‘My favourite thing about the island is looking out at the bay every morning and seeing the boats bobbing on the water’
Rathlin Island has a new tourist attraction, the restored Manor House. Husband and wife Brian and Genevieve McLernon tell Lee Henry about thei r plans for the guesthouse
The approach to Rathlin Island is choppy in mid-March, with the 10.30am ferry bobbing this way and that on the rising swell and signs of an incoming weather front etching lines of concern on the faces of the Italian tourists packed into the cabin.
It doesn't take Miss Marple to pick out the locals - they're either soundly sleeping through the 45-minute, eight-mile sailing from Ballycastle or casually reading newspapers. Meanwhile, your intrepid Belfast Telegraph photographer is saying goodbye to his breakfast out on deck.
For those with the sea legs to take a peek out one of the quaint little portholes, or venture starboard to brave the spray, however, Rathlin rises from the mist like a Grecian outpost, its dramatic cliff faces and rolling hills part of, but separate from, the rest of Northern Ireland.
When we finally set foot on terra firma, having to jump off the platform to avoid incoming tidal waves, we are welcomed with smiles all round and a glimpse of sunshine through the clouds. The residents of Rathlin Island have plans, big plans, and in 2017 they start with and, at present, at least, revolve around, the newly-refurbished Manor House.
The door is closed to keep out the draft, and no welcoming sign has yet been designed, but the message is clear regardless: Rathlin Island is open for business and pleasure. The Manor House Rathlin Island, to give this beautifully restored 18th century Georgian building its full 21st century title, is sure to be one of the island's biggest draws.
Originally built in the 1870s by the influential Gage family of English landowners, who purchased Rathlin in its entirety from Lord Antrim for the princely sum of £1,750 in 1746, the Manor House is, of course, a listed building, imposing but perfectly formed, visible above Rathlin harbour from way out in Church Bay. These days it offers 11 exquisitely decorated guestrooms in total - three single, six double, one family and one disabled access - and is owned by the National Trust but leased to Rathlin Development & Community Association (RDCA), which has, after a lengthy and somewhat laborious effort, managed to bring it back from the brink, and save it from years of rack and ruin.
At the helm are experienced B&B managers Genevieve and Brian McLernon. A husband and wife team who both hail from nearby Ballycastle, the McLernons took over the day-to-day running of the Manor House in late 2016, after impressing the RDCA board, and are now firmly ensconced as its foremost carers. 'It's literally a little bit of heaven,' beams Brian, and it's difficult to disagree.
The McLernon's beat off stiff competition from other parties who offered expressions of interest to run the Manor House partly because of their backgrounds. While Genevieve is from 'farming stock' and worked for many years as a nurse in Belfast, and Brian is owner of Waste Not Collectors and Recyclers, both learned the tricks of the hospitality trade while transforming a family home.
Over the past 20 years, the couple have made a roaring success of Ardaghmore Bed & Breakfast, formerly the McLernon family residence, located in prime real estate position 'up on the hill' on Ballycastle's North Street.
"When I was a child living there," recalls Brian, "there were maybe forty rooms available as B&Bs on North Street. After the ceasefire, tourists couldn't get a room, the town was so popular. People kept saying to me that we should open up our big house to visitors, and after getting early retirement, Genevieve went at it seriously. We added en suites to all the rooms and a friend and myself bought a boat, got our certificates and started taking guests out fishing, and we've had people coming back every year since."
When the McLernon's got word that the RDCA were on the look out for a trusted pair of hands to steer the Manor House into calmer waters, "we thought we'd push the boat out, if you'll pardon the pun," Brian quips. "Now, everyone is overjoyed to see it reopen. There are lights on at night, people see the fire lit. It's like the Pope has been elected! It's such a welcoming environment, Rathlin. A great wee community."
The Manor House was scheduled to open officially on December 7 last year, but the McLernon's had other ideas. Before the imminent arrival of a delegation from Stormont the following weekend, the people of Rathlin were invited to see the newly-restored house for themselves, try out the new seasonal menu, enjoy its tasteful décor and share in the thrill of its rejuvenation.
The Manor House is theirs, Brian argues, as much as anyone's. Without the industrious people of Rathlin's foresight, their expertise, their determination to make the most of what the island has to offer, the Manor House may very well have fallen further into dereliction.
"We had them all in on Sunday the week before the official opening, with soup and sandwiches served in the afternoon, and it was a marvellous turn out. There are 140 people living on the island and just over 70 people came. The following week, when the Stormont delegation arrived, the rest of the island showed up too. It was fantastic. We're glad to have them. It's very much about giving back to the whole community."
Although the McLernons often travelled to Rathlin while running Ardaghmore, to take in the air and enjoy one or more of eight promoted walks around the island with their four (now grown up) children and dogs in tow, for Genevieve the prospect of one day living there was never really an option. Today, however, Rathlin is home, and the McLernon's are learning to love it just as keenly as the locals.
"My favourite thing about living on the island is looking out at the bay every morning," says Genevieve. "Seeing the boats bobbing on the water. I do love that. I used to love doing the walks also, but we haven't been able to do any recently. We've just been too busy. There's always something to be done. But it's part of the plan. You have to make time for those kinds of things."
Foremost in their thoughts are the people of the island and with the Manor House already becoming something of a 'hub' for locals to advertise their wares and businesses - working in tandem, in that sense, with the local tourist information centre at the Boathouse - the benefits are already being shared around.
