Day-tripping delights in Co. Kilkenny
Updated: Jul 17
It's been a summer like no other, and I just don't just mean the heatwave. We've all had to embrace another year of holidaying at home, seeking out those off-the-beaten track bargains and the elusive outdoor dining experience.
Day-trips have now become the norm: a little research reveals an abundance of brilliant spots to visit in our lovely little country without having to travel too far from home. I'll hold my hands up and say that it took a global pandemic to make me realise quite how many there are. We are absolutely spoiled for choice and I've had a fabulous summer so far checking out some of Ireland's finest. Let's start with a recent day's explorations of east Kilkenny...
This is Thomastown, a ridiculously picturesque market town of winding medieval streets and brightly-painted traditional shopfronts which have retained their olde-worlde charm. Just a short drive from Kilkenny, it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of city life. If you're thinking of visiting Jerpoint Abbey, this is a perfect spot for a pit stop. The focal point of the town is the River Nore which meanders through the surrounding landscape: a crossing point is provided by an arched stone bridge. A series of attractive stone-faced buildings line the river bank, some ivy-covered, others showcasing their vibrant flower arrangements.
A pathway runs along the riverbank with benches provided to take best advantage of the views. There's an abundance of greenery on either side: Grennan's Mill pokes its head above the trees on the eastern bank while the western bank is dominated by Sweetman's Castle, a four-storey fortified tower house, sadly now in a ruinous condition but nonetheless still a great beauty. The tower dates to the 14th century with outbuildings added in the 18th century.
Just look at that sweeping view from the bridge, reminiscent of those idealised pastoral scenes beloved of painters in the 18th and 19th century. The pathway leads to a vast open green area, perfect for enjoying a takeaway lunch before continuing on to Jerpoint Abbey.
Less than 3kms from Thomastown is one of Kilkenny's most impressive tourist attractions Jerpoint Abbey. Though Ireland has its fair share of beautiful monastic sites, few have stood the test of time like Jerpoint, renowned as one of the best preserved examples of a medieval Cistercian Abbey in Ireland. It's a monumental site with a series of interconnecting buildings dating across three centuries: the church from the 12th century, and the tower and cloister from the 15th.
The church is of particular architectural significance, reflecting the transition from a Romanesque to Gothic style. This is clearly evident in the images above and below where we see the pointed Gothic arch colonnade topped by a series of deeply splayed Romanesque windows.
What's particularly remarkable about Jerpoint is the level of preservation of the 15th century cloister, located at the heart of the abbey. The colonnaded walkway is almost entirely intact and arrestingly beautiful from all angles: every archway offers another striking architectural perspective and the interplay of light and shadow is a photographer's delight.
It's a serene and contemplative place which takes you out of the present moment and whisks you back through the centuries. It's easy to picture the monks walking and praying here, and to imagine the rich scents coming from the 'cloister garth' or enclosed garden, in which grew a variety of herbs for medicinal purposes. Life was a little different for these poor monks: the information pamphlet tells us they rose for prayer at 2am, and returned to bed an hour before sundown.
As you make your way around the cloister arcade, you'll note a series of intricate sculptural relief carvings on many of the pillars. There are saints, mythical animals, secular figures and many other strange and wonderful images. They are quite extraordinary, and unique in Cistercian architecture.
Kids will enjoy a sculptural discovery trail - send them off to find the two-legged dragon, the saint with rosary beads or the woman with a monkey at her elbow. I particularly loved the greedy man (pictured above) holding his stomach, thought to represent one of the seven deadly sins.
In the north transept of the church you'll note two tombs decorated with exquisite sculptural reliefs. The figures are known as 'tomb weepers' and represent a series of European saints and the apostles. As is common in artistic depictions, they are accompanied by an attribute or symbol associated with their life which helps to identify them, for example, St Peter is pictured with a key.
Here are just some of the magnificent windows which can be found in chancel and tower. The chancel also hosts a number of interesting tombs including that of Felix O'Dulany, the first Jerpoint abbot who died in 1202.
Take your time to explore every nook and cranny. There is something special to see around every corner. Bright yellow and green wildflowers are popping up everywhere and look quite beautiful against the pale stone.
The abbey was dissolved in 1540, at which point the lands were leased to the Butlers of Ormond. Jerpoint Abbey is now managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) which means it is free to visit until the end of this year. Free car parking is available on site but the visitor centre and other facilities (including the toilets unfortunately...) are currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.
