Tales with a Twist: Life in an Enniskillen country pile
When Liz and Arthur Cadden returned home after 12 years in the UK, they bought a site to build a new house. However, chance led to something completely different.
Will Rogers the American cowboy/philosopher/social commentator once said that a stranger is just a friend he hadn't met yet.
It's a sentiment that Enniskillen couple Liz and Arthur Cadden would, no doubt, echo - after all, they were once handed a lucrative business by a total stranger who happened to walk into their glass and china shop in Manchester. "A gentleman walked into the shop one day, he said he was from Northern Ireland and that he knew more about us than we knew about him. Those were his exact words," Arthur says. "He said he was an ex bank manager and he had an export company, and he wanted someone to take over. 'You're from Ireland, I want someone Irish to enjoy the benefits', he said, and he sold us the business for a pound."
If a pessimist is, as Winston Churchill once observed, a person who sees difficulty in every opportunity, while an optimist is a person who sees opportunity in every difficulty, then Liz and Arthur are obviously true optimists. Most people would be suspicious, looking for the catch, but this intrepid couple seized the opportunity presented by the stranger and never looked back.
The company in question supplied china and Scottish cashmere to cruise ships that operated out of Los Angeles and, within two weeks, the couple were in America signing contracts with the cruise companies. They saw the company owner only one more time - for lunch, before he returned to Ireland, but their business went from strength to strength.
Of course their success lives in the fact that they are both brilliant business people. Liz was steeped in the world of business - her late father had Woolworth-type stores in the North and was one of the first Irish businesspeople to import products from China. Both she and Arthur, who is one of eight children, had studied business and always intended going into retail.
They emigrated from Enniskillen to Manchester while in their mid-20s, with two young children, and built up their glass and china shop from nothing.
"That was the time glass and china were very specialised. When we took on the new business for the cruise liners, we used to get the stock into our garage, turn it around and ship it off again. It was as simple as that and not very glamorous at all," says Liz with a laugh, noting that sadly there was no requirement to actually take the cruises to far-flung places themselves.
After 12 years in England, the couple, who had met in Enniskillen rugby club when they were both 18, decided to return to Northern Ireland with their growing family - at this stage they had their four children, David, Michael, Conor and Rachel. They say they had gone to England to spread their wings, and decided to return to the North in 1992 to rear their family where they themselves had been brought up. Shortly after returning home, they sold the shop and cruise-ship business and started afresh.
"We looked at the potential there, and decided tourism would be the best thing," says Liz.
Liz's dad had bought Lusty Beg island, and the pair could see an opportunity to develop it. It was different to retail - according to Liz, it's 24/7 and you're only as good as your last event, but they enjoyed it from the get-go. At first, their main business was corporate - the couple ran the island as an adventure centre for team-building exercises, staff-incentive schemes and group entertainment, and it flourished.
Then in 2007, the recession hit them. "We had been really busy with team-building, corporate hospitality - we could have four different groups in the one day - then, suddenly, we had to diversify," says Liz, adding, "it just fell off the cliff, there was nothing there any more".
Arthur adds "We were at the luxury end of the market, in terms of taking your staff off for a break. The banks and financial institutions were the first ones to go - they couldn't be seen to be spending money, they had to cut back - then others followed."
The Caddens, of course, are made of strong mettle and they immediately decided to change tack. Where pessimists only see problems, optimists like the Caddens see challenges. Lusty Beg is a 75-acre island, and even though it's only a five-minute ferry ride from the mainland, there is no footfall. There always has to be a reason for people to visit. "Lusty Beg is in the middle of Lough Erne. We don't have anybody walking past our door. We had to attract everybody," says Arthur.
They hit on the idea of making it a wedding destination. "We had always done a certain amount of weddings, just as we'd always done a certain amount of holidays and weekend breaks, but we decided to concentrate on them. The wedding market has changed so much. Everyone is looking for something different, which suits us. An island you bring your guests to is certainly different," says Liz.
The location took off, and in the past few years they have had several weddings booked in every week, with 130 alone planned for 2015. Arthur has an explanation for one aspect of their success. "Fermanagh has always been an export county, there's no indigenous industry; all our students are educated in Belfast, Dublin, London or Scotland and they meet partners abroad, so if you're returning home to get married, it's more special to get married on an island," he says.
However, weddings of locals form only a small percentage of their business - Lusty Beg has universal appeal. The real attraction is the romance of the location. They can provide idyllic woodland and waterfront locations for civil ceremonies and they lay on many extras for the days leading up to and after the wedding - off-road driving, canoeing, clay-pigeon shooting. Their experience from the team-building days hasn't gone to waste. There's also the recently built spa - which uses the luxurious, natural seaweed range Voya, from Sligo - as well as the great food and the excellent accommodation.
