August 27 – Athlone to Kilkenny
A castle, an ice house, a well, woodland trails and a giant telescope. If that isn’t the perfect setting for an adventure by The Famous Five, with a basket of tuck and lashings of ginger beer, I don’t know what is.
With the rain coming down we decided not to hit the Greenway again this morning. There will be plenty of opportunities for wet riding in the days to come, when we don’t have a choice, so today, given the choice, we chose not to get drenched. We still needed an activity for the day though, none of this just motoring around as captives of the van thank you very much. So…we set off for the town of Birr to have a look at the castle.
Through the countryside we went, along busy roads then narrow lanes and past some more ruins, then into the streets of Birr.
A quick elevenses in the castle cafe and then we pottered off into the castle grounds. Along a forest path we went, with me on keen squirrel watch. The grounds are home to a growing population of red squirrels and I would dearly like to see a red one up close. ’Twas not to be though.
Along a gravel path and the castle loomed large in the distance with its deep, defensive moat surrounding it. The grounds were huge, with acres and acres of parks and gardens, with winding trails through the trees, beside rivers and waterfalls. For some reason it immediately made me think of stories from yesteryear. It was the sort of place that was crying out for the likes of the plucky and intrepid George, Dick, Julian, Anne and Timmy the dog because what an adventure could be had in such a place! It was definitely the place that suited young adventurers of the past, no modern story folk would fit in here, it could only be those who solved puzzling mysteries wearing shorts, socks and plimsolls, while exclaiming ”what a lark!” at every opportunity. It was that kind of place.
The castle was first built by the Anglo Normans, then reoccupied by the O’Carroll family in the 1580’s. It’s had various owners over the centuries and has withstood two sieges in the 17th century. It’s also had work and building done to it over the years, the last of which was done in the 1860’s. The castle is now a private residence so there was no access, but we could roam as far and wide as we wanted in the expansive and seemingly never ending gardens and grounds.
Or, if the setting were used by our adventure loving Five, it could be…
a) Home to Lord and Lady Lamington-Smythe, 17th Lord of Lower Uppington and surrounding villages
b) The home of eccentric Uncle Peabody who lives in one attic room while using the rest of the castle rooms as a home for retired badgers… but what fun he is to visit and what adventures…Hurrah!
c) Home to the dastardly squire Master Monobrow who hates children, sparrows and puppies and will surely be brought down a peg or two by our plucky young adventurers.
We rambled on, with me looking up and around, inwardly pleading for a squirrel to appear. Along a path and then across the grassy parkland where we saw the telescope. What an amazing contraption this was. It was huge and what an invention for the time. The telescope was built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1845 and was the biggest telescope in the world for over seventy years. It was so big, it became known as the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’ named after a huge mythical sea monster. It was built in the Birr Castle workshops and the speculum mirror inside is 1.8 metres in diameter and the tube itself is 17 metres long. The Earl watched the sky at night through an eyepiece on the side and when the telescope was raised towards the sky, he used ladders to reach the viewing platform at the top. With such a huge telescope, he could see further into space than anyone had before.
a) It was built by Uncle Wilberforce and he used it to discover Harold’s Comet, becoming the first ever to see it with the naked eye, after which he received a hand written note of congratulations from Buckingham Palace
b) It’s where reclusive Mr Fosdyke was found to be an enemy spy after using the giant, long range telescope to read state secrets that were left lying on the coffee table in the breakfast room of Number 10
Leaving this intriguing device behind us we weaved our way along woodland tracks, under trees and along gravel paths and came upon the ice house. This was used to store ice, before refrigerators came into common use and was used for food storage.
a) It’s where the stolen castle jewels were hidden, later to be found by Cousin Babs and Cousin Freddy having a jolly good lark playing hide-and-seek in the grounds. What a hoot to find the gems. Hurrah!
b) It’s where Lord Reginald Lamington-Smythe’s pet pooch dug up a suspicious looking bone, unfortunately unidentifiable due to the ensuing tussle for ownership between Monty the Border Terrier and the fifth of the Famous Five, Timmy the dog
c) It’s where local rogue Harry Sneed was found hiding his stash of poached pheasants nabbed from the grounds of the Lamington-Smythe Estate. He was declared a ruffian and a rotter and turned into the local constabulary by a stern Anne and Julian.
Through the trees we went, ducking beneath branches, following narrow tracks and trails, until we chanced upon an old well. It’s actually the remnant of the monastic site that was founded there in the 6th century. It’s fed by spring water, which is still used by the castle today.
a) It’s where the stolen emerald was found shimmering beneath the water, to be retrieved from its resting place by a plucky young kitchen maid.
b) It’s where cousin Ernest dropped his egg and cress sandwich, never to be seen again, resulting in wails of displeasure that required a restorative bottle of pop.
c) It’s where Lady Lamington-Smythe was found kidnapped, but shivering and alive thanks to her designer squirrel fur coat and cloche.
Enough! I will end this silliness forthwith! I tell you though, the whole surroundings and setting, with the nooks and crannies, hidden paths and bridges, gates into ivy covered walls and medieval remains, were just perfect for a jolly good mystery, that could only be solved by a rag tag group of kids who were “plucky” and always carried a map, a torch and sandwiches wrapped in brown paper, with bottles of pop, lashings of ginger beer and were always able to find “strange goings on” that grown-ups were always oblivious to. It was easy to forget the twenty-first century was going on beyond the boundary of the castle grounds, because inside it could have been another time entirely, when everything was “such a lark” and “perfectly splendid”! For the final time…Hurrah!
We continued our perambulations around the grounds, taking a turn down a long hedge-lined path.
Right on cue, the rain came down again, forcing a quick retrieval of the brolly.
As we walked along the path that was more like a lane, following a sign that had pointed to a grove of Redwoods, we discovered we had…surprise, surprise, as if we never do this…made a wrong turn. We were heading to a dead end, so turned around and went back the way we came, never managing to find those towering trees.
Beside the river we went, under glorious avenues of trees with colours that absolutely shone, until we neared a waterfall that we could hear long before we saw it.
Then along a bridge, up the steps and into the formal gardens. The archways that had been created with the trees were fantastic and so cleverly done.
The whole place was superb and would be fabulous on a sunny day, with something for everyone, from interesting history and stunning gardens, to lots of nooks and crannies for kids to explore. A wonderful place in a nice little town.
We hit the road again and began heading south, arriving in Kilkenny where we found a place to stay. We may not have been able to get out on the bikes (well, correction, we COULD have, we just wimped out of getting soggy) but we still visited a great place and had a very enjoyable roam, with some rain on and off, but not enough to dampen the experience (pun intended)! Oh, and just right for the feel of the place and it crying out for a dose of Famous Fiveish adventures, in the cafe we actually found bottles of Bundeburg Ginger Beer, the Aussie brew that is Steve’s preferred beverage and the one he consumes litres of at home. He quite literally consumes lashings of this ginger beer. What a jolly good find! Hurrah!