Walk of the week: Rossmore Lakes Co Monaghan
Published 27/02/2010 | 05:00
Mist sifted through the Monaghan lanes and hung thick among the redwoods, pines and spruce trees of Rossmore Forest Park. A pair of swans sailed like two white boats on Castle Lake, effortlessly graceful in that unconscious way swans have.
Jane and I threaded the tanglewood of a rhododendron tunnel towards a glow of pearly light, catching those magical glimpses so typical of a misty winter's afternoon -- swan down circling in an eddy, a mossy bough in a birch swamp, leafless twigs suspended weightless and without substantial form in the vaporous air.
It's been half a century since the Earls of Rossmore quit their castle and lake-indented lands on the outskirts of Monaghan town. The Coillte-owned woods stand full of grand trees. At the foot of Priestfield Lake, where lianas and half-drowned pines made serpent loops in the water, we came upon the shaggy spire of a giant redwood disappearing overhead into the mist.
A modest obelisk recorded the planting of the tree by Henry Cairnes Westenra, 4th Lord Rossmore, on his 11th birthday in 1862. Henry died young, and was succeeded by his brother Derrick, 5th Lord Rossmore, a "hot-headed, rather foolish youth, a noted patron of the turf". Derrick was a chum of Edward, Prince of Wales, at a time when that jolly gentleman was being kept waiting for his accession to the throne by his mother Victoria's inconvenient propensity to continue living. Wherever the Prince went to stay, shooting parties, port, cigars and assignations were sure to follow, and Derrick certainly enjoyed his full share.
We passed the fern-sprouting ruin of Lady Rossmore's Cottage, its interior sunk in moss and drifts of sycamore leaves, and went on through the foggy woods, kicking up leaf showers to release a rank stink of fox. Deep among the trees near Barnhill Lake lay a tumble of mossy stones -- a court tomb, perhaps 5,000 years old, silent and seldom visited. The walk led on between the Twin Lakes, their banks and waters all but invisible in the late afternoon's thickening mist. A moody, melancholic stroll.
Up on the empty terraces of Rossmore Castle in the murky twilight we found five flights of steps and a castellated turret. They are all that remains of one of Ireland's most extravagant Big Houses, built in 1827 by Henry Westenra, 3rd Lord Rossmore, in tremendous Gothic style.
Not everyone was thrilled with the plans. "The idea of transforming the beautiful face of our gracefully sloping hill," Rossmore's own son was moved to comment, "with grotesque terraces, straight lines and mathematical walks -- the point of the compasses ought to be poked into the eye of the fellow that proposed it."
However, the castle went ahead -- and like Topsy it grew, becoming a fabulous confection of towers and turrets, pepperpots and candle snuffers, oriel windows and crow-stepped battlements.
If you're going to build a castle, you might as well go for it big style. In 1858, Rossmore Castle was further extended. The number and variety of its windows caused much comment -- at the final count, there were 117 windows, in 53 styles. The drawing room, enlarged no fewer than five times, was so capacious it bulged the whole building out at one side. This mega-room was the result of a contest between the Rossmores and their neighbours and rivals, the Shirleys of Lough Fea, to see who could boast the largest room in Co Monaghan. Notwithstanding Rossmore's monstrous drawing room, it was Shirley who scooped the bays with a Great Hall completed by a minstrels' gallery and a giant beamed roof.
After its glorious heyday, the castle fell to the mundane affliction of dry rot, and was demolished in 1972. The Rossmores' run-down estate was parcelled out between local farmers and the Forestry. Jane and I paced the terraces and the steps in the misty half dark of evening, and I swear I could hear, out on the brink of belief, the swish of silk dresses and the rumble of cigar-smoke laughter.