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.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

A Love of Old Books

An avid reader from an early age, I could usually be found with my head in a book.

But I have always had a passion for old books. 

There is something wonderful about an old book, not only in the promise of the story contained within the covers, but the very feel of the thick coarse pages, the vintage appearance (even if battered and tattered) and the tantalising "old book smell" that evokes a magical sense of nostalgia and intrigue enhancing the experience of enjoyment when reading such a book.


Old books do not have to be exquisitely bound first editions; dog-eared Puffin and Penguin vintage paperbacks have their own fascination and absorbing stories from another era.

This enthrallment simply cannot be captured with today's two-a-penny throw away paperbacks in the shops or indeed by staring at yet another screen in the form of a Kindle. (Practical though it may be, but then I have never been one for practicalities!)

These beautiful floral bound books are displayed in a French farmhouse

along with vintage books about rambling.

Now I am well aware of the potential hazards of collecting old books - the downward spiral when a collection becomes clutter that slowly starts to encroach upon living space; then the collector develops a reluctance to part with anything - thus transforming Collector into Hoarder; something I am determined I shall not do, (well - not to the extreme anyway!), yet old books have such a charm that I cannot help but want to display them. 

I confess I am rather envious of the stacks of old books that line the stairs, 

and are displayed in cabinets and upon tables at Trevoole Farm in Cornwall

One of my favourite old books that enthralls me every time I read it is Daphne Du Maurier's "Frenchman's Creek"; 

the cherished old worn copy that I possess purchased many years ago from a book sale in the Old Linenhall Library for the princely sum of 10 pence.

I am acutely conscious though that my precious copy is now so well-thumbed that it is in a precariously fragile state and I hesitate to reread it for fear of it disintegrating further.

Quite happily I will while away my time browsing through second hand bookshops oblivious as the day slips inexorably past, minutes turning into hours. Even whilst on holiday in Ville Franche Sur Mer, I could not resist the book stall at the Sunday flea market and my attention caught by the title and brightly illustrated cover, I succumbed to a book entitled "Fleurs De Jardin", - the pristine condition belying the fact that it is well over forty years old..

However when I awoke early on Saturday morning with the wind hurling fat raindrops upon my window and a hotness behind my eyes as a clue that a winter lurgy may be in the offing, I did not feel inclined in the slightest to venture forth from under the warmth of my duvet to visit the yearly book fair held in the old Country House Estate.

The lure of old books won over and I was rewarded for my efforts by the rain clouds clearing and the sun shining upon a rather soggy autumn morning. 

The country lanes were flooded and puddles were everywhere as I walked past Green Row,

and then through the woods along the lough shore

towards the Country Estate.

The fair was held in one of the buildings surrounding the courtyard - the very same building that in the past I have had a stall with my soaps on display during a different sort of fair.

Inside the light was dim and it was not easy to distinguish the titles of the rows upon rows of books filling the room. 

Dust particles danced in the thin slivers of light streaming through the small windows, but the shadowy gloom in the old stone vaulted building created an ethereal atmosphere and reminded me of being in an old library with spectres of writers past flitting from within the covers of antiquated manuscripts. Voices were unconsciously hushed as we perused old gardening books, leafed through historical scripts, and rummaged amongst dusty Agatha Christie novels occasionally interspersed with children's storybooks.

I noticed a rather sweet 1943 edition of Mary Poppins that I couldn't resist

and purchased - possibly with a view to a gift for M or L when they are older, or what is more likely - to adorn a shelf in La Petite Maison with some of my other nostalgic childhood memorabilia. (M and L can read it when they come to stay!)

The books on offer were varied; George Elliot's "Mill on the Floss" was squeezed between Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice" and a thick volume entitled "A History of English Literature",

whilst a 1957 copy of "Gone With The Wind" jostled alongside a copy of "Whiskey Galore", "Robinson Crusoe" and "The Three Musketeers".

To my delight I found a maroon bound book embossed with gold lettering (minus the dust jacket, but nonetheless still as appealing), containing three novels by Daphne Du Maurier, 

two of which "Rebecca" and "Jamaica Inn" I have read, but do not have copies of and the third - "Frenchman's Creek"; a fitting replacement for my worn out old edition, and it cost all of 50 pence!

Upon reflection however I find that I cannot bear to discard the old book, regardless of it's decrepit condition and so it will remain along with other favourites such as "The Enchanted April".

Oh Dear! Two copies of the same book, one of which I cannot bear to part with! Does this mean that I am on the slippery slope to becoming a hoarder?