on every corner of furniture, along with the enormous cheesecakes being consumed by families tired and hungry after a day of fresh air at the coast. Mains from €10 (+ 353 53 9430585, bookcafebistro.ie)
6PM HOMEWARD BOUND
I head back to Wexford in time for a final pint of Guinness and a little more sustaining seafood chowder at my newly discovered favourite, the Thomas Moore Tavern. It’s then a short drive to the harbour of Rosslare for my ferry home. I board just as the sky over the horizon is darkening, and settle in for the four-hour evening crossing back to Wales. Although the distance between Pembroke and the southeast of Ireland is only 80 miles, I’ve explored what’s felt like a different world in Ireland this weekend – cultured, coastal and very relaxing.
NEED TO KNOW
CLAYTON WHITES HOTEL
Jacob stayed at this comfortable hotel in Wexford, around the corner from the Thomas Moore Tavern. From £78 B&B per night, based on two sharing (+353 53 912 2311, claytonwhiteshotel.com).
A period house built on the grounds of a former castle in Wexford town. From €50 for a double B&B, per night (+353 53 9122249, faytheguesthouse.com).
KELLY’S RESORT HOTEL & SPA
Located in Rosslare, four-star Kelly’s is family-run and family friendly. From £126pp per night, for dinner and B&B (+353 53 9132114, kellys.ie).
HOW TO GET THERE
Take a ferry from Pembroke to Rosslare, from €79pp, with car (+353 818 300 400, irishferries.com). It’s a four-hour drive from London to Pembroke. Flights to Dublin go from most major UK airports, then it’s a two-hour drive to Wexford.