Hooked by the Hook Peninsula
Ah Wexford you're a little stunner! Full of surprises too. Home to some of Ireland's most beautiful beaches and coastlines, it's not hard to see why people flock here at all months of the year. Bagging ourselves a last-minute room in New Ross, we set off for three days of explorations around the Hook Peninsula. Despite the most atrocious weather forecast, we lucked out with three mostly sunny days to experience it at its absolute best. There's so much to see and do in the area, particularly if you're a lover of the great outdoors. From clifftop and forest walks, to magnificent abbeys and walled gardens, not to mention a contender for "Ireland's best ice-cream", let's just say, you won't be bored. Or hungry.
New Ross is a good base for touring the peninsula if coastal accommodation options are eluding you: it's approximately 35 kms to the tip of Hook Head and a short drive to any of the other points of interest. The town itself sits on the banks of the River Barrow. The Harbour Office is a delightful building, painted in mint green with a red door and with brightly coloured flowers bursting out of hanging baskets. The dominating feature on the quayside is the Dunbrody Famine Ship, an authentic reproduction of an 1840’s emigrant vessel.
The Great New Ross Riverside Walk along the marina opened in 2018 and is dotted with information points along the route to tell you what to look out for as you stroll. If you're feeling active, follow the river northwards for a couple of kilometres out of town. It's highly recommended for two reasons: the views are pretty stunning and there's a terrific pub feast awaiting you (if you're clever and book ahead, that is). Gaps in the trees reveal those vast expansive views above as the river meanders through the patchwork fields of green and gold. As evening falls, those last rays of sun create a dazzling light on the water. Despite running late for our dinner, we had to stop to take it all in. It's glorious.
And now for some pub grub. Mannion's in Mount Elliott outside New Ross was our favourite meal of the trip. It has a brilliant set-up for outdoor dining in a vast, partially covered converted barn-type area - and I mean that in the best possible sense. The decor is rustic and simple with wooden seating and benches which are well-spaced out, and tables were topped with flowers in pretty bottles. The atmosphere was lively and buzzy and fully booked on a Thursday night - always a good sign.
This is a pub that really takes pride in the food it dishes up, making best use of locally sourced, good quality ingredients. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal but the star of the show for me was the potted crab starter accompanied by warm crusty bread - super-fresh, citrusy and full of flavour: an absolute winner and perfect for a summer's evening. Other dishes sampled were the goats cheese starter, a pork main course and a codling dish, which is basically fancy fish 'n' chips. After a few days of overeating, I greatly welcomed the lightly-breaded fish instead of the usual batter. Couldn't resist those chips though. Sadly we were too stuffed to squeeze in a dessert but but looked on in envy as we saw the wonderful creations being delivered to other tables. Staff were friendly, efficient and on the ball. It's a great spot and one we will definitely return to if we're in the area again.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Tintern Abbey, Saltmills
The poetically named Tintern Abbey is an absolute must-visit when on the Hook Peninsula. Not to be confused by the Welsh abbey of the same name from the Wordsworth poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey", it has links with its counterpart across the sea and takes its name from it. The Wexford abbey was founded c. 1200 by the Earl of Pembroke and was originally inhabited by Cistercian monks from the Welsh site, of which the Earl was also a patron. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. It then passed into the hands of the Colclough family, who held it until the 1950s. It was gifted by the family to the Irish State in 1959.
There are a number of walking trails for all levels of fitness and abilities, ranging from a mere 1 km to 7.2 km - more info here. The easiest option is to park up at the abbey and stroll around the grounds from there. But where's the fun in that? If you want to experience the big reveal and see this Gothic masterpiece at its most atmospheric, then a little more walking is required. I promise you, it's worth it. Park up at the Poundtown Crossroads entrance and take the lovely forest walk to Abbey Bridge. Below was our first glimpse of the abbey as we emerged through the trees, bathed in soft sunlight, conjuring up images from a Brontë novel. Or Downton Abbey.
Tintern Church and Graveyard
Taking this little detour also means you won't miss out on seeing the very pretty ruins of an old stone church and graveyard, just before the bridge. This is Tintern parish church, a single-cell structure dating to the 16th century. Entrance is through the round-headed doorway surrounded by hood moulding. An information plaque tells us that this is a Capella-ante-portas, or a church outside the gates, meaning outside the monastery.
