Margaret Jennings felt like the lady of the house on a stay at Castle Durrow in Laois. Here is her experience.
I was wondering if the nuns would disapprove, as I sat decadently in the sunshine on a late Sunday afternoon, swinging my legs and sipping chilled Prosecco, overlooking the vast sweep of the fabulous gardens at Castle Durrow Country House Hotel, in County Laois.
You can take a convent-educated girl out of the convent, but you can’t take the convent out of the girl, or something to that effect.
The nuns were on my mind, because the 300-year- old luxurious country mansion, secluded just a driveway in from the centre of Durrow village, was once a Presentation Order primary and secondary school.
It’s almost 30 years now since the doors that swung open to the raucous sounds of local children and teenagers, were closed, leaving the magnificent building unoccupied for 11 years, until the current owners Peter and Shelly Stokes rescued it in 1998.
Let’s get this straight though – you wouldn’t know now, it had once been a convent school. Former pupils who I’m told come back to visit their alma mater, must marvel at the extensive renovations and restoration that Peter and Shelly have meticulously carried out, taking over four years tocomplete, after their initial purchase.
Like other historic country house hotels in Ireland, it started out as a gentrified home, built in 1716 by Captain William Flower for his family.
And when further down the line they were forced to sell the then 5000 acre estate in 1922, it was bought by a Mr Maher from Kilkenny who seemed mostly interested in the timber reserves - exporting all the magnificient Oak trees, and sadly depleting most of the forest surrounding the big old house in the process.
I imagine those walls, if they could talk, would have many a juicy tale to tell over those threecenturies.
It’s inevitable that my mind wanders – and wonders - about Castle Durrow’s past inhabitants, because Peter and Shelly have managed to create that magical combination of tastefully respecting its roots - with for instance, the original stained glass windows, fire places and magnificent plastered ceilings all restored to their former glory - while creating an ambience that is contemporarily classy, without being stuffy.
Calling the loos in the public area ‘Lords’ and ‘Ladies’ is a case in point, though I did get a royal kick out of tugging the pull-handle chain on the high-level toilet cistern in the beautifully maintained bathroom, which by the way had pure cotton rolled white handtowels - always a classy touch.
The link between the centuries has also been maintained in the Master bedrooms, located on thefirst floor in the main part of the house; each one is individually named after either the previousowners of Castle Durrow who lived there, or the daughters of the current owners.
We got to stay in the spacious opulently decorated room called Miss Leyah, (the name of one of Peter and Shelly’s daughters) with its high ceilings, richly designed wallpaper, Irish oak floor and superking-sized four-poster bed.
Looking at the south facing view of the gardens though the full length wooden sash windows, both here and in the bathroom, I fantasised that I was indeed a lady of the house.
The tapestries, glistening chandeliers, antique furniture and artifacts found throughout the hotel have been hand-picked by Shelly at international fairs; she has exquisite taste.
All the bedrooms including the Deluxe, Oriental, and Rose Yard, as well as the Master rooms each have their own individual style; no two exactly alike.
We had dinner in the award-winning White Lady restaurant overlooking the grounds, where the high standard of the food by head chef, Graham Gallagher, matched the first-class ambience.
For my starter I opted for oak-smoked salmon and cucumber sushi rolls, with pickled ginger, wasabi and wasabi seeds and sweet soy dipping sauce.
For the main course I had oven baked seabream fillet with spring onions, tomato, olive and basil, sauté potatoes and baby greens, with lemon and herb buerre blanc.
The crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, from the wine menu, was delicious too.
The trio of ice-creams for dessert had just the right amount of lip-smacking frosty sweetness to finish off what was a delicious meal.
A buffet breakfast with Full Irish is also served in the restaurant. A surprise accompaniment to my creamy porridge were the mouth watering fresh raspberries.
Afterwards, I got a chance to steal a few more of those berries in the vegetable plot.
We took a tour of the gardens on the 50 acre estate, with head gardener Bart, which included the lush lawns with colourful herbaceous borders, the courtyard, the herb parterre – raided by the kitchen on a daily basis – and the orchard.
Peter and Shelly have adopted the same approach to the grounds as to the hotel; the gardens ar continually being renovated and restored with the same TLC. They have even started to plant oak trees again.
It’s clear that this respect for the estate, permeates down to the staff, who are warm and friendly.
Within half an hour of our arrival to Castle Durrow three of them had separately bemoaned that a 300-year- old tree which held pride of place in the southern grounds, had toppled over during the night a few days earlier; it was big news, it was like there had been a death.
If the nuns are still around, they might light a candle for the Stokes family’s miraculous revival of this gem, from its abandoned state. Captain William Flower would probably raise a glass of fine port in gratitude.
Midweek deals start from €210 per room, (weekend deals, from €235) including a four-course dinner and a full Irish breakfast, based on two people sharing. Upgrade options are available.
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