The mere mention of Ashford Castle in lovely County Mayo has always conjured up images of lavish luxury in a pampered paradise, even for those, who, like me until recently, had never been within 100 miles of the place.
Such is Ashford's reputation for opulence, and, of course, for lovers of the golden age of Holywood, like me, there's the added attraction of the quaint (in name and sight) little village of Cong, right on its doorstep... famous as the setting for the John Wayne-Maureen O'Hara 1952 classic, The Quiet Man that has stood the test of time as the harmless, if sometime risible, piece of escapism it was back in the day. I fetched the dvd out of my collection on our return and it was all the more enjoyable a watch for our weekend 'on set'.
Ashford has always sounded like my idea of heaven. So how come our first morning found us up to our knees in clabber, delicately clambering over and under barbed wire fences, avoiding 'natural hazards' in what can only be described as the mechanical inspection pit of a milking parlour, free range hens flocking round our feet and making friends with frisky young horses and a, thankfully, less bothered bull called Dave?
The answer is that Ashford can be anything you want it to be.
We love our weekend break special treats as much as anyone, but our leisure time has never involved simply lounging around. We need to be on the go, discovering and immersing ourselves (in the case of the milking parlour, almost quite literally) in new experiences, the yin and yang to compensate for the inevitable indulgences to come.
So, with Ashford always having been on our milking bucket list, we looked at the accommodation and activities on offer and decided the lovely, refurbed Lodge looking down on the Castle (and not many places do that) offered the right balance of comfort against getting down and dirty outdoors. And so it proved.
Not long after back surgery, even four and a half hours in the car from Belfast to Mayo passed painlessly for the rolling countryside views and motorway journey almost all the way.
Arriving at the gates of the Ashford estate, stunning was the first word that came to mind. As we made our way along the huge driveway up towards the Castle we were blown away by the magnificence of it. I was hoping it would have turrets like a proper castle and I wasn’t disappointed. It was like something from a fairytale. We decided then it was much better to be outside the Castle looking in from the Lodge, more so when we stepped out of the car for a well earned stretch of our legs and were stopped in our tracks by the view, down the gentle slope, of the lovely, little marina on Lough Corrib - so quiet, we could hear the birds singing and boats humming.
The stress of the city just melted away at that moment and set the tone for a weekend of tranquility and discovery. The Lodge itself is beautiful, cosy and welcoming. There are lovely little nooks and crannies to sit in and enjoy a drink, an open fire in the living room, wing backed chairs and the whole place just feels like home – if only!
The staff could not be friendlier, always cheery and could not do enough to help out with any request. We were shown to our room across a lovely little courtyard and were delighted to find each named after champagnes. We were in Heidseick, next door to Lanson!
The room was bigger than our house, well nearly, with the most enormous bed, which was so comfortable I defy anyone not to get a good night’s sleep (unless your bed partner snores…). I loved that the rooms and hallways were decorated with black and white photos of Hollywood legends – we had Errol Flynn, Veronica Lake and Katherine Hepburn in ours. Our own house is a shrine to old Hollywood so we felt very much at home.
The first night, we just nipped down to the bar for a relaxing drink and something light and tasty for dinner, plenty to choose from and it all looked great, made all the more interesting by the prospect next morning, at dawn to be precise, of seeing the whole process from farm to plate. The next door Caherduff farm is run by Tom and Keeley Clesham who supply Lodge chef Jonathan Keane with milk, butter and eggs each day and if you fancy, again quite literally, mucking in, they are only too happy to oblige.
Being animal crackers, I was beside myself at the prospect of milking cows and feeding pigs so I was up with the lark on Saturday morning, willies on and ready to be ferried down the road in the hotel Land Rover to the farm.
We began by herding the cows in for milking and after donning our rubber gloves, we had the chance to clamber down into the milking parlour and see how it all works! Amazing – as long as you're quick on your feet.. do I need to elaborate?
We also got to feed the very young and cute calves and met their dad, David the bull – very impressive he is, too. Then a short walk down the lane took us to see the horses who were so friendly, and then on to meet the chickens and pigs – I was in my element! I decided there and then I wanted a farm. What a brilliant time we had and we certainly worked up an appetite for the fabulous breakfast chef prepared on our return. Full Irish breakfast, or vegetarian omelette which I chose, having almost become vegetarian by then, accompanied by porridge with whiskey and rhubarb, home-made breads and butter from the farm, of course – so delish, I thought I would explode… until I saw the crepes with brown bread ice-cream coming out and I managed to find another little space!
Straight after that we headed down to the kitchen to help chef make bread rolls and I even got to wear one of his hats! It was brilliant fun, followed by a look around the greenhouses where they grow a lot of their own herbs and vegetables. All very self-sufficient.
The afternoon was our own so armed with a map and directions from the helpful staff at reception, hubby and I decided on a huge walk around the Castle grounds and then on into Cong where The Quiet Man was filmed. It was like being transported back in time.
All the landmarks from the film are signposted and there is a Quiet Man walking tour you can go on with the likes of the ‘Dying Man’s House' all signposted. There were lots of tourists taking it all in and it was just beautiful. A bronze statue of John Wayne carrying Maureen O’Hara home is superb. It was so relaxing to spend the afternoon just walking around taking it all in.
Back to our room, I decided a well earned nap on that huge bed was in order which left me refreshed and raring to go for our beautiful meal that evening in the dining room. All local produce is used and the chef was so creative, we even had pate on a stick, covered in peanuts which looked like an ice-cream lolly! Our very own bread rolls arrived at the table, baked with our own fair hands and, of course, they were scrummy, and warm!
You couldn’t fail to leave relaxed, refreshed, well fed and rested after a stay at the Lodge at Ashford Castle.
You can do as little or as much are you want and another scrumptious Sunday morning breakfast overlooking that lovely marina left us wishing we were staying til the cows come home, again.