It began as a community project, set in the grounds of the old Wandesforde Estate.
But the Castlecomer Discovery Park has grown significantly since the early 1990s, with support from Kilkenny Leader Partnership, Kilkenny County Council and Pobal, to turn it into one of Kilkenny’s (and indeed, the Southeast’s) most important attractions.
In the 19th Century, Captain Wandesforde took control of the local coalmines and invested his money to improve the working conditions. The present-day park preserves the cultural heritage of the mines – the coalmining exhibition was one of the main attractions of the park initially, but alone it was not enough.
“We realised that more needed to be created to develop what was there, to invite people into the discovery park,” says park manager Liz Nolan.
And create they did. Additions this year include the new climbing wall, the ‘Tree Top Walk’ and in the last few weeks, the ‘Leap of Faith’. My plan, on last week’s wet but sunny Thursday afternoon, was to sample all three.
If the purpose of the exercise was to get ‘outside my comfort zone’, we can consider it mission accomplished. A sudden, torrential downpour had oiled up the track nicely for me, and I was sincerely hoping the grips on my boots would prove their worth.
Instructor John Hickey had kitted me out with helmet and harness, and gave me a run down of the rules. It has to be said that every staff member we met on the day was helpful, professional and polite.
The rest of the team (who I did not meet) Mary Lyons, Marian Haughney and Fiona Ryan have worked there a number of years, and all share the delivery of the education programme to primary and secondary schools. The park has become a popular attraction for schools, with the ‘adventure’ having now been added to the ‘education/discovery’.
Together, John and I climbed up to the first platform, and then before I had even realised it, I was out on the wire alone; John had withdrawn, like parent subtley letting go of a child’s newly-destablised bicycle.
I wobbled around the first wire, moved onto the second – a narrower job with no overhead rail. Next it was onto a plank bridge, and then another, before nets and other equally uncompromising bridges. And so it went, each more challenging (and entertaining) then the last, all the while John shouted advice for each obstacle, and Liz offered moral support from below.
It is not easy to do elegantly. I negotiated that Tree Top walk with all the grace of a drunken newborn giraffe, all flailing limbs and panicked eyes. The grimace on my face must have been evident from quite a distance, judging by the small gathering of concerned-looking spectators
I later found out that, if you pause and actually have a glance about, the views of ‘Comer and the Wandesforde Estate are supposed to be fantastic from up there. I needed my tunnel vision though. ‘One foot and then the other’, I would occasionally remind myself, in case the tenets of forward motion threatened to desert me. From time to time I surveyed the ground, the nerves gradually fading as my confidence grew.
The last stage is by far the hardest. It is basically a series of round wooden swings, moving around quite a bit as you try to manoeuvre on to the next one using your momentum.
Finally, the home stretch. Liz was still shouting up plenty of encouragement, but John had long since abandoned me in my hour of need. He was replaced by the equally-reassuring Annette Morrissey beckoning me toward that final platform.
Still empowered by the adrenaline, I had a few quick attempts at the climbing wall – recalling some degree of competence from younger days. Time has apparently been a cruel mistress, however: I got about half way each time, always slipping as I jumped for a troublesome red grip.
Perhaps, a la Bruce Wayne, it would only have been possible had I eschewed the rope altogether and ‘used the fear’ to leap upward, harness-free. I don’t think Liz would have gone for that one though. She kindly suggested that the rain was my undoing.
Embittered by failure, I resolved to hurl myself from the nearest elevated object. Luckily for me, this turned out to be the park’s latest attraction, offering the opportunity to do exactly that – albeit with a safety line attached.
The ‘Leap of Faith’ is essentially a totem pole with a small platform. The idea is that you climb to the top, (as it wobbles), and then jump off it to catch onto a big blue safety ball some distance away.
I’m not sure exactly where the ‘faith’ comes into it – perhaps in its structural integrity, or the instructor below taking in the slack on the safety line. Regardless, I didn’t hang around too long up there.
Standing, shaking on that 1ftx1ft platform as the periphery blurs around you, you attempt to focus on the giant blue object out in front. The body seems curiously unwilling to respond, my legs – for some strange reason – seem rather reluctant to jump forward into the nothingness.
The mind wins in the end though.
One long jump and I am airborne like a rabid Jules Leotard. I hang onto that safety ball like it’s the last chopper out of Saigon.
It feels around ten seconds that I hang on; it was probably three. Then back down to earth.
Once visitors have had their fill of gravity-defying escapades, they are free to relax and grab a bite in the award-winning Jarrow Cafe. Alternatively, an array of different craft studios and workshops exist on the site. It is a beehive of local artists and craftspeople showcasing their work – including eclectic art, stone-cutting, upholstering and more. It is all part of the park’s attempt to remain in keeping with the site’s heritage and the social history of the town.
Parking spaces are in plentiful supply also, with a nominal fee of €2 for a full day’s parking. All parking fees contribute to the upkeep of the park, in addition to the development of various amenities such as the Sensory Garden planned for 2013. Visitors can also opt for the new Annual Car Parking Pass, which at €35 works out at 65c a day.
The woodland is owned by Coillte and leased by Castlecomer Discovery Park, while the Estate Yard and Visitor Center is privately owned by Errol Delaney, who plays a crucial role in developing the cultural heritage of the Yard and to supporting the overall development.
Following the volunteer commitment of a very active Chair, Michael Brooke, board members also play a vital role in supporting the work of a small team of staff at both strategic and practical level. New board members Andy Power and Des Doyle bring a combination of business and marketing expertise which is a great asset to enabling the Park become more sustainable.
For more information or any enquiries about the park or its amenities, contact 056-4440707 or email email@example.com.