Crom Estate is the star of TV ’s Blandings,but who really lives in a castle like this?
Viscount Crichton, who will inherit this Fermanagh pile from his father, the Earl of Erne, tells Ivan Little about the pressures of preserving the property.
Tucked away in a tricky-to-find corner of Co Fermanagh, with its fairy-tale castle encircled by the shimmering waters of Lough Erne and boasting long and magical walks past mystical towers, boathouses and the oldest and most imposing yew trees in Ireland, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of the Crom estate near Newtownbutler.
For years, it’s been repeatedly hailed as a hidden gem, a jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s rich heritage, but for the Earl of Erne and his son Viscount Crichton, who have to maintain the castle in the 1,900-acre estate, all that glitters has definitely not been golden.
For the downside of Crom Castle is the upkeep. And in recent times the Viscount — who once hankered after an acting career — has launched a series of dramatic initiatives in a bid to cope with the soaring costs of the castle which has been the ancestral home of his family for 400 years and which he will inherit one day from his father Lord Erne.
The passion of Crichton for the place is admirable. Matched only by his caution.
“The bills are astronomical at the moment” he says.
“Oil, heating, electricity, insurance and rates all have to be covered and then there’s the general expense of keeping the castle in good repair which is obviously vitally important.”
Tonight, a documentary on BBC One Northern Ireland called Keeping the Castle will tell the story of what John Crichton and his father have been doing to ensure the survival of Crom, with the Viscount in particular raising the commercial profile of the west wing of the property.
“At first we were reluctant to let the cameras in. Some other similar programmes in the past have been ghastly. And we didn’t want to be portrayed like that.
“However, we met the people from the production company in Belfast and we liked what they had to say,” says Viscount Crichton who lives something of a ‘double’ life between Fermanagh and London, where he has a thriving property business.
The cameras follow the Viscount on his travels between London and Crom Castle, which he tries to visit once a month and which has a double life of its own.
His ‘fiercely private’ parents, the Earl and Countess of Erne, live in the main part of the castle which is not open to the public.
But, about 10 years ago, the viscount, who is the only son in the family, was handed over the west wing of the property as his home in Ireland and also to turn it into a commercial enterprise.
“Essentially they are two separate houses” adds the Viscount.
But it’s proved to be a perfect marriage with the west wing hired out for weddings and rentals for the likes of family reunions and small conferences without impinging on the privacy of the Earl and the Countess.
John, who is 41 and single, adds: “Ever since the weddings of Posh and Becks and Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, people have wanted to get married in big houses. And it’s been a very successful venture for us.
“We are doing our best to keep the house in the way, and with the respect, it deserves.
“We are not out to make a massive profit. We want to keep the family there, to enjoy the castle and to keep the bills down.
“We have been one of the last big houses in Northern Ireland to go commercial, but we are not rolling in money so we have to use it,” says John, who is trying to attract more visitors not only to his castle but also to his beloved Fermanagh, the forgotten county as he calls it.
“I took a stand at a wedding fair in Belfast not so long ago and someone asked me what I was promoting. I said Crom Castle. And they wondered where it was. I replied Fermanagh. And they asked where Fermanagh was.”
Crom has also been put on the map recently by the screening of the new Sunday night BBC TV costume drama, Blandings, which was adapted from PG Wodehouse’s novels and which was filmed at the castle over two months last year.
Crom beat off stiff competition from a number of other major houses around Northern Ireland and it has been a significant fillip for the castle’s finances.
For John Crichton it was also a personal dream come true after he found himself as part of the cast in the castle, albeit downstairs rather than upstairs.
He says: “The producers thought it would be very amusing to have me — the part owner of the castle — as an under-butler in my own house. But I lapped it up. It was a great opportunity and a lot of fun, really.My right-hand man here, Noel Johnston, who manages the west wing at Crom, also had a small role along with his wife Amanda.
“In my teens, I genuinely did want to pursue acting or television presenting as my career. I went to Ulster Television for two weeks on work experience and I tried to get into drama school in England, but it wasn’t to be. And actually at the end of the day, I don’t think it was the life that was meant for me.
So it was a fantastic experience for me to have a TV series happening in my home and to be allowed pretty much everywhere on the filming of Blandings.”
John says that he mucked in from the start. “I made tea for everyone and the west wing was very much like the engine room of the whole thing.
The dressing rooms were there along with the waiting rooms and the green room, while most of the filming was done in the main part of the castle
“The film company were very accommodating to my parents and let them get on with their busy lives.”
The grounds of the Crom estate — which been managed by the National Trust since 1987 — have also been seen in all their splendour in the series, which John Crichton says wasn’t just a boost for the castle but for Co Fermanagh as a whole. He adds: “Taxi firms, hotels, bars, restaurants and shops all benefitted. People were very busy, I’m glad to say.”
The all-star cast from the comedy period drama — including Jennifer Saunders, Timothy Spall and David Walliams — also fell in love with Crom Castle, with Walliams, choosing to live in the west wing after decamping from a hotel in Enniskillen.
Saunders stayed in a cottage on the estate and tweeted that it ‘was a small piece of heaven, well a large piece actually’.
Walliams, who said that he had never had so many cups of tea in his life, famously ‘gatecrashed’ a wedding in the west wing and spread the news on social networking sites about Crom, which was portrayed as the aristocratic home of the fictional Lord Emsworth in Shropshire. The remarkable popularity of the ITV series Downton Abbey has lured thousands of tourists to Highclere Castle on the borders of Hampshire and Berkshire.
But even with the restricted access to Crom, officials there have already noticed an upturn in interest in the part of the castle which is open to the public.
“It is certainly gathering momentum, with hits on our website and inquiries about weddings,” says the Viscount who is plain old John Crichton in London where he runs a business searching for properties for clients from all over the world.
“I gained lots of experience working for estate agents in London before going out on my own and I take the pain out of buying properties for people who maybe don’t have the time to do the house-hunting and purchasing on their own.”
The property market is of course beset with huge difficulties in the current recession.
But that is another reason why people go to a bespoke property search company, says John who adds: “There’s a lot of housing stock out there at the moment and prospective buyers will come to people like me because we know the market and the estate agents very well.”
Operating his own business has allowed John Crichton more freedom to get back to Crom. But it’s still not as often as he would wish. “I love the place. And I would like to be back there a lot more. But it all depends on circumstances.”
In the meantime, Viscount Crichton, who clearly feels a deep sense of responsibility for the future of the castle, has to perform a delicate balancing act, juggling his time between the quiet calm of Crom and the oh-so-different world of London.
He relaxes by fishing, ski-ing and going to the cinema. But the acting bug has never left him.
He says: “Not at all. I enjoy the world of amateur dramatics and I’ve taken part in four or five plays with a number of different companies. But there’s a lot of time commitment over what can be as long as a three-month period.”
As for Blandings, which is set in 1929, John Crichton, who's a big PG Wodehouse fan, is hoping that he could be donning his under-butler’s uniform again.
“We would definitely welcome the dozens of cast and crew back here for a second series. But we haven’t heard anything from the BBC yet.
“It all depends on the viewing figures which have been very encouraging so far with around five million people watching every week. And that’s not bad for a programme which goes out at teatime on a Sunday.”
Keeping the Castle, BBC One NI, tonight; Blandings, BBC One NI, Sunday, 6.30pm. For information on hiring facilities at Crom Castle tel: 028 6773 8004 or email: email@example.com