Insider View - Call of the Wild

Hilton ParkLucy Madden muses on our affluence, or lack of it, and thinks she may have got hold of the germ of an idea which could open up a whole new tourist market in Ireland - and give back to children and teenagers some of the freedom and sense of wonder that’s been lost in recent years.

The dentists are back. Murmurings about sealers and polishers drift into the after-dinner chat. Clearly in this recession teeth are a priority, even though this strikes me as strange since it's not obvious we in this country have embraced the American love of flashing white gnashers. However, it's good news that one professional group still have money to spend on going away; we have always felt our guests to be a barometer of Irish affluence, or lack of it.

The dentists are most welcome and on the whole are perfect guests. The only drawback is the necessity of keeping one's mouth somewhat pursed so as not to reveal dental shortcomings therein. As well as the dentists, we have noted an increase in group bookings. This is generally perceived to have its roots in the economic crisis with people closing ranks and withdrawing into family units.

In our family we play a game that involves picking a person and then suggesting the occupation to which he or she would be least suited. When my husband is the subject of the game, someone always suggests Playschool Teacher. The boldest children have been known to shrink under his fierce scowl, so it was a surprise when he suggested that we should forego targeting the adult population, and promote ourselves as a destination for the young.

In an episode of The Apprentice in the UK, candidates had to rebrand the town of Margate as a tourist destination and the winning team went down the child-friendly route. But everyone knows that the English don't like children, preferring four-legged furry things. We in Ireland would be so much better at it.

Guests in this house love to suggest alternative activities for us and last year an American couple posited the idea of becoming a residential summer camp for teenagers, a concept popular in the States. We have open spaces and are some way from pubs. At first the idea appalled, with visions of retrieving vodka bottles and worse from under beds, but it did form the kernel of an idea. Here in Ireland we have everything that children love; nature, beaches, lots of waterways, we still have wilderness and the mystery of unspoiled places. Moreover, children don't mind the rain; they don't even notice it.

There is a children's' play area at the Bloom Festival in Phoenix Park that exemplifies what we are best at. Manned by a few enthusiastic and patient souls, there were skipping games and gardens to plant and an activities tent and it was somehow old-fashioned but imaginative and so exactly what children love, There wasn't an electronic gadget in sight. As a dedicated follower of festivals, I am always struck by the trouble taken in this country to provide fun for children. With our natural friendliness towards the young, coupled with our long coastline and rivers and lakes, we in Ireland still have an uncorrupted Blytonesque landscape to provide an alternative to the techno world outside. We could become the most child-friendly destination in Europe.

This is not going to appeal to everyone. Horror of kiddies is not uncommon. I had an uncle (childless) who used to say; "Never talk to a child. You'll never get rid of them." Like cats, he would say, children always go to the one who likes them least. This is a problem easily overcome by creating childfree zones. Sometimes it's the children who want to avoid the adults. Apparently there is a country hotel somewhere, where a notice asks guests not to speak to the children of the house in order to preserve their privacy. This is not in the spirit of child-friendliness. Nor is the fact that our local library, through no fault of its own but because of cuts in funding, no longer can afford to provide children with writing equipment.

A trawl through did show up a number of child-friendly activities and places to stay. Mostly they are very structured. All well and good but I say children also love historic houses and the call of the wild. I have a vision of the outdoor life; cowboy dampers cooking over campfires, messing about in boats, larks on hay bales. It may mean high tea at six and wellies in the hall, a far cry from the boutique hotels so beloved of contemporary consultants, but it is feasible and there must be a huge market out there.

Together with her husband Johnny, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.

Kindly supplied by the respected food service and drinks industry magazine, Hospitality Ireland. Click here to read more about them Hospitality Ireland Magazine.

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