In Ireland’s Lakeland
The Earl of Erne invites Rory Stormonth Darling to visit Crom Castle, his family’s ancestral home in County Fermanagh
After an easy hour and a half drive from Belfast International Airport I spied my first glimpse of the towers and turrets of Crom Castle soaring up above the trees. Further up Crom’s private drive, a clearing allowed me a proper sighting of the magnificently romantic castle in its picturesque setting.
Situated on Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Crom (pronounced Crum) is the ancestral seat of the Crichtons, Earls of Erne and the much loved full time home of the present Earl who had kindly collected me from the airport. As we swept under the huge porte cochere Lord Erne brought the car to a halt and I couldn’t wait to explore the towering pile beside me. But as I stepped out of the car I felt a sharp pinch at my ankle and saw that I was attached to an enthusiastic Jack Russell!
After disentangling myself from the canine clamp we ascended an impressive flight of stone stairs up to the main hall. Teaming with balustrades, the hall is notable for its spectacular staircase, a feature that is regarded to be one of Edward Blore’s finest interiors. Blore, the English architect most noted for his contribution to Buckingham Palace, was charged with building Crom by the third Earl in the 1830s. The result is an impressive dark limestone castle which, whilst being undeniably large, has a very welcoming aura. Even standing at the foot of the magnificent staircase, flanked by giant prehistoric Elk antlers, one does not feel daunted nor lost.
During the afternoon, with the sun shining on Crom, Lord Erne suggested that we take his boat out on the water. Just a short stroll down from the castle we arrived at the enchanting Victorian boathouse. I stood at the battlements and looked out towards Inisherk, an island linked by a white iron bridge. I learnt that the boathouse was the original headquarters of the Lough Erne Yacht Club. Established by three landowning families of the region, the Crichtons, the Sandersons and the Massy-Beresfords, the club is recognised as the oldest yacht club in Ireland. Records of sailing on Upper Lough Erne date back to 1837 and the rivalry between the households thrived for decades. Considerable investment was made by each of the families into building state of the art boats to enhance their chances of victory in the summer regatta, “Mind you, I think the Crichtons usually made sure they won!” smiled Lord Erne.
The annual regattas grew into great occasions with royalty, viceroys and many prominent figures taking part in its heyday. Then in 1914 the preparations for the regatta coincided with the declaration of war and in the years that followed a whole generation of families lost their lives, including Viscount Crichton, heir to the earldom. The years of the annual regatta ended abruptly with the war.
Nowadays the vessels that set out from the boathouse are somewhat less competitive and, as we pootled off on a tour of Lough Erne, I enquired if the plan was to go around the Lough, to which Lord Erne replied, “I hadn’t intended to, it’s forty miles long!”
We headed off under the white bridge and past a charming gothic style teahouse sitting on a small promontory. For the best part of an hour we absorbed the magic and tranquility of the Upper Lough. With the exception of two fishermen on the waters edge we didn’t encounter a soul. Having happily meandered around the labyrinth-like lough we eventually returned to a building I recognised – Crichton Tower, a spectacular folly on the small Gad Island. The tower, which could be straight out of the pages of a book of fairytales, served the purpose of a viewing gallery for the ladies to watch the yacht races.
Back at the boathouse Lord Erne explained that the castle had not been lived in for much of the twentieth century. Not only was his grandfather killed at Mons in the first war, but also in 1940 his father lost his life serving with the North Irish Horse in Northern France. Hence from 1940 to 1958, until such time as the young heir reached the age of twenty-one, a board of trustees controlled the castle and demesne.
At the time of the war the Seaforth Highlanders were based at Crom but, during the ensuing years of the trustees’ management, the estate had come close to being sold to the Ministry of Agriculture. However, when the present Earl inherited in 1958, he shared none of trustees’ concerns, “I thought: this will be simple enough, I’ll start a dairy farm.” However Lord Erne was forced to consider alternative methods of funding the estate after the farm, and one or two other ventures, proved inadequate to meet the ever rising maintenance costs of the castle, the land and the infinite number of non-earning buildings on the estate.
Following just one inspection the National Trust regarded Crom as a ‘must have’. Agreements were reached and in 1987 nearly 1,900 acres of the estate were gifted by Lord Erne to the National Trust. While the castle and gardens remain entirely private property, the management of the lands and the upkeep of all the follies and outbuildings are the responsibility of the National Trust. It is little surprise that Crom was such an attractive proposition for the National Trust, since the largest area of oak woodland in Ireland survives here and it is a haven for flora and fauna that has been pushed to virtual extinction elsewhere. Wildlife thrives amongst the islands of Upper Lough Erne, including two rare species of butterfly: the Purple Hair Streak and the Wood White. Crom is also favoured by the Irish Hare and the elusive Pinemartin.
Had the considered sale to the Ministry of Agriculture ever come to fruition, the breadth of wildlife could have easily been threatened, and even Crom Castle might have been demolished – especially when they found the dry rot! Luckily Crom has benefited from the passion and enthusiasm of its present guardian. At just twenty-one the sixth Earl of Erne took on one of Ireland’s great houses and amongst his first challenges, he introduced electricity to the castle and installed a heating system. Since then the challenges have been as constant as they have colossal. Most recently he has undertaken a major renovation to rid the building of the dreaded dry rot – a dispiriting prospect when one stands on the terrace and gazes up the limestone walls to the fortifications above. Lady Erne’s sympathetic eye has cleverly ensured that all the renovations and redecoration are in keeping with the Crom’s inherent character. The result is a castle that is both awe inspiring yet comfortable for the present day.
