Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ireland - June 2016 - Part 8

June 12th - DAY 8. We woke up to rain-washed, mostly-blue skies, having slept like a pair of stones. Even with a window open for fresh air and the whisper of the rain, the silence of the house had been blessedly absolute. 

When we came downstairs we found a breakfast fit for nobility. The dining room was lovely, the picture of country elegance with its china and fixtures and the breakfast was both lovely and tasty. Besides sampling the side table with cereals, fresh fruits, juices, yogurt and a very tasty homemade muesli (basically a cross between cereal and granola,) I had smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. This did serve to remind me that while I adore salmon, the smoked salmon of the British Isles is not the same as our American smoke-cured salmon, instead being seemingly uncooked, a little like smoky sushi. So, I wasn't nuts about the texture but that's not the fault of the kitchen or our hosts. The lady of the house, Ann, again was gracious as if seeing off the Duchess of Canterbury and saw us out as we went on our way.

From there we set a course for one of Ireland's marvels, Hook Lighthouse. This is the world's oldest continually operating lighthouse, built about 1340. Originally it was operated by a community of monks and has a door at the base marked as a chapel. The technology has obviously changed and the people running it, but never the light house's purpose. Unlike other lighthouses, this one is not perched out on some wind-blasted cliff. Rather, Hook Lighthouse quite accessible, posted out on a long, flat finger of land with houses, tiny villages and little farms along the way. (I didn't realize John F. Kennedy's family came from that area: there's a Kenney Homestead and a JFK Arboretum also out there.)

The Hook Lighthouse is a beautiful structure, imposing and solid in its crisp black white paint, the tallest thing for miles, and the equally well-kept light keepers' houses are today a café and information center. Making the place even more family-friendly, there's a broad lawn out front that's scattered with various toys, from rubber balls to rubber bouncy ponies to stacks of building blocks. I thought that was really pretty wonderful!

Anyhow, rather than take the guided tour up the tower - I think we were both still twitching from the guided tour at Muckross - we just ambled around the grounds. Celebsul finally tired of having the hair blown off her head, but I clambered up on the walkway (where I watched a pair of idiot kids scramble out on the rocks right to the thunderous waters' edge) and then wandered along the shore. Green grass and pink tufts of sea thrift flowers grew right up to the ocean's marge, but there the soil dropped off to expose the raw bones of Ireland, peeled clean by the ever-pounding sea. The bedrock below thrust out into the sea in cracked, fissured sheets upon which the waves broke in spumes of white, turquoise and white. Every wave, every storm tears further at the island's flesh and photos in the visitor center showed storm damage to the tower itself. I thought of back in Strongbow's day, 800 years ago, when the first stones were set to build this lighthouse, and wondered how far out the original shoreline once stood.

Before I left, I met a sweet Irish grandmother on holiday with her husband and her two Sheltie dogs. In the course of our conversation, she assured me that the best routes for tourist-free travel were the roads with grass growing up between the tracks. I assured her we had already seen plenty of those!

Moving inland then, we made our way through gently rolling hills and fields to the pretty village of Inistioge, with its sleepy river, multi-arched bridge and a little riverside park. We stopped there for lunch at the charming Old Schoolhouse Café and made our way to the Woodstock House & Gardens. 

What a sweet and lovely country, so green and lush and gentle to the eye. Here were a grand Victorian gardens, a vast sweep of beautifully planned lawns, paths, woodland avenues and formal gardens, complete with a conservatory-turned-tea-house. 

Quite a few people wandered the grounds, but the place was so big and cleverly arranged that I had no sense of crowding. There were even thickets of bamboo with little trails and grottos in which children could - and did - have their own imaginary adventures. The once-grand house, however, stood as a ruined and dangerous shell, first occupied and then burned by English "Black & Tans" government troops during the Troubles in 1922. A weathered plaque on the grounds showed an old photo of the house as she once stood, a serene and lovely place.

We didn't stay as long as we might have, though, as the weather was becoming highly changeable. Twice sudden showers drove us to seek shelter under the trees as thunderstorms, the first I've ever heard in the British Isles, rumbled past. After we left, we could see fat thunderstorms rolling up from the sea, soon looking for all the world like Floridian tropical. We ran into two intense cloudbursts - or maybe the same one twice - that pounded so hard we pulled over because Cel couldn't see the road! Then the sun would come out again and we'd watch the black storms marching off somewhere else.