In the cosy snug located in an open-plan area beside the Manor House reception, two paintings by local artist Yvonne Braithwaite are hung in pride of place, with plans to hang more in the months ahead. Braithwaite has her artist's studio on the island, and her work perfectly suits and complements the Manor House interior and surroundings.
In the guestrooms, meanwhile, photographs by Rathlin resident Tom McDonnell have been blown up and printed on board, giving visitors a view of the island's ancient castle - affectionately known as Bruce's Castle after a reputed visit from King Robert I of Scotland in 1306 - located on the eastern flank of the island. They also reveal a little of Rathlin's varied flora and fauna and bring some colour into the rooms, otherwise kept neutral and painted white.
The Lighthouse Café and Island Restaurant downstairs provide similar views of the harbour, the bay and the mainland Northern Irish coastline, and whilst the accommodation is limited, the McLernon's have ambitions to eventually offer the Manor House as a wedding location, once their license has been attained. A marquee is in the offing, and the grounds are also in the process of being renovated, with vegetable gardens soon to give the chef access to homegrown produce. That is something of vital importance to Genevieve and Brian.
"Promoting local resources is very important to us," says Brian. "We have folks farming kelp here, otherwise known as seaweed, and they're doing a presentation this week for Marks & Spencer's. Plus, we have fresh lobster and crab. We can literally walk down to the water and lift them out. Fresh fish is freely available any time. There are also cattle and sheep on the island. There is a big, big demand for those cattle, though we can't use it here because it has to go to an abattoir before being sold.
"We intend to do small weddings during certain times of the year, once we get our license. The capacity would be around 80, if we can get a marquee. There are another couple of B&Bs and a youth hostel on the island. Laundry is a big thing for us, so we're hoping to piggyback with them on that. These are the kinds of things you need to think about when running a guesthouse."
Rathlin is, of course, something of a 'Mecca' for artists, and the Manor House has already welcomed its fair share. Tom McDonnell will be hosting photography workshops there in the near future and other artists regularly set up their easels on the Manor House front lawn to paint the view.
"There are always painters coming over in the ferry," Brian continues. "There were two fellas out there yesterday and they must have sat for four hours painting nonstop. I actually went over to see if they were asleep at one point! It's hard to know about the kind of footfall we can expect in summer, but you have to crawl before you can walk."
Duties are evenly allocated between the McLernons and their local staff, with Genevieve working closely with the chef to order in the requisite supplies and welcoming guests front of house, and Brian responsible for the day-to-day upkeep of the establishment, "fixing soap dispensers, washing windows, all that kind of thing".
So far, business has been brisk. Genevieve reveals that guests have arrived from all over Europe and beyond - France, Germany, England, Scotland, Holland and especially from Dublin - with Northern Irish tourists also on the rise. "There is so much interest in this place. It's something cool, something different.
"We've had a lot of people come to stay since we opened. Our weekends are always busy. St Patrick's Day weekend is fully booked, and we're looking forward to Easter. I think for years, especially during the Troubles, people from the south didn't come north, but they have started to again. The pound and the economy probably have a lot to do with it.
"Also, Rathlin is an island. It's an experience. We get people of all ages, a broad range of people, the whole gamut of the population. Hikers, photographers, musicians, artists, couples, families. Valentine's weekend was mid-term and we were filled with families who came to stay. We also have lots of people coming over from Ballycastle, people who have never been here before."
There is, of course, plenty to do, despite the island being only four miles from east to west and 2.5 miles from north to south. There are plenty of walks around the coastline and inland, and two lighthouses to act as landmarks, one of which, uniquely, shines its signal light from the ground floor to combat rising mist.
Come the spring and summer season, tourists can rent bicycles for the day and take bus tours around the island, particularly helpful to children, elderly and disabled visitors for whom a hike is off the cards, and a number of organised walking clubs can assist with guiding and route information.
An all-new ferry will soon make the crossing that little bit smoother and more regular, and no doubt make Rathlin even more of a must-see destination for international tourists scouring the Causeway Coast for Game of Thrones shooting locations, clear views of the Aurora Borealis and a taste of the island life. Rathlin is, after all, one of the very best places anywhere in Europe to experience the Northern Lights, with virtually no light pollution impeding the view.
"You get all the seasons here in a single day," beams Genevieve, again stopping to take in the sights. "Though the weather has been lovely here recently, we didn't get much snow last winter. Half a day and it was gone. It doesn't lie on the coast."
"I grew up in Ballycastle, home to 3,000 people," adds Brian. "Everyone knew everyone else's ma, their da, their granny, their uncle, their aunt, and you dare not do anything bad because someone would tell your ma, your da, your granny, your uncle, your aunt. It's the same on Rathlin, everyone knows each other.
"It's the type of island where time stands still. You find yourself waiting on the ferry coming in and suddenly talking the morning away with someone. One of the farmers might say, 'I have to get my stuff off the ferry quick because my sheep are lambing'. Then, the next day, I'll ask him how the lambing went. It's all about community.
"There is just so much peace and tranquillity here," Brian says. "That's what I love about it. Just to get away from it all. I have my own little boat and the only reason I take my mobile phone anywhere with me is because I may need it in case of an emergency. Only for safety.
"In the future, it will only get bigger and better.
"My ambition is to see everyone happy. It's not necessarily to make a lot of money. It's about providing employment and seeing happy faces. That's what Rathlin's all about," Brian concludes.