So the next contender for ridiculously picturesque 'village of the year' awards is Inistioge, approx 11kms from Jerpoint. Prepare to be completely captivated by this verdant paradise. Like something out of Wind and the Willows, perfectly manicured grassy areas slope down to the river with trees overhanging on both sides. There is plenty of seating to take best advantage of those views and on a sunny day like this, I can't imagine a nicer vista for a takeway lunch.
From the river bank you get your first glimpse of the magnificent ten-arched bridge, built c. 1765. The arches frame some pretty postcard-type views as the river opens out into the landscape, surrounded by hills and woodland.
Purple wildflowers have sprung up on the river bank and following the walkway south, you'll come to an idyllic park which has been beautifully maintained and has seating and picnic benches dotted along the way.
There is a real sense of local pride in this village. Houses are brightly painted and well-preserved, while shops have retained their traditional facades. Flower boxes are bursting with colour from windowsills and the village square is simply delightful. There's a lovely little website dedicated to the town with lots of interesting information for visitors. Take a look here.
Looking southwards from the bridge, the wooded area you see ahead is Woodstock demesne, which was the final stop on our Kilkenny travels. Two waymarked walks have been developed here: the Woodstock Loop and the Ladies Loop. Both are relatively short, 4.5 kms and 3 kms respectively, (link to maps here) but only the former will bring you right to Woodstock Gardens and Arboretum. Alternatively you can drive the short distance (approx 1.5 kms). Entrance is free but there is a €5 fee per car to park.
Woodstock Gardens and Arboretum
This is a little taste of what to expect from the upper levels at Woodstock Gardens - a vast panorama of the Kilkenny countryside, dominated by Mount Brandon in the distance. Overlooking the River Nore valley, the gardens are an absolute joy to explore, especially on an unexpectedly cracking blue sky day like this one. Give yourself a couple of hours to wander all the paths and walkways - there's something special around every corner. The estate contains both formal and informal gardens with some lovely woodland walks and tree-lined avenues. Highlights include the terraced and walled gardens, a yew walk and a rose garden, not to mention the superb iron-work on gates, seats and conservatory.
The gardens were once the centrepiece of a vast demesne: major developments took place in the Victorian era between 1840 and 1900, the brainchild of Colonel William Tighe and his wife Lady Louisa Lennox.
Above you'll see an image of the Winter Gardens. Originally designed in the 1860’s, the garden is made up of four sunken panels that once contained elaborately planted parterres. They are now under restoration.
From the Winter Gardens, the grounds slope upwards: two cheeky chaps above greet you at the top of the steps. Throughout the grounds you'll notice the fabulously ornate ironwork which complements the surrounding greenery, including the wonderful fan-like gate and garden seat below.
A personal highlight was a stroll down Monkey Puzzle Avenue (the clue is in the name...), the longest one in Europe. Pass through the fan-like gate and gaze upwards in awe at the extraordinary series of Monkey Puzzle trees which line the route.
And now for the star of the show... At the end of a long tree-lined avenue appears one of the best views on site. The stunning iron gates below lead into the 18th century walled garden, and frame the most perfect view of lush banks of shrubs and trees, overlooked by Mount Brandon. It's a jaw-dropping sight. The gates were designed by renowned iron master Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens, Dublin and Kew Gardens in London.
To the left of the gates is another of Turner's designs: the exquisite domed conservatory overlooking the flower terraces. Built for Lady Louisa Lennox, construction was completed in 1856 and was described at the time as one of his finest designs. Sadly the original structure was demolished in the 1950s - the building you see today is an exact replica of the original design which was recreated by the über-talented Power Foundry in New Ross in 2004.
The conservatory now houses Woodstock Tea Rooms which serve a selection of freshly baked goods, teas and coffees. The interior is delightful with a brightly painted mural which serves as a backdrop to the serving area, and there is plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy those views when the weather is nice. It is now a much sought-after venue for civil ceremonies and parties - not hard to see why. If you're looking for somewhere unique to get married, I can imagine few more perfect spots. You can find out more here.
Directly opposite the conservatory at the far end of the flower terrace is this fabulous cast-iron seat which was also designed by Richard Turner. It showcases that similar swirling Art Nouveau-type detailing as the gates and was deliberately positioned here as the ideal viewing point. You can enjoy the vista of the conservatory and terraces in all its perfect symmetry.
An attractive stone wall surrounds the walled garden, home to fruit trees, a vegetable garden and a beautiful herbaceous border. The lovely lady above stands forlornly in one of its corners.
In short, Woodstock is a blissful place to spend a few hours and I'd highly recommend it. If you'd like to find out more, check out their website here.