There is a moment, just as the hawk swoops down upon you, that you get a cold, sinking feeling. Involuntary and instinctive, it seems set in some genetic mammalian memory, a fear struck deep in the DNA, the sudden sense of being prey.
The magnificent bird is a killing machine, after all, its talons razor sharp. And yet it lands lightly and calmly on your gloved hand. The effect of the dart of adrenaline – which you feel in the pit of your stomach – passes.
You are not after all, say, a mouse in a deep dark wood.
I am standing in the sun on a Sunday morning with a Harris hawk on my hand. This is Wells House & Gardens in Ballyedmond outside Gorey in Wexford, where falconry – an ancient form of hunting which was once central to many country homes – is now an attraction.
By coincidence, Wells House will already be well known to many parents of young children as the home of a woodland fairy trail which also features full-sized characters from The Gruffalo. This allows you to take a stroll in search of the eponymous creature whose encounters with a mouse – and a fox, a snake and an owl – have been magically told in storybooks and on TV.
Wells House – once the home of the Doyne family (you can take a tour, complete with Victorian-costumed guide) – is being restored, funded by the success of what has been consistently one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole county: the fairy trail, a petting zoo, arts and crafts, expansive grounds and a fine restaurant. (They also do weddings and have a newly refurbished conference centre.)
Families can take part in a ‘hawk walk’, during which they encounter the birds of prey over the estate.
Robin, who cares for and trains the birds, says that a number of phrases like “under your thumb” are derived from falconry – and are references to the leather teeters (held under the thumb) which were used to restrain the birds when they are at rest.
There is more than just sun in this part of the sunny south east. There are lots of family friendly activities, many with a little history thrown in.
This, after all, is the county which boasts the homestead from where John F Kennedy’s ancestors left for America. This is where John Redmond was born. This is the county that witnessed the most fighting in the 1798 rebellion. And this is where were the Normans first arrived in 1169.
In fact, it was a Norman, William Marshal, who decided to build a tower on Hook Head – housing a fire as a beacon – after he had a scare during a sea crossing, warning shipping of the dangers in the area while marking the eastern entrance to Waterford Harbour. There’s still something arresting about standing on the edge of Ireland here, looking out to sea, watching the raw power of the waves.
Marshal, by the way, was married to the daughter of Richard de Clare – Strongbow, the Norman leader who is the best-known figure in the Norman invasion and became the first Lord of Leinster.
That same structure Marshal had constructed on Hook Head, which is now Hook Lighthouse of course, has stood for at least 840 years and it is the second oldest operational lighthouse in the world – as our guide Robbie told us.
It was also the most popular tourist attraction in the county last year and a tour up its 115 steps is great fun for the children – partly narrated (in video) by characters from the lighthouse’s history – including William Marshal himself.
Far older history can be experienced at the Irish National Heritage Park in Ferrycarrig where families can see the past up close, with all kinds of recreations, from the homes which housed Ireland’s earliest settlers around 9,000 years ago to a beautiful Viking longship. Step inside a crannog or stand in the shade of portal tomb and listen to your children guess how the enormous capstone was placed on top – without the use of a JCB. Our guide Jack was a joy with the kids.
And, of course, Wexford is not all history. Sometimes you need a simpler kind of fun.
Pirates Cove in Courtown is a place for adventures for young and old. It not only caters for all age groups but is a great option for rainy days. There is an indoor soft play area for small kids downstairs, there’s a gaming arcade, crazy golf and bowling, bumper cars and bumper boats and – the biggest hit with our kids – bubble rollers (inflatable balls you stand inside so you can run on water and bounce off others).
If the children are slightly older, there’s always the International Outdoor Adventure Centre, in Tagoat, a few minutes from Rosslare, where they can scale the high ropes, try their hand at archery or airsoft (a kind of airgun) – or make a splash while kayaking in the lake.
Opened just last year, the adventure centre is so popular it was booked out every day for the whole of June. The IOAC campus also includes a camping – and glamping site – and is a scout and guide campsite.
As the base for our adventures, we stayed in the relatively recently opened lodge at Marlfield House, a magnificent place. While the house itself stands at the top of a long driveway surrounded by beautiful gardens, at its gates sits the renovated two-bedroom lodge equipped with everything a young family or larger group could need when exploring the south east.
Even with a large and busy group of small children, Sunday morning breakfast in the dining room was a delight. The house – once the main residence of the Earls of Courtown – is beautiful. And if, like us, the children mean you cannot linger in the excellent Duck restaurant, you can have some of the fabulous food delivered to your door.
And then there is the pleasure of eating out and discovering that dining in public with the small people can actually be a joy, or at least not as incredibly stressful as you imagine.
For example, there is the simple and direct Farina in the family-friendly Amber Springs Hotel in Gorey, which in reality is a restaurant in a playground… thus allowing mum and dad to linger over a glass of wine while the children run off some of the excellent Italian fare.
Or, in a different way, the cosy Yard Restaurant in Wexford Town – perfect for a lunch with the little ones – where the food is fabulous both for adults and children, the decor is stunning and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. It is a real hidden gem with a beautiful floral courtyard.
Meals fit for a king and queen and their princes and princesses – and you don’t need a hawk to catch the main course.
This is Wexford – where simple moments become priceless memories (www.visitwexford.ie)
Visit Wexford has launched an exciting new campaign, inviting families to register for a free Passport to Fun that’s brimming with ideas for the ultimate family holiday.
Apply for Wexford’s Passport to Fun at: www.visitwexford.ie/ childrens-passport/
Marlfield House Hotel