The stonework is still beautifully preserved with two attractive windows on either end. Within the church there are a number of remarkable 17th century memorial slabs. Mounted on a wall is a stone inscription commemorating Anthony Colclough, first lay occupant of the abbey estate and an officer in the army of Henry VIII, who died in 1584.
From here, make your way down the tree-lined path to the bridge for those aforementioned fabulous views of the abbey and the surrounding landscape.
The Colclough family occupied the abbey from the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth when it was taken over by the state. Today, the nave, chancel, tower, chapel and cloister are still standing. Though there is no interior access at present, the enormous windows give a real sense of the vast spaces that lay within, and how utterly spectacular they must've been at the height of their glory.
As with all OPW heritage sites this summer, entrance to the abbey is free until the end of the year.
Colclough Walled Garden at Tintern Abbey
You absolutely cannot miss the Colclough Walled Garden which lies within the old estate boundaries. The Georgian garden was originally laid out by the Colclough family over 200 years ago and has been restored to its former glory by volunteers, led by Hook Tourism. And what a wonderful job they've done. The gardens are a joyous riot of colour and an absolute feast for the senses: trees are rich with overhanging fruit while banks of plants and flowers explode in vibrant shades.
A red-bricked wall encloses this garden of delights, and a stream, traversed by five pretty white bridges, runs through its length - an attractive focal point. The air is redolent with the rich scent of herbs and plants, and the woodland which surrounds the walled estate masks any sounds from the outside world. It's incredibly peaceful.
Entrance is €5 at time of publication
One of the longer trails from the Abbey brings you to Saltmills, following the pink-on-blue waymarkers. At this point we were hungry so the enticing signs pointing the way to the Vine Cottage Bar may also have factored into our decision to extend our route. And what a good call that was! After about ten minutes' walking through the woods, we emerged to this gorgeous vista: a sky-blue and turquoise sea came into view, framed beautifully by verdant countryside, and corn fields which seemed to glow in the sun.
From the seashore, enjoy some picture-perfect views of the 19th century Tintern Bridge as it crosses the sea while the spire of an old church protrudes above the trees. If you look closely, you'll see the abbey in the distance. The sun on the peninsula across the bay created an almost surreal glow against the blue sea and sky. There's also a lovely little picnic area to enjoy the views.
Vine Cottage Bar, Saltmills
After all that walking you'll definitely have worked up an appetite. Vine Cottage Bar in Saltmills is perfectly located: close to the sea, at the end of the Tintern Abbey Buggy Trail. It has a vast beer garden with brightly painted wooden benches, perfect for outdoor dining. The have a terrific set-up with an outdoor bar service truck and a dedicated enclosed safe area for children to play in. We enjoyed some good hearty pub food, sampling their beef and chicken burgers and some 'loaded fries' which should come with a health warning - they're enormous! Service was friendly and efficient and we relished our meal while breathing in that fresh sea air. Well worth the walk!
On the southeastern side of the promontory you'll find Baginbun Beach, just outside Fethard. This gorgeous secluded cove has a sandy beach and is sheltered from the elements by low cliffs on either side. Ascending the stone steps from the car park, the pathway is punctuated by bright yellow wildflowers as you get your first glimpse of the sea. With its clear waters and that beautiful blue sky as a backdrop, the allure was too much. For the first time this summer, I jumped in.
Despite how happy I look in that photo, I'm not going to lie - it was Baltic!!! But also unbelievably refreshing and life-affirming and all those things that regular sea swimmers have been telling me since the beginning of lockdown: I emerged reinvigorated. And although it was the height of tourist season, there was only a scattering of people in the vicinity - my favourite kind of beach. It's an idyllic and peaceful place to sit and watch as the sun drops low in the sky over a sublimely beautiful seascape.
Right down at the tip of the peninsula is Hook Lighthouse, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the county. At 800 years old, it's the oldest operational lighthouse in the world - how cool is that? The lighthouse also has a significant location, marking the entrance to Waterford harbour at the confluence of three rivers: Barrow, Nore and Suir. While guided tours of the interior are on hold at present due to Covid-19 restrictions, outdoor tours are now open for booking, seven days a week.
