Clodagh Finn says there is plenty to fuss about in the lakes, mountains and islands of County Fermanagh.
A pheasant flies up out of the long grass as we bump over the potholes on the winding approach to Belle Isle Castle near Carrybridge in Fermanagh. Two donkeys - introduced later as Ollie and Cosmo - are looking expectantly over a heavy wooden gate, and birds are swirling overhead.
You’d be inclined to say you’d stumbled on a rural idyll, but a person travelling in their own country would never say such a thing in case, heaven forfend, they were accused of having an overblown sense of national pride. Yet, hyperbole aside, can anybody tell me why we don’t make more fuss of Fermanagh? It is a stunning county with wonderful places to stay, lots to do and breath-stopping scenery.
There is the rain of course - it is said to be the wettest place in Europe — but it is also, surely, one of the most beautiful with its lakes, mountains and forests. At times, in fact, it seems there is at least as much water as dry land. The lakes are generously scattered on the landscape like the giant beads of a necklace that has snapped and flung its glittering contents far and wide.
Upper Lough Erne is a constant companion and we drive to an island on its northern tip to get to Belle Isle. The castle itself, inhabited since the 12th century, is set on an impressive 470-acre estate. We crunch over the gravel to the courtyard apartments and turn the key in Willow cottage to find a bright, airy and homely cottage.
Not homely in any real sense, of course, because there is no chaos or family detritus here: clean linen is neatly stacked in the hot press, everything is pristine and in place, and there is a bottle of wine waiting for us on the kitchen table.Nothing stays that way for long.Outside, the family across the courtyard is firing up one of the supplied barbecues but you don’t have to cater for yourself. The extensive literature left by our hosts includes a list of the best restaurants in nearby Enniskillen.
Belle Isle is a Blue Book destination, among a collection of exceptional Irish country house hotels, manor houses, castles and restaurants, and it shows. Even though we are in the self-catering cottages, the attention to detail and the service is five-star. There’s a warm welcome and advice about where to go and what to see.
We take up the suggestion of a trip to the Marble Arch Caves and are led down through the damp ashwood forest under guide Brian Maguire’s watchful eye.
It feels as if we are entering the underworld. Inside, a boatman is waiting. He’s not Charon, the ferryman of the dead, because he tells you quite deadpan that 1.5 million people have passed through these caves in the last 30 years and they haven’t lost a single soul yet.
It is strangely comforting as we set out on a tour of the caves which cover 1.5km, narrowing in places to a crack and opening up, at others, to be as high as a cathedral and as big as football pitch.
Our guide hits the perfect pitch between science and entertainment. One statistic stands out for this visitor: the stalactites, that are already several centimetres long, grow at a rate of a single centimetre every thousand years.
“That’s a right long period of time,” somebody remarks.
We re-emerge into daylight and take a short drive to Florence Court, the sumptuous 18th-century home of the Earls of Enniskillen.
The National Trust has done a magnificent job restoring the house and the tour is a real upstairs-downstairs view of life in the Big House. We hear about the Earl of Enniskillen fulminating when his toast arrived, cold, from the kitchen and a succession of cooks who left in high dudgeon.
Outside, a stroll around the expansive gardens reveals an impressive Ice House, a proto fridge with thick stone, egg-shaped walls that was sunk into the ground ensuring the glitterati had fine food and ice in their cocktails all year round.
Back at Belle Isle, you realise that a weekend is not nearly enough time to spend in this magical place. As the castle’s literature aptly puts it: “So much to do. So little to do. Find your own Fermanagh.”
We sit back and do nothing. But we’ll be back for the other Fermanagh.A cottage that sleeps four costs £75 (€95) a night in low season (weekends) and £55 (€70) midweek.
For more see belle-isle.com and www.irelandsbluebook.com
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