Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Westport Ho!

Many years ago during a winter holiday in France with family 

- a trip that entailed a 14 hour journey through the night and saw us spill out of the car, bleary-eyed, disheveled and sleepy into the clear bright early morning sunlight that lit up the market town of Pont-St-Esprit, 

we visited a little town called Goudargues. A watercourse, shaded on either side by mature plane trees flows through the centre of the town earning it the name of "Venice Gardoise".

Last week I stayed in another quaint olde-world town that reminded me of Goudargues - with a little river running through the centre, also flanked on either side by mature trees. The shops, pubs and houses gaily painted in pinks, purples, creams, greens and blues. However despite it's continental appearance, this little town was not in France, but was instead on the West coast of Ireland - Westport in Co Mayo.

It was here in this small port on the west coast of Ireland - once home to Grace O'Malley the Pirate Queen

and where Croagh Patrick slopes gently to the sea

that I had holidayed as a child - an idyllic time then when I turned cartwheels, swam in the sea, built sandcastles, basked in the endless sunshine reading or daydreaming, fished, went pony trekking and spent as much time as I could in the little rowing boats.

Carefree and innocent, the words Cancer and Alzheimer's did not enter my vocabulary. A time when I believed that grown-ups knew everything. How simple life was during that childhood summer holiday.

Back then we had pitched our tent here at Westport House. 

Now decades later, I couldn't help but draw breath as I turned the corner onto Cinnamon Wharf and feeling as though I had stepped into a painting - memories flooded back as I drank in the sight of the old boat house,

where many summers ago I sat at the waters edge reading "Swallows and Amazons" - enraptured as reality and fiction blurred together into one. 

Today the late autumn colours transformed the boathouse.

The lake in front of the house was smaller than I remembered but still as lovely. Thankfully the new transition from lake with rowing boats into fun park was not obviously apparent due to the season.

There were still swans upon Westport Lake - 

however I am told that now during the summer the old rowing boats have disappeared - 

and in their place large white swan shaped pedal boats, but I was relieved that there were no signs of these to sully my reminiscing of evenings spent rowing out on the lake in the painted wooden rowing boats.

The Jetty 

As we strolled along through the woods

the path around the lake was even more beautiful than I recall, with it's thick carpet of autumn leaves.

In the grounds of the estate stands a ruined Church and graveyard,

crumbling gently as Nature reclaims it.

From Westport House we walked along the harbour

to the end of the Quay.

The Atlantic coastline from Westport is stunning! 

The atmospheric Clew Bay -

to Clare Island, guarding the entrance to the sheltered bay,

to Louisburgh and Old Head Beach,

where once a long time ago I paddled

and picnicked

upon the fine golden sands.

We left Old Head beach and

drove through the Connemara mountains  

along the Killary fjord

where in the midst of a mountainous wilderness of nowhere 

was Kylemore Abbey;

carved into the rugged mountains,

nestled above the lake

and straight from between the covers of a gothic novel. 

Kylemore was built by the Englishman Mitchell Henry as a wedding present for his wife Margaret in the 1860s but unfortunately Margaret died several years later in 1874. 

Surrounded by woodland, with the wild Connemara mountains as a backdrop, the six acre walled Victorian garden is the only garden in Ireland that is located in the middle of a bog. With 21 interlinked centrally heated glasshouses growing fruits such as bananas and grapes, it was so advanced for it's time that it was compared to Kew Gardens in London. 

The garden is now being restored - two of the glasshouses are complete along with 

the Head Gardener's House and workman's Bothy.

Inside The Bothy

Since the Abbey was bought in the 1920s by the Benedictine Nuns after they left Ypres, it was run as a girls boarding school (Mallory Towers more so than Hogwarts!) The school however was closed in 2010 and the Nuns have opened up the Abbey along with a Tea House and restaurant offering homemade food using fresh produce from the walled garden and a craft shop where they sell their handmade soap, pottery, jams and chocolate.

Be warned though - the Nuns know how to charge and the prices are exorbitant!

The Herb Garden within the walled garden

In the 1800s Mitchell Henry's grand design created hundreds of jobs for a region impoverished and recovering from cholera. Today the benefits of his legacy live on as tourists flock to the West Coast of Ireland and Kylemore Abbey. 

Mitchell Henry died on 22nd November 1910 and as I stood in the amazing walled garden that he had cultivated out of the wild bogland, I gave a little shiver as I realised that his demise was 103 years ago to the very day.


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