14 January 2011

Bright winter sunshine on the beach at Bray

A picture perfect window at the Beach House restaurant in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Teaching resumes this weekend, and the first students have returned after the Christmas and New Year break for a residential weekend for both part-time MTh and NSM (non-stipendiary ministry) students.

But just before it all became too busy, and knowing there was going to be no other opportunity for a walk on the beach this weekend, I headed over to Bray late in the morning.

After they married in 1945, my parents lived for a short time on Putland Road in Bray. In the mid-1970s, when I worked for the Wexford People, I had particular responsibility for the front page and the sports pages of the Bray People, a localised edition of the Wicklow People.

In recent years I have enjoyed walks on the beach and the seafront in Bray, and have spoken to the Mothers’ Union in Bray parish. But this was the first time in many years that I took an opportunity to stroll through the streets of Bray.

Victorian values

For many, this may be suburban Dublin. But Bray is a borough in its own right, and this north Co Wicklow town still retains much of its individuality and character.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the Dublin middle classes began to move to Bray to escape city life, but with the opportunity of remaining close to the city.

The Dublin and Kingstown Railway, which opened in 1834, reached Bray by 1854, and the town soon grew into Ireland’s largest seaside resort and a popular resort for honeymooners. After their marriage in Donabate in 1891, Richard and Harriette Lynders from Portrane spent their honeymoon in Tracy’s Bray Head Hotel. The receipts, which are among some of the curious accounts that survive in Newbridge House in Donabate, proclaim on headed paper that the hotel is “facing the sea” and itemise the cost of their one-day honeymoon:

“2 teas & eggs 3: 0
Bed & Breakast 8: 0”

The total cost was 11 shillings (55 cents). There’s Victorian values and value for you.

Although post-war holiday-makers from Britain and Northern Ireland gave the town’s tourist industry a fresh boost in the 1950s, Bray has declined as a resort since the 1960s. However, the town is still popular with visitors who enjoy scenic walks around Bray Head or along the seafront with mile-long beach and its bars and restaurants.

Victorian town hall

The Victorian town hall built by the Brabazon family at the top of the Main Street in Bray (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We parked on the Main Street, near the junction with Novara Road, and strolled up the Main Street to Bray Town Hall and Market House, which was built in the 1880s in the Tudor Revival style.

The Town Hall was commissioned by Reginald Brabazon (1841-1929), Lord Ardee, son and heir of the local landlord, William Brabazon (1803-1887), 11th Earl of Meath.

Lord Ardee was working in the British Diplomatic Service in the 1870s, when he was offered a posting in Athens. However, his wife’s family persuaded him that Athens was too remote, he declined the posting, was suspended without pay, and finally resigned from the Diplomatic Service in 1877. He returned home to Ireland with his wife, promising to devote their considerable energies to “the consideration of social problems and the relief of human suffering.”

Bray had been without a market house since the old one was demolished in the 1830s, and Lord Ardee wrote to the town council in 1879 offering to build a covered market house for about £4,000 – the final cost turned out to be £6,366.

The building was designed by two of the leading architects of the day, Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1827-1899) and his son Thomas Manly Deane (1851-1932), with input from Sir Edward Guy Dawber (1861-1938), who later became a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in England.

The Market House is built of local red brick, with timber framing to projecting first floor bays and gables. The pitched roof is tiled and the two-storey portion facing the Main Street is surmounted by a tall copper-clad fleche, complete with clock. The wrought iron gates in the north porch are dated 1881, although the building was largely built in 1882-1883. The town council first met in the new chamber in 1884.

Looking at the building from the side, it is still possible to imagine the original busy market area, 62 ft long by 50 ft wide, with its arcades opening onto the street.

The upper floor is reached by a stone staircase at the east side and with an open timber roof and oak chimney-pieces with carved panels. In the south porch, there is a battered mock Tudor inscription:

Who traffic here beware no strife ensue
In all your dealings be ye just and true
Let [justice] strictly in the scale be weighed
So shall ye call God's blessing on your trade.

On the north front there are relief carvings on the gables of the Brabazon coats of arms, and 30 stained-glass panels in the windows display the heraldic arms of the Brabazon family and their wives from Norman times on.

When his father died in 1887, Lord Ardee inherited his father’s estate and titles and became the 12th Earl of Meath. He was one of the last Irish peers to be made a Knight of the Order of Saint Patrick. He continued to be involved in politics as a conservative peer, but he also became a Senator in the new Irish Free State, and was Chief Scout Commissioner for Ireland.

When he died in 1929, Lord Meath was buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Delgany, Co Wicklow. But he was also honoured by a statue erected outside the Columbia Hotel near Lancaster Gate in London.

Hard to swallow?

The Brabazon wyvern outside the Town Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The market house was closed in the mid-1940s, but the building continued to be used as Bray’s Town Hall. The building underwent change in the 1970s when the arcade openings were filled in and the market space became municipal offices.

In 1991, after major refurbishment, the ground floor was converted into a high-ceilinged restaurant, and in 1997 this was taken over by McDonald’s. Is this an act of cultural vandalism? Or has it helped to keep alive an important part of the architectural heritage in the town?

In front of the town hall, a drinking fountain is crowned by a wyvern, a mythological winged dragon that features in the coat of arms of the Brabazon family and the Earls of Meath.

Wyvern is also the name of a new housing development a few steps away, along the Main Street, and seems to hold the promise of transforming an elegant Victorian house. This morning Wyvern was hoarded up, but the elegant old house was reflected gracefully in the sunshine on the concave facade of the modern offices of Bray Town Council.

Wyvern reflected in the noonday sunlight on the Town Hall in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A prize-deserving location

From the town hall, we moved on down to the seafront, just in front of what was once Tracy’s Bray Head Hotel, where Richard and Harriette Lynders spent their honeymoon.

In the bright noonday sunshine, it was a pleasant stroll along the promenade, with the sea breeze creating tiny rainbows in the spray as the small waves splashed against the pebbles and broke against the rocks.

We returned to the Beach House restaurant for lunch: fish and chips for one, goat’s cheese panino for me, and two coffees – one double espresso and one Americano – came to €24.55.

I’m happy to recommend my favourite and oft-frequented cafés and restaurants. This blog doesn’t do awards and prizes. But if I did, then the Beach House must take first prize for its location and its interior décor.

We had a table by a full-height window looking out onto the beach … it must be what every movie-maker dreams of when they want to create a Malibu Beach type of set.

And it was a lunch that I wished could have lasted just a little longer.

But I had to get back to work.

Blue skies and a blue sea in Bray at noon today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

1 comment:

Cindy Thomson said...

Sounds like a wonderful place. What a nice sunny day you had there. Not so much here.