The island can accommodate 160 guests in totality; the lakeside Courtyard Hotel offers bed and breakfast, while the self-catering option consists of delightful individual four-star lodges and three-star chalets, all nestled in the lush woodlands bordering the lake.
"There's a very informal atmosphere - if a wedding party takes over the island, it feels like their village. Families don't often have the chance to get together like that," says Liz. And of course they can leave all the nitty-gritty and worry of the wedding plans to the professionals.
Liz and Michael's two older sons, David and Michael, both in their early 30s, have joined them in the business and they credit them with much of their success. "The input of youth is very important. When it comes to things like digital marketing, we're old fossils. We were slow to realise its value. They use it well," Arthur acknowledges. Their other children - Conor, who works in Google, and Rachel, who is studying for the bar - are both based in Dublin.
Despite the recession, they also decided to expand, and opened another hotel and a bar. "Recession creates opportunities, and the boys have families, so there's an energy for expansion with them," says Arthur.
The bar, called Pat's Bar, is smack in the centre of Enniskillen; there they concentrate on food and providing big screens for sports events and a decent smoking area.
Their hotel, the Enniskillen Hotel, is boutique-style, with 35 rooms. "When we started it, we thought it was just a matter of carpets and curtains, but it wasn't right so we stripped it right back and created something a bit more sophisticated," says Liz. Arthur expands with a laugh: "We avoided the colours gold and red. I think you'll find them in most hotels, particularly in the large chains."
"I do all the interiors," says Liz. "You work out your market and hopefully you meet that with the style you use to decorate."
Liz did all the interiors in their home too, which is a magnificent period property, in picture-postcard surroundings, a short drive from the centre of Enniskillen, yet it is deep in the Fermanagh countryside
They've lived here for 14 years. "What happened was when we came back from Manchester we had a temporary house, but we were going to build, and we bought a plot. For some reason, years went by and we never started to build. Then one day we looked in the paper and we saw this, and I said, 'right that's it'," Liz recalls.
The house dates from two different periods - the back of it, which was a farmhouse, dates from the 1740s, plantation times, but the more grand, high-ceilinged front, full of lofty reception rooms, dates from 1860.
The house had been lived in by the same family for many years and the last of the family were two single sisters who farmed the land. Liz and Arthur also bought the land and have let it to a local farmer, though they do use part of it for their horses and donkeys.
They cultivate some of the land as well, and grow salads and herbs for the restaurants. "We have great notions of growing vegetables for the restaurants but it's a lot of extra work," Liz explains.
Luckily when it came to the interiors, the sisters had no interest in modernising the house, which is 7,000 sq ft, so all the lovely features - the original floorboards, the plaster work, the period mantelpieces - were intact when the Caddens took over. However, they did do some structural work, including rewiring. "The roof had to come off - all the lead was gone, but the slates were all perfect and the rafters were too; we just gave it a wee bit of TLC," the genial Arthur explains.
"We did a lot of work on the outbuildings," says Liz. "These are all the original windows, which are 160 years old, but we took them out, and repaired and replaced them, we tried to save the glass as well where possible."
Inside the house, very little re-modelling was required. "The only thing we've done in this room is put in three radiators and maybe repair a bit of plasterwork," says Liz, referring to the drawing room.
Liz tries to ensure that the furniture she buys to furnish the rooms dates from the 1860s, to keep the integrity of everything together. And, as furniture from that period is usually quite ornate, she has decided to keep the background in each room as simple as possible.
To furnish 7,000 sq ft - four reception and six bedrooms - is a challenge; to do so while being faithful to the period as Arthur and Liz chose to do, is quite a feat. Luckily, it's a labour of love. "My ideal day out is to spend it at an auction," Liz says with a laugh, adding, "I get so excited at auctions. We always underbid a wee bit on ten things, maybe, and if we win three of the ten - that's the kick I get out of it."
The Waterford chandelier in the drawing room is one of the few things not bought at auction. It's a memento from their china shop in Manchester, where it used to hang in the window. Not that Liz and Arthur actually need any reminders of their retail history - they still often dabble a bit by selling on any auction buys that they decide aren't suitable for the house.
"I never think anything here is not for sale - that's the retailer in me," Liz confesses with a laugh.
Lusty Beg Island and the Enniskillen Hotel are now offering a combined four-day package including dinner, lunch and an impressive line-up of activities for just £495 pps. Lusty Beg Island, Boa Island, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, see lustybegisland.com; The Eniskillen Hotel, 72 Forthill St, Eniskillen, Co Fermanagh, see enniskillenhotel.com
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