Crom Castle outside Enniskillen has been home to the Earls of Erne for centuries – and now you can experience its sumptuous luxury for yourself. Lord Erne takes JUDITH COLE on a tour of the beautiful west wing and its gardens
A new venture by a Co Fermanagh aristocrat is offering people the opportunity to experience life in the splendour of a fairytale castle. Viscount Crichton, whose father, the Earl of Erne, owns Crom Castle on the shores of Lough Erne, has decided to let out his part of the property – the west wing.
Crom Castle is one of the most beautiful buildings in the British Isles and its turrets and towers have borne witness to centuries of history. Lord Erne, 67, lives at Crom Castle all year round with his wife, Swedish former model Anna Hitchcock. His 33-year-old son John works in London for estate agency Lane Fox and wants the west wing to be used in his absence. “My son loves coming here and enjoying the beautiful countryside but he would like the west wing to be lived in while he is away,” says Lord Erne.
Completely separate from the main part of the castle, the west wing has its own front door and, with its huge drawing room, dining room, sitting room, boot room and seven bedrooms, is several times larger than the average home. Surrounding this lap of luxury are the private gardens of Lord Erne, which will be available to residents, as well as 1,350 acres of wooded parkland estate which was purchased by the National Trust in 1987 and is open to the public. Viscount Crichton hopes that groups of 10 or 11 will come and stay for a week or more and enjoy a truly unique experience. Also in the grounds are the ruins of the old castle which the Crichtons purchased from the Balfour family in 1609 when they came to Co Fermanagh from Scotland.
Crom Castle has a colourful history of battles, sieges and buried treasure, including the revolution of 1688-89 when it was of great strategic importance to Enniskillen. In one incident, Jacobite officer Lord Galmoy attacked the castle in 1689, only to be met by strong resistance from tenants and workers on the estate who had been well trained by Colonel Crichton. The old castle was burned down accidentally in 1740 by a maid walking upstairs with a candle and the ruins can be explored today.
The present castle was built in 1820 and its beauty is quite simply astounding. It is surrounded by many fine old buildings, including the Crichton Tower, the Victorian Boat House, where the Lough Erne Yacht Club existed, the Tea House at the edge of the lough – where ladies and guests took their afternoon tea, the old Saw Mill and Crom Church. And standing tall at the ruins is the oldest Yew tree in Ireland, reported to be more than 900 years old.
The castle has been home to generations of distinguished war heroes. Lord Erne’s grandfather, Viscount Crichton, was killed at the Battle of Mons in 1914 while serving as a major in the Royal Horse Guards. He was MP for Fermanagh, a Lord of the Treasury, Conservative Party chief whip and grand master of the Orange Institution of Ireland.His son was serving with the North Irish Horse in France in 1940 when, at the age of just 32, he too was killed. His death meant that Lord Erne would succeed to the Earldom at the age of only three.
After World War Two, during which the castle was used as an American outpost, Lord Erne grew up in Hertfordshire with his two sisters. His mother remarried and had two boys and a girl. Between terms at Eton, he remembers spending holidays at Crom Castle. One of the many memorable moments in his life took place at the age of 19 when he was a page at the Queen’s Coronation. This, he says, was a day he will never forget. “It was a great honour and privilege,” he recalls. “My father was equerry to King George VI, who was my godfather.”
Following a spell in the Royal Navy, Lord Erne inherited Crom Castle when he was 21 and prepared to farm the estate. In 1958 he married Camilla Roberts, and had four daughters and a son. The daughters are all married and live in England, and Lord Erne has seven grandchildren. “The whole family gets together often and we always spend every other Christmas here,” he says.
Lord Erne and his wife were divorced after more than 20 years together, and in 1980 he married Anna Hitchcock. She had enjoyed a successful career as an international model, working with top fashion photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
Extensive refurbishment has been carried out over the years and has brought the castle up to its exacting standard of today. Even in the present Lord Erne’s time it has seen great activity – not just traditional farming. At one stage, he ran a toy factory in which he designed beautiful hand painted wooden toys. “When I came here to live in 1958 there was no electricity and I had to move with the times,” he says. “Over the years we have modernised the castle and refurbished it. “As well as the toy factory I had a dairy herd with 200 milking cows, and we also had 1,000 pigs and 120 breeding ewes.”
Lord Erne is a keen artist, painting scenes of Fermanagh and Donegal, and has had a couple of exhibitions in London, as well as at Crom Castle itself. He is inspired by the beauty of the estate and the landscape’s seasonal transformations. “Ireland is such a beautiful place, with a unique light that is always changing, and at Crom you’re surrounded by this beauty,” he says. “The landscape and portrait artist Derek Hill is a great friend and he has helped and encouraged me tremendously.” He believes that the Castle Crom estate is the perfect environment in which to paint, and to enjoy all kinds of activities from a luxurious base.
“County Fermanagh is such a beautiful place,” he says. “There is immense peace and quiet here. It is a very, very important nature conservation area with its wetlands and woodlands.”
As well as the estate, guests residing in the west wing will have use of Crom’s private gardens including the tennis court and a rowing boat with motor which is docked at Lough Erne. “We specialise in privacy, peace and quiet,” says Lord Erne. “People can stay as long as they want – we will consider weekends but hope that people will want to come for a week, two weeks or even a month. “We are concentrating on the top end of the market, and hope to attract people who appreciate the beauty of the estate, the peacefulness and the privilege of being in a castle.”
And what a privilege! Every room is overflowing with opulence and no detail has been overlooked, from beautifully crafted bedside lockers and valuable family portraits to the most expensive materials and wallpapers. The drawing room is a spectacular period palace filled with antiques and with a worthy setting, overlooking Lough Erne. While the walls are covered in pictures, two huge paintings in particular dominate. One handsome oil portrait is of Lord Erne’s father while the other is of children, the Honourable James and Lady Evelyn Crichton.
Across the corridor, the sitting room can also be used as an office as it has the facility to plug into the Internet or use a fax machine. Eating will be a pleasure for anyone staying there. The kitchen and dining room provides a lovely informal space where guests can cook, eat and chat. An on-site cook can be arranged. It was formerly the castle’s billiard room and the low lights still exist, creating an intimate ambiance over the long table, which seats 12. There is also a boot room and a cloakroom, for storing boots, coats, fishing rods and other items – essential after a day exploring the lake-shore and estate grounds.
All bedrooms are ensuite and are the ultimate in luxury. The Buff Room has a four poster double bed and is the ideal bridal suite. The Print Room, as its name suggests, is full of black and white prints and etchings, and has an attached dressing room. Other bedrooms include The Crichton Room, The West Room, The Blue Room and The Rose Room.
“We hope it will be very popular,” says Lord Erne. “There is so much to see in the surrounding area, including the Marble Arch Caves, the new Nick Faldo golf course and the National Trust properties Florence Court and Castle Coole.”