My partner and I arrive at the grassy clearing with its colourful tents and small crowd of people with my friend and host Rosie, her husband Paul and daughter Sofia. It’s a sunny June day and the residents of Ardmore, a small town between Cork and Waterford in Ireland’s southeast, is out in force for the Sunday farmers’ market. My stomach rumbles and for a moment I think it’s thunder, but looking up I see only blue sky. Right now, it doesn’t feel so different from the NSW coast where I spent family holidays as a child and I wonder how long it will be until the infamous Irish weather sets in.
I head for the juice stand and order a fresh concoction of something green – my hangover from the night before requires dealing with. I catch a whiff of sizzling beef and before I know it I’m sitting on a hay bale chowing down on an organic beef patty sandwiched between a sesame bun. It’s the best meal I’ve had all week. And it’s accompanied by a stunning backdrop: green fields dotted with houses facing towards the North Atlantic Ocean.
Those living in Ardmore certainly seem to have hit the jackpot when it comes to beautiful surroundings. Ireland is the emerald gemstone of the world; a green paradise that can be so beautiful you actually forget to take pictures. Visitors to the country rave about the Cliffs of Moher, the Causeway Coast and the Aran Islands and I speak from personal experience when I say that these places are genuinely some of the most captivating coastal on earth. But there’s something special about the south coast, and Ardmore in particular. For a town with a population of only 330 people, it boasts more than its fair share of stunning scenery, fascinating history and award-winning cuisine.
Ardmore is particularly famous for its connection to St Declan, the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland (he arrived well before the better-known St Patrick). St Declan’s monastery in Ardmore is therefore the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland. St Declan’s Holy Well, dating to the 5th century, was a popular pilgrimage site and sits atop the cliffs of Ardmore. Those interested in undertaking their own pilgrimage can traverse ‘St Declan’s Pilgrim Path’, a 96km route from Ardmore to the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary.
Residents of Ardmore have always been proud of their saintly history. St Declan is the Patron Saint of the town and his feast day is celebrated on the 24th July each year. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of pilgrims would travel to Ardmore to kneel and pray by St Declan’s well to celebrate his pattern. ‘Pattern’ derives from the Irish Gaelic world ‘Patrun’, meaning Patron. Patterns were very common in rural areas of Ireland and consisted of religious rites and ceremonies attended by sometimes thousands of people.
By the latter half of the 20th century the popularity of the event, as with patterns across Ireland in general, dwindled but it’s recently been revived. A committee was formed several years ago and members of the local community – Rosie was one of them – successfully turned the ‘Pattern Festival’ into the highlight of the town’s annual calendar. The ‘Pattern Festival’ holds concerts, antique fairs, afternoon teas, fireworks and cooking shows.
If you visit Ardmore outside festival season then you can still encounter St Declan by taking the Cliff Walk. This 4km trail takes you through some of Ardmore’s best scenery and historical sites. And it’s not just a tourist attraction; many locals regularly walk it themselves and you’ll be sure to meet some of them out on the cliffs.
The Cliff Walk boasts some of the best scenery around, but local Ardmore residents certainly don’t miss out on stunning views. As we leave the farmers’ market, Rosie asks me for suggestions on how she could improve her accommodation for two French girls she’ll be hosting with AirBnB. I struggle to think of any possible room for improvement. The house that she shares with her husband and toddler is homely and decorated with former wedding photos and stunning travel shots from Rosie’s adventures in southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. There’s an impressive BBQ (even by my Australian standards) that Rosie’s husband constructed himself and even an outdoor hot tub. Added to that, the guest bedroom has a magnificent view of the green surrounding fields of Co. Waterford that looks incredible in all weather.
The Cliff Walk also has wonderful views rain or shine, though you’ll get different experiences in different conditions. During a warm, sunny day, you’ll get incredible ocean views, colourful flowers and wonderful photo opportunities. On rainy days, the sea simply becomes more romantic and a touch ominous.
