This post could also have been called “What we did this summer so far”, or “Places I lost my youngest child this summer and needed help from strangers to find him” or simply “Brambles cafés we’ve been too, because they are EVERYWHERE now.” We were away for the heatwave and since we’ve come home from holidays, the weather’s been of that uniquely Irish “it’s a bit rainy and a bit sunny so let’s just chance it” variety. And chance it we have, heading off to parks and playgrounds each afternoon – mostly to get fresh air into them and get pent up energy out. But we did find a few things to do that fall outside the usual picnic-at-the-playground option, and happily, all of them were free.
1. Marlay Park Walled Garden
We met friends for a lunchtime picnic in Marley Park recently and as we said our goodbyes a couple of hours later, my kids asked if they could duck into the Walled Garden for a half a minute. I said yes, and two-and-a-half hours later, we were still there. Admittedly drinking coffee and eating cake by that stage, but we needed sustenance after all the exploring.
Hidden gem is an overused term but I think the Walled Garden qualifies – it’s accessed through the backdoor of the coffee shop in Marlay Park and it’s somewhere we didn’t know existed at all until recently. It’s beautifully laid out with flower beds, there’s a wooden gazebo that makes a good playhouse, apple trees lining the walls, chickens, an aviary, and a labyrinth.
The kids spent close to an hour playing chasing in the labyrinth and managed to get me to go in there too – it’s small, but high, and I can see why the kids loved it. The one complaint was from the four-year-old – he’d heard me read the information sign that says in ancient times, a labyrinth symbolised an entrance to another world, and he was very disappointed that we left without going into any other world. Sometimes I’m such a letdown as a parent.
The coffee shop in Marlay has recently been taken over by Brambles which can be pricey in general, but I figured the kids had earned some cake, and actually it wasn’t bad value and the coffee was good. We ate in the courtyard, where we were joined by six or seven peacocks, wandering freely around the tables – just far enough away to stop any of us getting really, really nervous. Just.
2. Obelisk on Killiney Hill
Killiney Hill is one of my favourite places to go with the kids – a brisk walk up the hill to get air and exercise, and an incredible view from the top. The Obelisk has always been a source of mystery for the kids – what is it, why was it built, and what’s inside? You can’t go into it normally but during summer you can – details here.
We took the “wilderness” route up to the top of the hill because the kids really wanted to go off-road, meaning we were at the summit in five minutes flat, and far too early for the 3 o’clock start of the tour. The kids ran around, got lost, got found, and finally listened to my pleas to wait by the Obelisk door so we could be sure we wouldn’t miss the tour. Except the tour started down at the gate near the coffee shop, so we missed the first part of it, and all of the history of the Obelisk. I considered walking down to try to join the tour en route, but based on how often I’d lost the smallest at that point, I decided to just stay put. When the tour group arrived, we slipped into their midst, and finally got through the magic blue door.
We climbed the steps and went out onto the balcony (I’m sure it has another, more Obelisk-y name) and took some photos, then went back in to inspect the interior. Apart from a fireplace, there’s absolutely nothing in there whatsoever, but it scratched an itch, and the kids left happy to have seen inside.
3. DLR Lexicon
Our default library is Deansgrange but when we have a little more time to spend, we go to DLR Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire – apart from the space and the high ceilings, there’s an incredible view of the pier and the harbour through the huge window at the far end of the children’s section.
And what a lovely children’s section it is – full of chairs and cushions and boxes of books and wonderfully – full of noise. In our local library, there are signs up asking people to be quiet, but there are no such directions in DLR Lexicon – kids can browse, run around, chat, read out loud or have parents read to them without fear of disturbing anyone else. It’s big and warm and inviting and friendly – everything you want in a library.
There’s a coffee shop there too (Brambles again) if you need a treat after you’ve picked your books, but we usually head over to the playground outside Itsabagel instead – with a takeaway coffee for me – so everyone’s a winner.
4. Cabinteely House
Cabinteely Park is one of our favourite places to go on a sunny afternoon (or even on an “it’s a bit rainy and a bit sunny so let’s just chance it” afternoon) and the kids have often played around the grounds of Cabinteely House, but we’ve never been inside the house itself. This summer, again as part of DLR Heritage, the house is open to visitors – there are free guided tours on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons between 1pm and 4pm on the hour (details correct for summer 2018).
The tour lasts an hour, and visitors are taken through seven or eight rooms in the house, while a guide goes through the history of the owners. The house is a mix of Victorian and Georgian design, which was fascinating for an eight-year-old whose current obsession is British monarchies of the past. The house is beautifully kept and many of the original features are still there, while some are replicas donated by the various film crews who have used the house over the years. Penny Dreadful, The General, and Rebellion all have scenes filmed in Cabinteely House, as explained by our guide (“Oh it’s a TV series!” said my seven-year-old afterwards. “I was thinking, ‘Woah, kind of a small room to stage a rebellion’.”)
The small boy was bored after five minutes, and I was a bit apprehensive about how long he’d last, but I gave him my phone and he made it through the full hour. The girls on the other hand loved it. And everyone was happy when we went for coffee afterwards – in yet another Brambles.
It was raining the day we were there so we didn’t go down to the playground, but it would be a perfect way to expel any energy not used up looking around the historic house or playing on a phone.
You can see inside Cabinteely House on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, on the hour between 2pm and 5pm.
5. Dun Laoghaire Pier
Every time we go here, especially on a sunny day, it takes my breath away. I’ve inadvertently brainwashed the kids too – unprompted now, they say “Aren’t we so lucky to live here mum?” When the sun is shining, Dun Laoghaire is a perfect free day out – walk the pier, watch the boats, stop for ice-cream, climb on the rocks, take photos of the sea, and take some more photos of the sea. Or if you go there in the evening time, as we did on our most recent trip, treat yourself to fish and chips from Fish Shack and eat looking out at Dublin Bay.
After walking the pier, head up along by the sea to the beautifully redone People’s Park, especially on Sunday when the market is there. The kids can play in the playground, the grownups get coffee (there’s always coffee in the Fallon and Byrne tearooms even when the market’s not there) and take a wander around the fountains and the flowers. I’m biased, but when the sun is shining, Dun Laoghaire is exquisite.
And one extra: Dalkey Island (with a caveat)
Dalkey Island itself is free to visit, but to get there, you need to pay the ferryman, so this isn’t really a free day out. But we went there recently and it was so lovely, I had to add it in. We parked in Dalkey then walked past the beautiful houses (each child chose the one they’ll buy when they grow up) down to tiny Coliemore harbour to wait for Ken the Ferryman (or his brother John, as was the case). The boat is small, which adds to the excitement for kids who are used to the idea that a ferry is something cars can drive onto, and everyone is given a life jacket. The boat runs over and back all day between 10am and 6pm – the crossing takes about five minutes.
It’s hard to explain how different everything is on the island – it feels like the remotest part of ancient Ireland, yet Dalkey is there, just a stone’s throw across the water. The grass is spongey and hilly, and pathways worn by walkers lead up to the ruins of a church, the Martello Tower, and an old gun battery.
The kids ran everywhere, climbed rocks, looked for wild goats (we didn’t find any) and seals (we saw lots of seals) and retracted all of their earlier pronouncements that an island with nothing on it would be boring.
There are lots of other free things to do – the Natural History Museum, feeding the ducks in St Stephen’s Green, Botanic Gardens, IMMA – but for this post I’m sticking to things we’ve done in the last few weeks. And with the “it’s a bit rainy and a bit sunny so let’s just chance it” weather we’re having, along with the similarly “could go either way” moods of the kids, free is most definitely good.