“Oh, and one more thong.”
I’m standing in a narrow, far-flung hallway in Crom Castle, which is a rambling 19th-century pile rising castellically from the shores of Upper Lough Erne, in the misty and melancholic Northern Ireland county of Fermanagh, a two-hour drive from Belfast. Crom is pronounced crum, like one of the particles that falls from a baked good when you shake it, and I’ve just been handed the keys to its entire West Wing—which, in a sign of the times, is now for rent—by one Noel Johnston, its thickly accented manager, who pronounces his first name nole.
Noel lowers his voice. “Lord Erne’ll be by in an ’r or so to say hello,” he whispers, face glowing with magic and wonder all of a sudden, as if he’s about to grant me three wishes. After the briefest of hesitations, I express delight at this news.
“Aye,” Noel agrees, nodding vigorously. “ ’E’s a narstle chup.”
And look, I don’t doubt it. People are quite nice, in my experience, both upon first meeting them and later on as well. Let me go further and admit that many years have passed, decades even, since I harbored a shadow of an objection to the concept of aristocrats owning castles, and of their wandering around in them at will. Crom Castle, I understand, is the historical seat of the Crichtons, a.k.a. the Ernes, a.k.a. the Lords of Fermanagh: one of dozens of English families granted dominion over soggy patches of Ireland back in the day by the British Crown. Seven generations of Ernes have lived and loved and laughed in these corridors, never feeling the need to knock, and with their portraits gazing down coolly from every available yard of wall, I can entirely appreciate why his current Lordship, on a purely psychological level, might feel entitled to keep doing so.
But what of the small matter of my having just rented the place?Well, not the whole castle, but its entire, huge West Wing. Call me a Bolshevik, but surely when Man A accepts money from Man B and appoints him the tenant of a piece of property—be it a hotel room or an apartment or a wing of an Irish castle—then doesn’t Man A forfeit the right to go barging into said property on a whim and saying “Hello” to people, even if the place has been in his family since we were all Cro-Magnons?
For the fact is that the Ernes have been struggling to keep the place up in recent years. The cost of roof repair has soared. Heating expenses even more so. Factor in the working classes’ newfangled insistence on being paid for their labors in “money” rather than a thin gruel of gristle and turnip peelings and you have a crisis that has many of Britain’s stately homes looking for ways to generate income. And so the Crichtons have decided to rent out their West Wing to holidaymakers, wedding parties, corporate team-building people, and even meditation groups.
But as I savor the clomp and vroom of Noel getting into his car and going away, the news that His Lordship is planning to stop by at some unannounced moment and say hello does cause me to wonder whether it’s yet sunk in to the Ernes what that sacrifice will entail, or if they aren’t, as it were, trying to rent out the west wing of their cake and eat it too.
My anxiety on this issue subsides considerably as the afternoon wears on. Crom is a very beautiful and very peaceful place. After beating my companion at tennis, I find myself uncharacteristically magnanimous in victory, and then we go take a nap in one of West Wing’s six bedrooms, and after that we saunter out into the garden, all 1,900 acres of it, comprising vast stretches of woodland, grazing meadow, and water—namely, Lough Erne itself. At the point that we’ve wandered and frolicked through the grounds for some 50-plus minutes without seeing another person, I do start to feel sheepish for having minded about Lord Erne stopping by, and indeed become so relaxed about the prospect that I don’t even get around to mentioning it to my companion, leaving her with the blissful impression that we have the place entirely to ourselves, and that if she hears anyone approaching down the hallway, it is—almost by definition—me.
At dusk I come to regret this oversight. While my companion draws a bath, I repair to the drawing room, pour a glass of wine, and find some old Nina Simone in the CD collection. I put it on softly, quietly enough that when I sink into a faded old overstuffed armchair to read a little Audacity of Hope, I can still hear the sounds of evening dropping slow over the vast estate. A large-sounding fish plops out on Lough Erne. A linnet cries on high, inconsolable, as he seeks his roost for the night. And from far away, deep within the Wing itself, comes a sound for all the world like that of my companion, wearing who knows what, if anything, jumping out from somewhere and screaming the word boo. I feel a certain despair, right then, despair that is instantly compounded by the sound of an old man gasping and staggering, and given a serrated edge of panic by the yapping of a tiny, frightened dog. I take a deep sip of wine and reflect that what I’m hearing are nothing less than the creaks of History’s wheel as it turns, and that this new symbiosis of aristocracy and proletariat may not yet have achieved its final equilibrium.
