We're just back from Thomastown where some friends of ours have recently bought a house. It's not in an area of Ireland I had visited before but it's one I would certainly visit again.
Where is it?
Thomastown is a delightful small town in south east Ireland. The town is the second largest in County Kilkenny with a population of around 2,200. It's right on the River Nore which runs through the county and is about 11 miles south of the city of Kilkenny.
We drove there from the ferry terminal at Rosslare which takes about an hour. Dublin is a little further afield and according to Google Maps the drive would take about and 1½ hours. There are also regular train and bus services to Dublin, the train taking just under 2 hours and the bus taking just over. Although everything in the actual town is within easy walking distance, if you want to see any of the local sights, a car is a really a must.
The town dates back to the 13th century when it was a typical small medieval walled town. Only a small part of the wall remains together with the ruined Grennan Castle and parts of St Mary's church. The castle was put under siege in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell attacked the town.
It's an attractive town, partly on a hill and the main road (there's a one way system) goes down to the bridge over the river. The view from the bridge is very pretty and the water looked crystal clear. Grennan Mill is on the river bank - milling was the main industry in the town; at one point there were 12 mills and Grennan Mill was the last to close in the 1960s. It is now a craft school and the town is an important part of the Kilkenny craft trail. Made in Kilkenny was formed a few years ago to promote the county as a hub for handmade craft and there is certainly a lot of arts and crafts in Thomastown itself.
Arts and Crafts
At the northern end of the village, there is an artisan chocolatier. The chef Mary Teehan makes the most delicious truffles with all sorts of interesting flavourings - cardamom and orange, goji berry, ginger and pink peppercorn, tequila, salt and lemon and, naturally, Guinness. They also serve pretty amazing hot chocolate. At the other end of the village, Grennan Mill Country Clothing sells lovely Irish aran knitted jumpers.
The High Street also has craft shops including Karen Morgan porcelain. As well as Karen Morgan's own work, her shop sells other local artists - the friends we were staying with were delighted to find their house modelled in ceramics. Needless to say they bought it! Brid Lyons also has a shop in the town called Clay Creations selling her wonderful ceramic ladies. And the list could go on.
There is also a whole host of other craft places to visit just outside the town - we visited Jerpoint Glass where you can watch the glass being blown before looking round the shop; they also sell seconds; it's still very expensive but once you've seen the glass being made (they were making wine glasses when we there) you can appreciate the skill and time that goes into making one piece. At nearby Bennettsbridge, we went to Nicholas Mosse pottery where you can also see the potters at work. We were able to see the potter neatening salad bowls on the wheel that had previously been thrown; and the painters painstakingly decorating dishes. Again all very expensive; but again a seconds shop selling items that were not perfect, although to the untrained eye it was hard to spot any imperfection. My favourite craft shop was across the road at Moth to a Flame candles. This is a one man operation and you can see Larry Kinsella at work. As soon as we walked into his workshop, we were struck by the smell of the wax but Larry said he no longer smells it. He makes a whole range of different candles - glow-globes which are hollow wax globes, gloworms which have neon coloured centres with a brilliant white outer shell and, our favourite, rock candles which look like sea shore pebbles. Larry said that he uses pebbles he collects to form the moulds for these candles but he always returns the stones when he's used them.
What to else to see
If you like old ruins and interesting gardens, there is a lot to do.
We didn't actually go to the nearest landmark which is ruined abbey called Jerpoint Abbey which dates back to the second half of the 12th century. We did however go to Kelly Priory which was built in 1193 and is surrounded by a wall with a number of of towers dotted along it. It's a large site - over 3 acres - and was known locally as 'Seven Castles' as it does look more like a fortress until you get the other side of the wall and see the ruins of the church.
Kilfane Glen and Waterfall is just a couple of miles north of Thomastown. The garden was originally developed in the 1790s and with lots of little nooks and crannies and points of interest. The garden was almost lost for 200 years but was discovered by Nicholas Mosse (or pottery fame) when he bought Kilfane House. Since then the garden has been wonderfully renovated back to an 18th-century romantic-woodland garden and at Euro7 is well worth the admission price. It's only open in July and August and is well worth a visit.
Another garden worth a trip is Woodstock in Inistioge, another nearby town. Woodstock House was sadly burned down during the Irish Civil War in the 1920s and is still a ruin. However work to renovate the gardens began in 1999 and they are really impressive. Like Kilfane there are pathways that take you through grottoes and woods. There are two tree-lined avenues - one of Noble Fir and the other Monkey Puzzle trees - many of the trees have survived, but new ones have been planted to fill any gaps. There is a little conservatory café where you can get a cuppa and a very friendly groundsman offered to drive us around the estate in a little golf buggy. We wanted some exercise but I did see that other visitors took up his offer. The only charge was Euro4 for parking.
Where to drink and eat
Being Ireland, I guess we shouldn't have been surprised that this little town supports 7 pubs. Our favourite is Bridgebrook Arms (known locally as Reilly's - apparently Irish pubs are often known by the landlord's name) which is right on the bridge. Inside the main narrow bar looks like it's in a library with shelves of books all along the back wall. We got a warm welcome and immediately took to the place. There are also a surprising number of restaurants and takeaways - the Indian was excellent - and the Blackberry Cafe does a great breakfast.
We were surprised that many of the restaurants do not have a drinks licence so you can take your own wine. Even some of those with a licence are quite relaxed about this and also allow you to take your own. This certainly makes the dinner bill much more reasonable although we did find the wine in the supermarkets more than back in the UK, perhaps by as much as 20%.
If you happen to be in Inistioge at lunch time, the Circle of Friends does some top-notch grub - again no licence, but if you haven't come prepared with your own bottle, you can nip next door to the pub. The mussels had one of the best cream sauces, I've ever had and the mains were excellent. My husband had Irish steak which was really tender and came with the most magnificent chips and onion rings; I had the blackened salmon - delicious and again with lovely veg. We were too full for desserts but they looked amazing - may be next time!