But even if the skies are grey (and you’re in Ireland, so chances are they will be), there’s a lot to discover along the walk. If you begin the trail just behind the Cliff House Hotel, St Declan’s Holy Well is the first site that you’ll encounter. Further on, you’ll pass another well, Father O’Donnell’s Holy Well, which you can drink from if you’re after some luck. Keep an eye out for what the locals call the ‘Cup and Saucer,’ a rocky formation that looks just like – you guessed it – a tea cup and saucer.
The path then leads around Ardmore Head, where you’ll be able to glimpse the wreck of the Samson down below that was shipwrecked in 1987. Though I’m not sure how much is left of it now; the last time I glimpsed it the ship had taken a severe beating from a recent storm that had lashed the coastline. The trail eventually heads inland, past tranquil fields inhabited by some friendly farm animals.
Towards the end of the trail lie the ruins of St Declan’s Monastery and the very impressive Round Tower. The Round Tower was built in the 12th century as a refuge for ecclesiastics. The entrance doorway to the tower is located several metres above the ground. This was designed, according to different accounts, either to make the tower’s structure more sound or to prevent unwanted guests (Vikings, perhaps) from showing up.
When you’re done admiring Ardmore from afar on the Cliff Walk, you can venture down into the town itself and meet some of the locals. They’re incredibly friendly; the lady who works at the post office let me leave my suitcase behind the counter with her for a few hours when I had nowhere else to put it.
Even though the town has only 330 residents, this number expands exponentially during the summer months and many of the galleries and restaurants cater to tourists. We had some delicious lunch and desserts at the White Horses restaurant and admired the ceramics at Ardmore Pottery. And of course it wouldn’t be a small town without a bit of quirkiness; Brigid Shelly’s gallery on the main street serves it up happily. Brigid is known fondly as ‘the cow lady’ of Ardmore. Inside her gallery you’ll find cow paintings, magnets, mugs, pens and other souvenirs all decorated with the friendly bovines.
If you’re thinking that Ardmore is just a lot of small town charm and a few historical relics, you’ll need to think again. This little place is also a culinary star. ‘The cliff’ as it’s fondly referred to by locals, is The Cliff Hotel and it’s Ardmore’s pride and joy. It’s a five-star hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant overlooking Ardmore Bay. Guests can go all out and spend the night in a room with a spectacular seaside view or take the more economical option of enjoying a cocktail with a view on the outdoor balcony.
My partner and I couldn’t resist the chance to try the famous tasting menu in the restaurant (€95 per person plus €50 for matching wines – it definitely required some saving). By the time I visited the bathroom during dessert (which we finally got to after about three hours) my reflection in the mirror showed a woman who appeared to be in her second trimester of pregnancy. But the scrumptious dishes, decorated with so exquisitely and enjoyed over sweeping views of Ardmore’s surrounds was well worth it the price I paid in both euros and kilos.
Luckily we’d planned to get some exercise in during our stay. Local tourist attraction Ardmore Adventures offers kayaking and SUP (Stand Up Paddle Board) trips. As I’m not coordinated enough for the latter, we booked a kayaking trip. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to rough seas. I’m not sure the 4km Cliff Walk was enough to work off the amount of food consumed at the Cliff House Hotel restaurant, but now it would have to do.
It’s our last day in Ardmore and my partner and I stand at the bus stop outside the Ardmore post office, waiting for our bus to Cork. It begins to rain lightly and some ominous-looking clouds approach. With the exception of our cancelled kayaking trip, we’ve had a pretty good run with the skies during our stay in Ardmore. But it looks as though the notorious Irish weather that has evaded us for most of this trip has finally arrived.
How to get to Ardmore
Bus Éireann route 260 from Parnell Place in Cork takes about one and half hours to reach Ardmore. Get off outside the Ardmore post office. Or consider renting a car so that you can explore at your own pace.
Note: This was not a sponsored trip and all opinions are my own.