Lord Erne—who not only survives his encounter with my companion but claims to have “rather enjoyed it”—would probably agree. He is, for the record, the nicest chap in the world, an expansive, solicitous, barrel-chested man with an adorably befuddled-seeming air, and his befuddledness thickens to anxiety on the question of whether, and how much, he should be interacting with the guests. “One doesn’t want to be rude,” he frets, aphoristically, as he gives us a tour of his, much larger part of the castle, “nor does one want to intrude.” Certainly, His Lordship is very keen that guests not go wandering into the rooms he shares with his wife; he recalls the time it happened with wounded consternation. But his greater anxiety is that, with the West Wing sealed off so hermetically, his tenants might feel they’re being snubbed, hence his practice of “popping by to say hello.”
It is, in short, a delicate, difficult thing trying to make a commodity out of a lifestyle the whole point of which, historically, was that it wasn’t for sale. This awkwardness is painfully apparent in Crom’s complicated pricing structure. For the (really rather low) cost of renting the West Wing for a week or a long weekend one gets unlimited use of “the Earl of Erne’s private tennis court,” but not the use of his tennis balls. The management will generously lay and light a fire in the West Wing’s downstairs reception rooms, but only “the first supply of logs [is] complimentary.”
These lines have to be drawn somewhere, I suppose, but they serve as constant reminders that for all its sprawling, faded comfort, the West Wing is, in effect, a series of hotel rooms—whereupon one can easily start to fixate on the relative lack of hotelish amenities. There are, as mentioned, six bedrooms, including a Blue room, a Rose room, and even—for stationery enthusiasts—a Buff room, but not one of them contains a television, let alone a mini-bar. All linens and mattresses are up to five-star quality, as are the rooms themselves, but does every bed have a phone beside it with a dedicated button for the concierge?No, it does not. And there isn’t a concierge, anyway, unless you count Noel, whom you’ll occasionally spot climbing a distant ladder or zooming purposefully along in an all-terrain vehicle, hardly close enough to bring you a bucket of ice even if he could hear that you wanted one.
And yet, as one day melts into the next, you come to appreciate that while this may in effect be a hotel, it isn’t actually one. The layout and décor of Crom’s innumerable rooms and features owe themselves not to the brilliant mind of some designer, flown in for a weekend to trick the place out with trademark sconces and nooks, but to generation after generation of actual people who called this place home and lived in it accordingly. Everything is where it is, one gets the sense, because it was originally somewhere else, and then was moved, perhaps an inch at a time over centuries, to more harmoniously coexist with human form and desire. Want to set down your drink?Why, there’s a coaster, right there. Want to put up your feet?There’s a pouf. If the urge to read ever strikes, one simply reaches out one’s hand and feels it fall, as naturally as snow falls upon a landscape, onto the spindled spine of an old Maeve Binchy.
The West Wing is, in a word, a home. To be prosaic for a second, it’s the home of Lord Erne’s son, Viscount Crichton, with whom I enjoy a tear-jerkingly expensive lunch some weeks later in London. In true aristocratic fashion, the younger Crichton is the spitting image of his father, down to the last cuff link, only younger, and has a keen, almost Shakespearean sense of responsibility to his ancestors. The decision to rent out the West Wing was a hard one, he tells me, but he is facing financial realities that are unique to his generation.
On the more abstract issue, however, of what I would think would be the humiliation, even the pain, of having to throw open the doors of one’s private home to the eyes and fingers of paying customers, the young viscount is sanguine to the point of obliviousness. Growing up in a home like Crom, he tells me, you never really have a chance to get possessive about it. With the faces of previous occupants lining the walls, and the silent weight of their generational expectations on your shoulders, one almost feels more like a tenant oneself than an owner. “It is my home,” he confesses of Crom, “but first and foremost it’s a home, and that’s rather what I wanted to share with people.”
Which is an attitude, of course, that more of us would do well to entertain, in this fleeting world. What we think we own, we rent at best, and the doors we close behind us are actually closed before us, blocking our path. And while after a blissful sojourn at Crom I would stop short of urging mankind to return once and for all to the days of the feudal society, I can certainly—without a peep from my conscience—recommend it for a weekend.
The West Wing, Crom Castle; summer weekend rates (three nights) from $4,156 for up to 12 people.
Castles throughout Great Britain and Ireland can be rented by the room or, in many cases, in their entirety. Below, a few recommendations.
England Amberley Castle A 12th-century walled castle on 12 acres. Rooms have four-poster beds, arched windows, and antique furnishings. Amberley, West Sussex; 44-1798/831-992; amberleycastle.co.uk; from $18,237 per week for up to 38 people.
Ireland Glin Castle A 500-acre property on the Shannon Estuary, with 18th-century Neoclassical architecture and artwork. Glin, Co. Limerick; 353-68/34173; glincastle.com; from $6,533 per week for up to 30 people.