What stood out for me was the wildness of that exposed part of the coastline. Standing facing the sea, I could feel the sublime and raw power of nature as the wind whipped my hair and the waves came crashing against the rocks below.
Dunbrody Abbey, Campile
Another day, another magnificent abbey. Though Dunbrody hadn't made it onto our ever-growing list of places to visit on this trip due to time constraints, when we saw its imposing mass on a drive to Duncannon we promptly did a 360 degree turn back to their car park. The view from the road is so impressive but that's nothing in comparison to experiencing it up close - it can only be described as gasp-inducing.
Pick up a key from reception at the Visitors' Centre and follow the path through the field to the main estate entrance. An imposing beauty with its series of turrets and towers, the abbey is absolutely enormous in scale, made up of a series of interlinked stone buildings, the earliest dating to the 12th century. While anyone can wander around the exterior of the abbey, the key gives access to the interior. You absolutely need to go inside.
Wandering through the spaces, we marvelled at the intricate architectural detailing and the dramatic angles with multiple arches framing gorgeous views of the Campile river and the surrounding countryside.
The level of preservation is quite extraordinary: the large 13th century cruciform church has withstood the test of time, as have the transepts and chapels, and the nave, with its striking east window, is still complete. We can also still see the extensive remains of the domestic buildings which were arranged around the cloister garth. The monumental crossing tower was a 15th century addition and looms above you as enter the interior area.
The soaring heights of the interior spaces mean your eyes are automatically drawn upwards, no doubt the religious intention at the time, and its grandeur is awe-inspiring and almost overwhelming. Pay close attention to the arched colonnade which has some exquisite clerestorey windows, and marvel at the sheer scale of the refectory, or dining room, which really gives a sense of the significance and size of this monastic site at the time.
Before you leave, make sure to walk around to the back of the abbey to view the remains of the western doorway (now blocked up) and the once magnificent western window whose central pillar is remarkably still standing. An information plaque tells us that this was the original entrance to the abbey.
Like Tintern, Dunbrody abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII c. 1536 and granted to the Etchingham family in 1545. In 1642, Jane Etchingham married the second Earl of Donegall, whose descendants, the Chichester family, own the lands to this day. In 1911, the Chichester family handed it over to the Office of Public Works and it has been maintained by them ever since. In keeping with their other heritage sites, admission to the abbey is free until the end of the year.
For the kids:
Back at the Visitor Centre, you can buy tickets for the Dunbrody Abbey Maze in the castle gardens. One of only two full-sized mazes in Ireland it's made up of 1,500 yew trees and a series of gravel paths. We didn't have time to check it out but it looks seriously cool. More info here
Henry's ice-cream, Campile
You can't leave the Hook Peninsula without tasting one of the confections from Henry's Ice-Cream in Daybreak in Campile, just a short distance from Dunbrody. Some solid intel suggested that this might just be the best ice-cream in Ireland. With a statement like that, we felt it was our duty to do some research and to report back. It's a tough job but someone's got to do it. After about twenty minutes of indecision I opted for the Apple Crumble with whipped ice-cream, warm stewed apple, crumbly bits & caramel. The verdict: I think it might deserve the accolade. But further research might be needed...
Insider tip - you might want to skip lunch beforehand though..
Our trip ended in the lovely coastal town of Duncannon, enjoying the last of those blue skies and warm sunshine. It's a stunner of a beach, vast and sandy, with views of Duncannon Fort to the north. The fort is open for guided tours only from Wednesday to Sunday - prices available here.
Sadly we were unable to squeeze in a tour but we're already planning to come back to rectify that. Overlooking the Waterford Estuary, Duncannon itself is a gorgeous little seaside town with brightly-painted cottages and buckets of charm, reminiscent of those Cornish seaside towns like St Ives. The atmosphere on the streets was lively, even during the afternoon, with some very tempting cosy pubs and seafood restaurants and plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy the views.
Though it had been recommended to us, we sadly didn't have time to explore the newly developed Arthurstown to Duncannon clifftop trail: a 3.5km walkway through forests and cornfields, with expansive views of the sea to revel in as you go. But considering we managed to squeeze all of the above into three days, I think we can still pat ourselves on the back. I did mention that there is a lot to take in on this lovely peninsula so I'd recommend taking more than a few days to experience everything it has to offer.