Q &A: Shine a light on hidden wonders

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered


Q.I remember as a child being fascinated by caves. We're planning to drive from Dublin via Cork to Galway; are there any really good caves we could explore with our two boys aged 11 and six?

Q. I remember as a child being fascinated by caves. We're planning to drive from Dublin via Cork to Galway; are there any really good caves we could explore with our two boys aged 11 and six?

John Edwards, Doncaster

A.Even if your children aren't budding speleologists, visiting caves can be loads of fun. Entering vast eerie caverns, marvelling at the spectacular formations, stalactites and stalagmites and the naturally occurring colours, is a thrill for any child – and very Indiana Jones.

You are fortunate as your chosen route gives you ample opportunity to visit some of Ireland's most impressive show caves. There are three – Mitchelstown Cave in Co Tipperary, Crag Cave in Co Kerry and Aillwee Cave in Co Clare – that you could easily visit. All the sites offer informative guided tours that usually take 30 to 40 minutes and are the only way to gain access. Sadly another possibility, Dunmore Caves (00 353 56 67726), north of Kilkenny, was recently closed to the public after the discovery of a collection of Viking artefacts, which is causing much excitement. The archaeological investigations are continuing, so the cave remains out of bounds. A temporary visitors' centre is planned, so it may be worth checking when it opens.

Mitchelstown Caves (00 353 52 67246; www.mitchelstowncave.com) are 3km off the main Dublin to Cork road between Cahir and Mitchelstown, in the centre of the scenic Galtee Mountain region of Co Tipperary. There are three large caverns, formed in pre-glacial times and discovered in 1833. The east chamber is the largest of its kind in the British Isles; one of the caverns contains a towering calcite column standing nine metres tall. Open 10am-6pm daily, adults IR£3.50 (£2.75), children IR£1.50, family ticket IR£9.

Crag Cave (00 353 66 714 1244, www.cragcave.com) is further south near the town of Castleisland, Co Kerry, 16km from both Killarney and Tralee. The website is fun and informative, perfect for children eager to explore. One of the most spectacular sights is the Crystal Gallery, containing thousands of straw-like calcite stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The cave is believed to be more than a million years old. It stretches for 3.8km, though only part of it is open to the public. The site has a visitors' centre, with restaurant and a soft play area for under 10s (supervised by their parents), which might come in handy on rainy days. The cave is open daily from 10am, mid-March to November; adults IR£4, children IR£2.50, two adults and up to four children IR£12.

The third subterranean option is in The Burren, to the west in Co Clare – a vast lunar landscape of exposed limestone known as karst. The area is a draw for people wanting to explore the flora and fauna, prehistoric settlements and Neolithic graves. It is home to 50km of underground cave systems, of which Aillwee Cave, (00 353 65 707 7036, www.aillweecave.ie) is the only one open to the public. Your children will be able to see the bones of brown bears, extinct in Ireland for 1,000 years. Many formations have been named after objects they resemble, such as Praying Hands, the Carrots, and The Wasps' Nest. One cavern has hundreds of small knobbly stalagmites and a magnificent display of straw stalactites. Nearby is a restaurant, a cheese shop, a rock counter and a crafts centre. Aillwee Cave is open all year, 10am – 6pm, adults IR£5, children IR£2.75, family ticket, IR£14.

Q.We were hoping to take our children to stay on a working farm somewhere in the British Isles this summer. Is this going to be possible after the foot-and-mouth crisis? We would prefer somewhere where the children can get involved and observe the workings of the farm.

Mrs A Hollingsworth, Derby

A.Farm holidays are popular with families for all sorts of reasons, not least the opportunity they afford for children to spend time with the animals and get an insight into what life is really like on a farm. For the most part, farms that do encourage participation will advertise this, but it is worth checking. Obviously with the foot-and-mouth crisis it is even more important to respect your hosts' wishes, as most farms are called working farms for a reason, and farming is nearly always the main source of income.

One of the largest companies specialising in accommodation on working farms throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is FarmstayUK (call for a brochure 02476 696 909; www.farmstayuk.co.uk), which represents about 1,200 members. They can offer B&B and self-catering, usually in converted farm buildings. Prices vary depending on the property, but B&B usually costs £12-£16 per person per night, and self-catering accommodation about £150 a week. Many of their farms allow visitors to help with the day-to-day chores. Buddens Farm in Dorset is one; children (and adults) are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and join in the daily feed rounds and watch the cows being milked.

According to Nigel Embry, the managing director of FarmStaysUK, 90 per cent of the farms have remained open during the foot-and-mouth crisis. He does stress that if you do decide to stay on a farm in an affected area, you should always obey the rules laid down by the farmers, and some activities may be curtailed.

Wales is a perennial favourite for farm stays, and there is a network of 16 groups offering accommodation. The Welsh Tourist Board produces a brochure with details of all these groups, which can be obtained by calling 029 2047 5226. The board is launching a website ( www.farmholidays.visitwales.com), which is expected to be up and running by mid-August.

Scottish Farmhouse Holidays (018907 51830) is a similar service, with a central reservation system for about 90 working farms throughout Scotland, plus a few in England. The company mostly offers B&B, but it does have a small amount of self-catering accommodation. Expect to pay from £16 per person per night and £12 for children under 12, while children under two are free. The company can also arrange car hire and ferry crossings.

Further afield, Irish Farmhouse Holidays (00 353 61 400 700; www.irishfarmholidays.com) has a booklet containing details of working farms in locations throughout the Republic of Ireland. If, however, you are more environmentally concerned, you might be interested in Organic Holidays (01943 870 791, www.organicholidays.com) – a website that offers a range of organically-minded visits to a range of properties worldwide. This group also represents 250 properties throughout the UK and Ireland, many of which are working farms which incorporate activities into a stay.

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