Iron Age man: for one night only
What does it take for modern man to survive a night in a ringfort? An umbrella, a microwave and an iPhone
I learned two things during my recent night sleeping in an Irish ringfort. One is that I probably would have needed a lot more inner steel to live during the Iron Age. And the second is that you should never step back into prehistory without access to a microwave.
The Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford has for decades offered visitors re-enactments of the ways our ancestors lived. In an effort to capitalise on the whole Bear Grylls humans-versus-the-wild fascination, the park is allowing visitors to sleep overnight in one of its Iron Age settlements. They lure you in with talk of “switching off” and “getting back to nature” through sleeping in an early medieval house with stone walls and a thatched roof, and learning things like archery and bush craft skills.
So far, they’ve hosted a 40th birthday party and accommodated a German couple looking for a different take on the traditional B&B. On hand to lead us back to prehistory was Damien Busher, the appropriately named tour guide, as well as the general manager Maura Bell and her two daughters Clara (11) and Anna (14), who were desperately missing their iPads.
The plan was to learn some old skills, cook a traditional barley stew over an open fire, tell stories, sing songs and sleep under animal hides beside smouldering embers .
I arrived in my Aldi ski gear, having provisionally booked a room in the local four-star hotel – in case the Ice Age returned.
“People need to be able to experience history first-hand,” according to Bell, who said the park was trying the overnight initiatives in an effort to keep pace with changing visitor expectations.
“Visitors can view the whole park on our website now, so when they come and visit we have to make an extra effort. They want to do activities and cook stew and sleep overnight and have breakfast here the next morning. From closing time on, those sleeping over are the keepers of the park.”
Each small house has its own fire and, when I arrived in the early afternoon, seemed quite cosy, with separate sleeping areas, plenty of rugs and blankets, and a small kitchenette added at the back for convenience. It got so smoky inside the houses that management fitted a small extractor fan hidden in the thatch to help keep the air circulated.
This kind of a la carte historical re-enactment I could live with, as they also provided a plug so that when the fire died down, the warm glow from my iPhone would help keep me alive until morning.
What I hadn’t banked on was the rain. Just before we were to head off into the woods to attempt a series of tasks, it started pouring down. I pulled the hood of my ski jacket down low, grabbed the nearest umbrella and figured the only thing for it was to man up.
For anybody over the age of 30, visits to museums as a child generally meant viewing axe heads and flintheads in glass cases. The closest I ever got to “experiencing” history was making replica axe heads in primary-school history class. We would then use these axes on each other during break time, deepening our understanding of prehistoric savagery. Since then, museums have adapted, and now you can touch, feel, and smell exhibits in many museums.
“To develop old skills you have to put time and effort in,” said Busher. “The beauty of this experience, though, is that once you click back into an ancient mind-set, stress levels go down and you’re right back to basics.”
With the rain belting down and no sign of being able to light a fire to get the stew going, my stress levels begged to differ. By late evening, when the park had closed and we were the only ones left on site, it was a nice feeling to close the gate of the ringfort and get some insight into the security and sense of community our ancestors may have felt.
“I love my sofa and really miss it,” Clara said, as she and her sister Anna bagged the top bunk in the hut. Anna missed Home and Away while Clara was pining for The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory . “I also miss my double bed, and having to make everything from scratch feels so weird,” she said.
Busher, who is an expert in bush craft, was also adept at keeping the small fire in the centre of the hut going and taught us how to shoot an arrow.
The bigger fire was a challenge. Darkness and hunger were beginning to take over and thankfully an executive decision to embrace historical revisionism was made. Leaving the dampness and the smoky hut, we plonked ourselves down in the park’s heritage centre. After a two-minute whirl in the microwave we had steaming bowls of barley stew washed down with Coca Cola and chocolate éclairs. Someone even whisked up a latte.
Returning to the hut, we wrapped up with sleeping bags, animal hides, blankets, hats and scarves and bedded down for the night. It was pretty cold, but next morning, there was something lovely about waking up in this replica of an ancient ringfort, throwing back the animal skins and stepping outside.
There was something even lovelier about arriving at my hotel an hour or so later and reminding myself of another ancient civilisation by sliding under some crisp Egyptian cotton sheets.
For more information or to book an overnight at the Irish National Heritage Park see inhp.com