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Stay with Royalty in British Castles

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Photo: Courtesy of Crom Castle

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.

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