Shining a light on County Down: Our short break in a lighthouse keeper's cottage
We're going to a stay in a nightclub!" my daughter took to announcing to everyone the week before our trip. In fact, our destination was a lighthouse, although in the world of a three-year-old, it's possibly the same thing. Worthy of the same level of excitement anyhow.
Our holiday was to be a long weekend in one of the Irish Landmark Trust lighthouses. Irish Landmark Trust is an all-island non-profit organisation which finds unusual properties that are in need of conservation, and sympathetically restores them using conservation architects. The work finds a balance between sympathy with their original state and accommodation that is suitable (ie comfortable enough) for today's holidaymaker.
As well as several lighthouses, the Trust's properties, which are held on 50-year leases from their owners, include schoolhouses, castles, garrison houses and gate lodges.
We were staying in the JP Sloop, the lightkeeper's cottage at the St John's Point Lighthouse Station in Killough, Co Down. The lighthouse itself, which came into service in 1844, is a dramatic yellow and black structure. Brendan Behan was involved in the painting of it at one stage - his father, a lighthouse painter, is said to have roped him in, although his work was deemed unimpressive. At 40m high, it is the tallest on-shore lighthouse in Ireland, and is still a working lighthouse, used by the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Having spotted it on approach, Herself was practically hysterical with excitement by the time we reached it; for a small child, staying in a lighthouse is the stuff of fantasy.
The fact that we weren't allowed actually into the lighthouse itself, something I thought might be the cause of major disappointment on arrival, seemed immaterial to her. Close proximity was enough, she spent the first hour scooting happily about its exterior.
The grounds are a paradise for a child to explore. Immediately surrounding the house is a paved yard closed in with a wall, excellent for Herself on said scooter. A front terrace overlooking the sea made the perfect place for our post-drive tea and sandwiches. The lighthouse sits at the coast edge, so there is rocky terrain and a stony beach for further investigation on your doorstep.
Many of the Trust's properties sleep only two people, and seem more pitched towards a romantic weekend away; they seem particularly popular with men planning elaborate marriage proposals.
Our cottage slept four - one very large double room and one twin-bed room. There is also a living room, spacious kitchen-dining room, bathroom and shower room. The decor is vaguely maritime, and while there is a period air to the place, it all feels very bright, airy, robust and young-child friendly. A second property on the site allows for stays by larger groups, making this one of the most family friendly of the Trust's properties.
Gas-fired central heating meant that exposed as the situation of the cottage is, the house at all times felt homey (we visited in March for three nights - a minimum of two nights is required). The kitchen includes an electric oven, microwave, dishwasher and washing machine, and was well-stocked with basics,
As a person for whom Van Morrison was a soundtrack to my childhood, I insisted on a trip to Coney Island, immortalised on his album Avalon Sunset, first. Coney Island itself is not an island, but a stretch of houses, so manage your expectations. There is a strip of beach though, so it's a good spot for a walk.
Afternoon tea and scones is always a priority for us on a staycation, which meant Rowallane Garden was our next stop. Originally planted in the 19th Century, the grounds are a mixture of manicured and informal. The restaurant serves a good lunch, the food felt homemade and there were reasonable kids' options (ie sandwiches involving little more than bread, which a fussy-when-away eater would actually eat).
Afterwards we strolled through the grounds; a mixture of walled gardens and open fields.
For the rest of this month, they are hosting a Mindfulness Meander from 10am-6pm each day, a self-led walk around the gardens encouraging a moment to take time out. Today from 11am-4pm there is a Ghosts and Gourds Spectacular in the grounds in honour of Halloween, with a Tree Terror Trail, pumpkin carving and face painting.
As some in our party are Game Of Thrones fans, we made a brief pilgrimage to Castle Ward, an 18th Century mansion with gothic undertones. The castle's farmyard is, of course, the site of Winterfell, the GOT's most famous location, and the surrounding area has also provided backdrop for several scenes - they also make for a nice woodlands walk. For real fans, there is a replica of the Winterfell Archery Range in the courtyard which is similar to that in the actual series.
Three kilometres from Downpatrick, Struell Wells is a set of four holy wells situated in a field in a quiet spot, a valley between a rocky outcrop and a small hill. It is one of the most famous of all the wells in Ireland dedicated to St Patrick. Usually, ruins would not be for me, despite studying history in college, I find them relentlessly boring, but it's amazing what appears like an ideal playground to a three-year-old. We spent a lovely peaceful hour here strolling between the structures, which include women's and men's bathing wells, and examining the small fountain. Rather a lot remains - this is not one of those tiny bit of crumbling wall situations; the men's bathing well has a dressing room with stone seats and a sunken pool.
But what really made this trip was the excitement of the cottage. The Trust's makeovers have been so sensitively rendered that a stay in one of their properties will feel utterly unlike any other self-catering accommodation in the country, but rather a glimpse into a hidden past.
The Irish Landmark Trust is a non-profit organisation that finds interesting and unusual properties that are in need of conservation, and gives them new life. It has lighthouses, schoolhouses, castles, gate lodges and stately apartments, all sensitively restored. A stay in an Irish Landmark property is memorable and comfortable. The properties are elegant and without any manufactured lifestyle gimmicks. Trustees and founders, along with a growing network of property owners, help fulfil the trust’s aims as an educational charity and as a leader in conservation practices. For a full list of properties, special offers and booking information visit irishlandmark.com.