Crom is far more than just the castle. For a start there are two castles. The original, built in 1611 on the edge of the lough, is the old plantation castle. Ironically it survived two violent Jacobite sieges in 1689 but was eventually destroyed in 1764 by a domestic fire. In the garden of the old castle are two remarkable Yew trees reputed to be 800 years old, which in 2002 were nominated as one of the 50 Great British trees for the Queen’s Golden jubilee.
From a viewpoint by the old castle one can look over the sheet-glass surface of the water to Southern Ireland on the left, straight ahead to Crichton Tower and over to Crom Church on the right and far beyond to distant hills. In fact wherever you look it seems that your eye will catch sight of another characteristic that makes Crom such magical place. A handful of modern wind turbines are visible on the most distant horizon and though they are not exactly to the Earl’s taste, he has come to terms with them, “I was once told that if you can’t accept change you grow old”, he contemplated before breaking into a smile and adding, “and at this rate I should live forever!” As much as anything it seems that Lord Erne’s willingness to see the benefit of change has managed to keep his beloved Crom the mystical water-locked kingdom it was designed to be when the third Earl built the castle.
An intriguing development at Crom is that the castle is now not one, but two separate homes. The west wing is the Irish home of Viscount Crichton and as I was shown around I noticed a collection of model hulls on the wall of the downstairs hall, a reminder of Crom’s yachting heritage. An enchanting painting of the Honourable James and Lady Evelyn Crichton hangs in the elegant drawing room from which I walked straight out onto a long terrace, where I was warmed by the evening sun. Viscount Crichton’s career in London means that he spends only high days and holidays here, but this wonderful wing of the castle doesn’t lie dormant in his absence. The west wing is now available to rent for a long weekend, a week or longer.
Fascinated by the enterprising concept, I explored more of the west wing. Everything in it combines all that is best about being in a great building yet with all the comforts and necessities of modern life. Every spacious bedroom has an ensuite bathroom and in the television room I spot an array of power points and sockets for computers. The piece de resistance is the magnificent barrel-vaulted dining room in the castle’s former billiard room. This expansive room comprises a comfortable seating area, a large dining table and a serving island with an Aga beyond. Behind this ideal social room is a fully equipped kitchen. The clever “double kitchen” design is perfect for those who prefer to self cater but is equally well laid out for those who wish to employ a cook. Guests are given access to the private gardens, use of the tennis court and even Lord Erne’s boat. The west wing benefits from its own private entrance and guests will be hard pushed to be aware of Lord and Lady Erne’s existence next door. Sitting on the sun-soaked terrace I looked over the private gardens towards the Lough and noted down the two simple words that sum up what Crom’s west wing offers; peace and privacy.
After being shown around the castle, experiencing the Lough and exploring the serene world that is Crom, I returned to Lord Erne’s side of the castle. I helped myself to a drink and collapsed on one of the inviting sofas in the paneled library, surrounded by an eclectic collection of old leather bound books. With the evening light filtering through the windows I reflect on the extraordinary quiet that occupies both the castle and its surrounding environment. Suddenly the peace was broken by the echoing call of Lord Erne, “Rory, Rory, come here!”
Without hesitation I jumped to my feet and swiftly headed out of the library and across the hall in search of the Earl. Fearing that I had accidentally set off an alarm or worse still unwittingly smashed an heirloom in my room, I was happy to learn that it he was actually calling for Tory, his Jack Russell.
The following morning I had a chance to admire a herd of fallow deer that were reintroduced to the deer park by the Earl in the 1970s and I strolled over to the Green Lough. Here I gained yet another perspective on the castle and captured even more photographs of the countless stunning vistas.
Sadly however, even at Crom, time does not stand still and all too soon I had to head off to catch my Easy Jet flight. Packed and ready to leave I made my way down the flight of stone stairs at the entrance and as I took one last look at Crom even Tory appeared at the castle door, but whether it was to say goodbye or to ensure my departure I can’t be certain.
Factfile – The West Wing, Crom Castle
The West Wing at Crom is a truly personal residence with its own drive and entrance. It has been awarded five star accreditation from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. The Wing sleeps up to 11 people in great comfort. There are three double rooms, two twins and one large single room (there is an additional small single room in a dressing room that leads off one of the double bedrooms).
With views down to the lough, the drawing room opens directly onto the west terrace, which in turn leads on to the castle gardens and the tennis court. Both the drawing room and the barrel-vaulted dining room have open fireplaces.
A separate study/ television room is equipped with a large TV, DVD and video. A desk in a large alcove is furnished with a telephone, fax and a separate line for laptops.
By the entrance is a large boot room, for storing boots, coats and fishing rods. There is a roomy cloakroom, laundry room and the wing benefits from additional domestic accommodation.
Most guests are likely to do little more than explore the estate and its array of enchanting follies and buildings. But for those wishing to travel further afield, Crom is well place for trips to Castle Coole, Florence Court and the Marble Arch Caves.
The castle is ideally suited for good local fishing, however you can also make separate arrangements with the National Trust and fish for pike on the Green Lough or for trout, perch or bream on Lough Erne itself. Beginners can simply wander down to the White Bridge and chance their luck.
There are plenty of golf courses accessible from Crom, including Enniskillen Golf Club, Rosses Point, Bundoran, Castle Hume, Narin & Portnoo Golf Club, Sleive Russell, Donegal Golf Club, Omagh and Fintona.
Though there may be seasonal variations, a week at West Wing will cost a total of around £3,000. Long weekends are charged at approximately £2,500.
Included in the price is all the accommodation of the West Wing, a morning maid service, all bed linen, towels and extra blankets, use of tennis court, a rowing boat with outboard engine (first tank of petrol is complimentary with extra tanks charged accordingly), electricity, heating and logs for the drawing room and dining room fireplaces.
At an extra charge you can also have your own cook for either all or part of your stay.