Let me take you back, if I may, to the 1970s/80s and a children’s television programme called Mr Benn. In the show, Mr Benn leaves his house in Festive Road, walks to the fancy dress shop where the shopkeeper shows Mr Benn, along with his chosen costume, to the changing room and, once changed, Mr Benn goes through the magic door that he knows will lead to adventure. The adventure was always appropriate to his costume such as a caveman, a knight or a gladiator.
Fast forward back to today and the time travelling adventures of Mr Benn can be recreated in Wexford, Ireland. The costume shop is the Irish National Heritage Park, the shop keeper is Maura (or one of her fantastic team, in our case Susan), Mr Benn is you (or for the purposes of this review, us) and the costume is from the Iron Age.
The Irish National Heritage Park is 35 acres of outdoor museum depicting 9,000 years of Irish history located just outside Wexford town on the banks of the River Slaney. The park has full scale reconstructions of ancient houses, forts and tombs, an early Christian monastery, Viking boatyard and a mill.
All of this is brought to life with guided tours, audio visual presentations (both at no extra cost to the entrance fee) and an audio tour. In addition there are plenty of activities for all ages to enjoy including panning for gold, drawing rock art, Viking scramble, archery and spear throwing.
The park is a fantastic place to spend a few hours – Debbie and the kids have visited a number of times now – however, to top all of this they also offer a most unique experience – an overnight stay over in the ringfort.
The ringfort is modelled on that of a middle-ranking member of Gaelic nobility in the Iron Age, 1500 years ago. It consists of two thatched, stonewalled buildings – the main house and a dairy – surrounded by a high oak palisade and tall watch tower.
Basically, when the park closes you are the only ones there and have access to everywhere (except the visitors’ centre of course). You sleep in the main house and cook your dinner on the open fire.
This is not just camping, far from it
When we told our friends, family and colleagues about where we were going they all said something along lines of “enjoy your camping”. Don’t for one minute think this is just camping, it’s not, it’s so much more than that as I will explain.
We arrived at the park at 3pm – your entrance fee is included in the stay over cost – and took the free guided tour of the park. Bridín, our tour guide, was passionate about history and had a great way of explaining it whilst entertaining all of the children in our group. The tour lasted about 2 hours and afterwards we grabbed a cup of tea in the restaurant before meeting up with Susan (the shopkeeper in our Mr Benn analogy).
Susan, with the assistance of a wheelbarrow to carry our stuff from the car, took us up to the ringfort and went to great lengths to explain to us where everything was and where the toilets and shower were – it is realistic to the era but not that much, unless you wanted it to be I suppose. She also provided us with our costumes from the period – yes that’s right, costumes, you don’t get those at any campsite I’ve stayed in.
The park offers an evening meal by way of a lamb and barley stew (at an extra cost) which we would later warm up in a cast iron pot hung over the campfire. Susan did show us the takeaway menus and said that residents often phone out for pizza but we went down the more traditional route.
With that, Susan said good evening, leaving us to it and we changed into our outfits. This was the bit that surprised me maybe more than anything else. I’m not one for fancy dress – ask the kids about hallowe’en – and was rather sceptical about it before we went. However, putting the costumes on really did make a massive difference.
Very much like Mr Benn, once you have put the clothes on you become much more part of the experience. I couldn’t help smiling every time I saw one of the kids or Debbie wandering around in the Iron Age getup.
At this stage, and until 6:30, the park was still open and other visitors were still milling around. They can come into the ringfort, but not your house, and the park encourage you to play along – the kids certainly did.
Night in the Museum
When 6:30 arrives however, the park closes, everyone leaves and this is when the experience really gets going. As I mentioned earlier, and it is worth repeating, you have the entire 35 acres of the park and all of its attractions to yourself. You are free to wander wherever you like, whenever you like, making as much noise as you like – again something that you won’t get away with camping.
The kids disappeared off for ages, absolutely loving having free run of the place. We had countless walks including a torch lit (provided by the park) midnight expedition to the floodlit round tower overlooking Ferrycarrig via the waterside Viking long house.
Come bedtime we retired to the house and bedded down on the surprisingly comfortable beds with the provided furs and sleeping bags for a good night’s sleep. I wasn’t sure what to expect during the night – noises, cold, creatures in the house but ultimately it was quiet, a nice temperature (granted the weather was nice) and a lack of creepy crawlies and rodents.
Come the next morning we stumbled, bleary-eyed from the darkness of the house – which is always dark by the way, even in the day – and into the still empty park which wouldn’t open until 9:30. We got the fire going and cooked some bacon on the cast iron frying pan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a cast iron kettle but there was an electric one so we were able to make a cup of tea along with milk from the fridge – there is a nod to modern day creature comforts.
To finish off the experience in true Mr Benn style it would need Susan to appear and take us back to 2017 however this isn’t how it works which is good because they clearly respect your privacy and don’t want to intrude on your day! Instead we packed up the wheelbarrow and headed down to the restaurant where we indulged in our second breakfast and lashings of coffee – both of which are not included in the cost but were excellent.
€400 for a night (at the time of writing this post) seems expensive and we thought that before we went, comparing it to the cost of a hotel or apartment for a night. However, in retrospect, making this comparison is entirely wrong and completely misses the point. This experience can’t be replicated anywhere in Ireland and will, I’ve no doubt, remain with us forever. This cannot be said for a night in another generic, identikit, Celtic tiger hotel with mediocre food and poor entertainment. Also, the €400 is a flat fee for up to six people so three couples could go for less than €70 per person for a night which is, in my opinion a veritable bargain considering the unique experience. In fact we are planning a return visit with some friends as I type.
Admittedly the stew is an add-on (€10 per head) but you can always bring your own – which isn’t an option in a hotel.
This part of the review is really rather simple, if you are looking for a completely different, unique experience then just get on and book it. It was the most amazing night and we were buzzing and chatting about it for all of the 4 hours back home to Sligo In fact, preparing the photos to accompany this article has a smile on our faces. To book your own Ringfort Stayover, head to the Irish Heritage Park website.
Oh, and if you don’t know who Mr Benn is, go check it out, the kids will love it.
Disclaimer – we were offered a complimentary stay at the Ringfort by the Irish National Heritage Park in exchange for this review. Our opinion and photos are honest and our own.