The afternoon found us free at last of storms as we reached the Springview House B&B, just outside Urlingford above Kilkenny. A note on the door advised us that the mistress of the house was out on the farm and would be back within 20 minutes. So we waited and watched shiny black Angus cattle graze in the pasture out front. Among them sauntered a young bull who pawed the earth and gave us a narrow gaze. The proprietress, when she arrived, was rather a character, talkative, interrogative and immediately hospitable, fetching tea and cakes including a loaf of the most sublime lemon cake I've ever tasted, to refresh us from our travels even though it was 5 in the evening. Her very tall, lean husband popped in a time or two to make himself known, as well. They said they had primarily dairy cows and milked them, but kept a few beef cows as well.

I loved the place at first sight, a gorgeous old house with doors and hallways everywhere, filled with antique china and beautiful things. She told us that the house had been built in 1760 and it and the farm had been in her husband's family since 1916. They'd been renovating the house since they were married in 1976. In my view, the picturesque beauty of the house and its furnishings were proof of their endeavor's success.

Done with tea and cakes, however reluctantly, (oh, that lemon cake!) we found our room up a tight, spiral staircase and at the end of the hall, tucked away beneath the eves. It looked like something from a Victorian fairy tale with its sloping ceilings, pretty linens and green fields just out the windows. And for me, the cozy antique ambiance reminded me happily of my friend Viv Billingham Parke's cottage on the Scottish Borders.

Once unpacked, our hostess informed us they would be out for a few hours but made sure we had our key. So, we toddled up the road a little ways to take in a local marvel, Kilcooley Abbey. Finding the place took a speck of doing as signage was small and not easily spotted. A forbiddingly tall stone wall barred one side of the road until finally we came to a bend where a locked wrought iron gate and No Trespassing sign informed us that the Kilcooley Estate was closed to visitors. However, the road bent sharply into a little lane where another sign pointed the way to the abbey and "New Church. We parked there at the road's bend and started walking.

Within yards we came to a country church whose graveyard dated back to the mid-1800s. Just beyond that, on the other side of the lane, stood the partial ruins of what appeared to be an even older church, with a few oversized gravestones perhaps to the early 1700s. The oddest thing was, however, a curious stone pyramid, perhaps 25 feet tall and obviously of some age, that stood right up against the ruins of the old church! No clue what that might be about or who put it there, but it certainly didn't look like any Christian thing! Anyhow, a little further down the tree-shaded path we came to a pasture gate and there beyond waited Kilcooley Abbey.

Wow. Once again the best place was the most overlooked. Though not as large as Dunbrody, I thought Kilcooley just as majestic. It too stood out in an empty pasture, ignored by the few locals who passed by on bikes or jogging. Here the gate stood open with only a metal plaque to tell of its history. Kilcooley had also been converted to a dwelling house in the late 1600s, but unlike Tintern, I found the renovations impossible to discern. Instead, remarkable stone carvings and ornately graven stone tombs adorned every wall and nook, nearly untouched by time, and the whole place lay hushed as if time had simply slipped off into some distant, meaningless place. Knights and nobles lay beneath those stones, their histories now whispers on the breeze.

Nearby stood an odd beehive-shaped stone building, guessed by some to have been a medieval dovecote. Whatever it once was, now daisies and other wildflowers grow between cracks in the stones. Just as curiously, through the trees we could see a much-dilapidated great house, its walls devoid of paint and its windows empty and dark. If that was the house of the Kilcooley Estate, it looked to me that little restoration or even maintenance work is being done and the once-noble house is sinking into decay. Sad.

Finally, with the light beginning to fade, Celebsul pried me from my musings and we headed back. We grabbed a few snacks at a local market for our supper and then sat at a window of the dining room downstairs to catch up on emails and relax. When our hosts returned home, it had just begun to rain amidst a soft Irish twilight and we clambered upstairs to bed. At a gate just below our window, Himself the young bull stood and sang us the song of his people.



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