Visiting Large at Big Houses

After our adventures at Crom on Sunday, we retired to our rooms at Derryvree House & Cottage, mainly so Declan could kick a football around with the owners’ boys. The B&B is a working sheep farm, and we could hear the sheep bleating from our open window—quite a change from the road noise outside our flat.

Wendy was a great hostess, welcoming us on Sunday morning with tea and treats—even though we were just dropping our bags. She recommended the Bush Bar & Bistro for dinner, which was superb. After a good night’s sleep, we all enjoyed a traditional Irish breakfast, with Irish bacon and sausages, eggs, stewed tomato, mushrooms, soda bread and toast, along with cereal, fruit and yogurt.

But Monday’s main attraction was two big houses, both part of the National Trust. The Big House novel is a genre of Irish literature, where the action unfolds in a generally rundown building that falls apart (or burns) by the book’s end.

Upstairs and downstairs

On the tour of Castle Coole, home to the earls of Belmore, we were ushered in the big front doors as honored guests at an evening fete. The 100-room Georgian mansion was built in the late 1700s with symmetry in mind, false doors and fake columns used as needed to maintain the overall balance.

The mansion seems to pop out of the top of the field where it sits, which was the intent of the design. There are no doors at the back of the house where people could wander outside and spoil the view. However, strategic floor-length windows did open out to wide steps, so authorized wandering actually was possible.

After seeing how our betters lived, we were ushered downstairs to the servants’ level. The National Trust had to pour a lot of concrete to level the steps, which had been worn down by constant use. The docent turned out the lights, simulating the semi-darkness where servants worked, low candles doing little to dispel the gloom. She said a worker interviewed in the 1950s said servants would walk down the main corridor with a hand lightly touching the wall as a wayfinding device.

We saw the kitchen, wine corking room and housekeeper’s room. The butler’s rooms will be open soon, a reason to come back.

FlorenceCourt (2)
Florence Court suffered heavy fire damage in the 1950s.

Burning down the (big) house

After a leisurely lunch, we visited Florence Court, which actually did burn in the 1950s, damaging two-thirds of the mansion. Fortunately, many of the baroque plaster ceilings survived, including the elaborate ceiling in the dining room that was saved when workman drilled several holes into it to drain water from the upper story after the fire.

The fire broke out in the wee hours of March 22, 1955, caused by faulty electrical wiring in the floorboards near Lady Enniskillen’s bedroom. She was no spring chicken, but she raised the staff, then ran a half-mile in her night clothes to summon the fire brigade from the nearest telephone. Our docent said the lord had only just reluctantly allowed electricity in the house but drew the line at a telephone.

Although Florence Court looks bigger from the outside, we were surprised to learn that Castle Coole actually has more rooms. But Florence Court does have a large, tri-sectioned walled garden that was a perfect way to cap the day.

A special thanks to the National Trust staff at Crom, Castle Coole and Florence Court for warm welcomes, tasty treats and overall good craic. We are especially grateful to the staffer who drove us in a golf cart from the car park to the mansion at Florence Court so we could catch the next tour and later cycled around the grounds to find Eileen and deliver the book she had bought because the visitor center was about to close.

Driving the Boat. That’s the Way You Do It.

I finally got to drive the boat. It only took 52 years, two disinterested women and a boy too young to steer, but hey, I’ll take it.

Brits also got the day off Monday, courtesy of a second bank holiday in May. Our friend Eileen offered to drive us to Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to visit several National Trust properties and overnight at a B&B.

That’s how we wound up Sunday afternoon on Upper Lough Erne at the Crom estate, me at the helm of a small aluminum boat with a standard outboard motor. I know, small potatoes, but these small pleasures were denied me growing up.

Chores, I’ve done a few

As the youngest of five, I always got the ass-end of the chore stick. Washing the dishes? No, I had to dry them, the dish cloth becoming sodden with each plate or bowl, forcing me to wipe more and more to get them sufficiently dry.

Drive the tractor on the farm? Of course not! I was the boy pulling the weeds in what seemed to be a 10-acre garden that was perpetually in sunlight.

Actually, we didn’t do much (OK, any) boating after we moved to Tennessee when I was 9, but I do remember Dad or my oldest brother puttering us around Lake Juliana in Florida during family vacations in an aluminum boat with an Evinrude outboard at the rear. Or fishing with our grandfather (Pooch) and his reminders that one peed off the side of the boat. Anything more substantial required a trip back on land, which was greatly discouraged.

So driving the boat was a big deal. And a whole lot of fun. The lough is wide, with floating reeds and lilypads everywhere. We saw swans, swan nests, ducks, a heron flying low and a couple of cormorants. The estate features a home still in family hands and off limits for tours, but you could see the remains of the former home and learn more about the history of the estate in the visitors’ center, located in a former stable.

The estate has several holiday cottages, a campsite and a handful of “glamping pods,” basically small, semi-circular concrete tunnels below the visitors’ center with no windows save for the front door and sidelights. We found out from a worker that the glamping pods were former pig sties.

Sunburn? What sunburn?

Our afternoon of boating flew by, with us zipping to and fro in the Matt-led boat. At the risk of boasting, I felt like a natural boater, even when my companions tried to convince me a rush of reeds was a continuation of the lough and I had to carefully back our way out of a tight spot.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the sun. The morning had been gray, and showers were forecast. So none of us thought about sunscreen—until the brilliant sun shone through the clouds not 15 minutes after we started a two-and-a-half hour boat trip. I did my best to block the sun and did a fairly good job—except for my rudder hand, which had turned bright red by the end of our journey.

A little sunburn, however, was a small price to pay for my first boat trip in the captain’s seat.