“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.