By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
You don’t have to travel the world to feel worlds apart.
There’s something quite magical about packing an overnight bag out of London and ending up somewhere so distant from the densely packed city scape of the capital that it almost feels as though you’ve been travelling for days.
As a tireless worker, I have always found it difficult to turn off. The city is full of short-term solutions that momentarily take your mind off your busy to-do list, but it’s paracetamol effect will invariably ware off. To really escape a hectic lifestyle, you have to escape.
Bunratty, Ireland, is both reachable and distant. It’s quintessentially Irish, with all the castles, folk music and more Guinness than one could wish for condensed into a small tourist village void of Starbucks, Sainsbury’s or any other conglomerate littering urban England.
For American tourists who have a longstanding affinity with Ireland based on heritage it’s the last stop on their tour before departing back to the states from the most easterly point of Europe. Coaches are abundant and holiday houses, hotels and B&B’s are aplenty. For a town that is not counted as a village in its own right in the Irish Census, Bunratty stands among the likes of Beamish and Crich as being a perfectly preserved slice of unadulterated tourist heaven.
The Shannon link
Shannon airport is a little over an hours flight from London Heathrow, Stansted or City airports. Built as an airfoce base and fuelling stop for transatlantic flights, the West coast terminal is now more military than commercial, but it still serves a private purpose.
The airport is full of has-beens and what could be. It’s the first duty free airport in the world and was once used to service flying boats which would land in Shannon Estuary. At one point it was known as the gateway to Europe, with transatlantic flights refuelling either side of the Atlantic before making their onward journeys.
But the huge terminus is now dated and under used. I turned up for my return flight home two hours early to be greeted by an eerily empty airport. The Stansted flight is the last out on a Sunday night, and I was through check-in and security in less than five minutes to find a departures lounge with an empty bar and bare duty free. What was once the gateway of West Ireland and Europe felt more like a redundant Soviet airforce base.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
Bunratty is a stone’s throw from Shannon and has done well as a tourist destination because of it. The small town is typically Irish. It’s a tourist destination without being removed from the actual attraction. Each pub, restaurant and historical venue is true to itself and unspoilt by gimmicks. For such a small town there’s ample things to see.
The main attraction is Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. From the castle all the way up to the house, every building has been restored and maintained to reflect 19th century Ireland. I walked from farm house to thatched roof cottages to a working village with hardware stores, post offices and a traditional Irish pub all in a wonderful Sunday afternoon stroll.
The most enticing part of the attraction is that you can enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes and scents of this enchanting place without being ushered around like cattle or restrained to one way streets and ‘look but don’t touch’ notices. This is a living reconstruction of Ireland with the bonus that you can actually live it. Each house has a fire, each field is filled with animals and each banquet room is filled with the original seating, ornaments and décor to reflect the original surroundings.
Bunratty has more hotels and b&bs than regular houses. One of its biggest, the Shannon Shamrock, closed down due to mismanagement and has stood empty for many years now, but there’s still plenty to choose from.
My pick was Bunratty Castle Hotel and Spa, which had three stars posted outside the door, but felt much more like a four or five star hotel. The whole place was geared entirely towards relaxation. From the spa on the top floor, which offered a full menu of treatments, to the leisure facilities, late checkout and king size bed with complimentary dressing gowns and widescreen TV; this was living.
Our speedy stay left little room for enjoying all the hotel had to offer as the lure of the renowned Durty Nelly’s and the village was too much to keep us chained to the base. The pub/restaurant lay on the river embankment under the shadow of the castle. But despite being dwarfed by a medieval icon, the establishment certainly did its utmost to standout.
The lower level had several small rooms for bar meals and drinks, and two larger rooms housing restaurant guests, who had the pick of a large al a carte menu and three to five course set meals with a carafe of wine. On the top floor was a sports bar with ‘pull your own pint’ of Guinness on offer and several other gimmicks which warrants souvenir t-shirts, baseball hats and hoodies to be stored in the establishments very own gift shop.
Outside Durty Nelly’s there was a handful of other pubs and eateries, including the Creamery in the village centre and Gallaghers of Bunratty, a renowned fish restaurant. There’s nothing in the way of a cheap meal, but for the money you spend, you get bundles of gourmet food, lashings of good wine and a high level of service.
For a day, for a week
In 24 hours you can achieve a lot in Bunratty. By Sunday afternoon I felt physically relaxed and refreshed, and there was a mental calmness that one seldom finds in the busy hustle and bustle of city life.
Take a compass and set the markers to London and Shannon and draw a full circle around the British Isles, and few places will come close to the diverse environment Bunratty. For a day and a night it was a wonderful escape, but extend that to a week and you have Galway and Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren to explore, all of which are world renowned sites.
City breaks can become a necessary luxury living in London, but for something a little different that’s just as economical and accessible, the West of Ireland, and the special town of Bunratty offers up a real treat for a weekend escape.