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Why so many like to be beside the seaside in Bray

Neighbourhood Series: Wicklow’s northernmost town offers quality of life and strength of community in spades — and buckets!

Not since its Victorian heyday has the seaside town of Bray had such a moment.

It recently figured as one of Time Out magazine’s most underrated tourist destinations, described as Ireland’s Brighton. For residents, the question is — what took the rest of you so long?

It’s not just the appeal of its stately promenade, home to walkers, joggers and sea swimmers in equal measure, but the elegant terraces, quirky shops and cool cafes that lead to it.

For culture lovers the Mermaid Arts Centre hosts a packed programme of events. The town has its own jazz festival and air display. On any given day chances are there’s a funfair in town too.

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The cliff walk to Greystones is a wonderful way to work up an appetite, as are the wide expanses of Kilruddery House and Gardens, with its popular Saturday market. Just next door are the bike tracks of Belmont and glorious views from the top of the Sugar Loaf.

After eight years as a barista Bray native Matthew Forde Connolly opened Nine, his own cafe, in March 2022, on Bray’s Albert Walk. It’s a pedestrian walkway packed with independent shops that run parallel to the seafront.

“Everybody who lives in Bray will tell you it’s the best town in the country. It’s got everything, the sea, great walks and trails and a really good fitness culture. There are loads of people out running and sea swimming here, as well as eight gyms. It also has a wonderful cafe and foodie culture,” says Forde Connolly, whose supper club nights have been such a success that, from May, he plans to open Nine at night too.

Caroline Sullivan of neighbouring business Tales for Tadpoles, a specialist children’s bookstore, is also on the expansion trail having just opened a space upstairs for foreign language books.

Sullivan, a former Hodges Figgis bookseller with a love of beautifully illustrated children’s books, recently relocated her bookstore from Dublin city centre.

She and her husband moved to Bray two years ago with a new baby and a toddler. The other house they were looking at was in Donabate, in north Co. Dublin, so to say she was open minded is an understatement. “I didn’t know Bray from Adam at the time. We just wanted a house,” she says.

Now she’s delighted with her choice. “We live on a lovely housing estate where kids of all ages and from all different schools play out on the road. We are near Kilruddery and Belmont, where my son has just done a forest camp. He started Bray School Project in September and loved it from day one,” says Sullivan.

Having relocated her city centre store to Bray’s Albert Walk last year, she can now walk to work. In fact, she can pretty much walk everywhere.

“We have everything we need in walking distance, including the new Bray Centre, which already has two restaurants and is set to have a Stella Cinema, plus a Penney’s. We Love Markets is here too. The whole town just has a lovely vibe to it,” says Sullivan.

The biggest difference she has noticed since moving the business to the seaside town is the strong sense of community. “People have been really interested and enthusiastic about Tales for Tadpoles, they genuinely want to support a new business and they’re all very proud of Bray,” she says.

She is too. “I can’t see myself moving. I can’t see a reason why I would,” she says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Shanna Steele, who came to Ireland from South Africa 17 years ago. Initially she rented in Dalkey and Sandycove. “When it came time to buy a place, we were priced out of that market but always loved Bray,” she says.

A trained goldsmith who started out in market stalls before working in a craft cooperative in Temple Bar, she opened her independent craft and design business, Sevenoaks and Steele, on Bray’s Albert Walk in 2017 and has never looked back.

“I had €800 in start-up capital, found the premises, did it up, and asked my craft maker friends if they’d like me to stock their work. The business has gone from strength to strength ever since,” she says.

She attributes its success to its focus on the quality of design, and a location that attracts a good mix of tourists with strong support from the local community.

“People come for a coffee and a mooch because we have lovely shops here,” she says. She particularly loves the town’s diverse mix of people, including those reared in it and those who, like her, chose to move there.

“There’s a strong creative community with so many writers and artists living here, and with Ardmore studios, lots of people from the film industry too. There are also lots of young professionals who, like us, were priced out of south Dublin or just wanted to get more bang for their buck.”

She has even coined a name for her new tribe, Brayzilians. “Because it’s exotic, and Bray Heads just doesn’t sound quite right,” she laughs.

Victoria Bradshaw is marketing manager of Bray Credit Union, which next year celebrates 60 years in the town.

The credit union has 25,000 members, made up of people who live, study or work in a catchment area that stretches from Shankill in the north to Greystones in the south.

What appeals to most of them is that a credit union is “not like a bank”, she explains. “We are a not-for-profit organisation, with a volunteer board.”

That said, the technology underpinning it is as slick as any bank, with online services available via an app including mortgages, home improvement loans, and a current account. It also offers insurance.

“Everyday banking is now available at Bray Credit Union,” says Bradshaw. It’s also active in the community, sponsoring such initiatives as third-level scholarships and sports kit for local clubs.

“Bray is a huge sports town with clubs like Bray Emmetts GAA, Bray Wanderers football and Titans Swim Club,” says Bradshaw.

She herself is Bray “born and bred” and a year-round sea swimmer — “Dryrobe, coffee cup and all,” she says.

“But what I love most about Bray is the diversity we have here and, as the mum of three boys aged 13, 10 and seven, I love that we have loads of sporting and drama clubs for them to be involved it,” says Bradshaw.

“It’s a lovely safe place to raise kids with everything from great schools to great social organisations such as Purple House, which provides cancer supports to families, and Bray Area Homeless, which provides a hot meal every day to homeless people.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times