Cities / Towns Visited: 78
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 17,949
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,586,856
A chock full day, meant another early morning, and before long we were breakfasted and in the car. As if it is obligitory in Ireland, and seemingly on cue, another rainbow spread out before us in the light morning drizzle, sparking a welcome laugh about leprechauns to break the general lack lustre mood of mornings. After a somewhat lengthy drive we finally arrived at out first destination for the day; Kylemore Abbey.
Although it was still raining, we were not to be deterred, and, naturally, after a quick scone break at the cafe, we made our way towards the building we’d come so far to see. As we reached the far side of the lake, this old manor house came into view, sitting pride of place between said lake, and the mountain to its rear; almost as if it had fallen from some giants pocket and had been lost amongst the nest of trees.
This beautiful stone castle was erected in 1868 by the wealthy London doctor, Mitchell Henry, who’s family was also wealthy from the textile trade in Manchester, for his wife, Margaret, and their nine children. The massive home, with more than seventy rooms, took four years to build, but sadly it wasn’t enjoyed by the family for long, as Margaret died shortly after its construction at the age of 45 from a dysentery she had contracted during a family holiday to Egypt.
After the death of his wife, Henry moved back to England, and in 1902 he sold the estate to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. They only held onto the property until 1920 when they sold it due to insurmountable gambling debts, thanks to the addiction, but lack of ability held by the duke. At this point it was bought by a group of Benedictine nuns from Belgium who had been bombed out of their Abbey in Ypres during WWI. To this day it is still their property, and from the 20’s all the way up until 2010 it was run as an International girls boarding school, first being taught by the nuns, but later by a mix of nuns and lay women. It was made special by the fact that although it charged a hefty fee for the wealthy, high born, young ladies from abroad to study, it also serviced the local school girls from nearby Letterfrack, for a fraction of the cost; thus offering a world class education to those who would have otherwise have been priced out of the possibility. Currently the school no longer runs, but Notre Dame University in the USA, sends students there for a summer school program. Other than this, the nuns produce food and crafts for sale in order to raise funds for the upkeep and restoration of the building and its famous Walled Victorian Garden.
Now that you’re all up to date with the back story, I’ll continue. We made our way around the edge of the lake and were soon stepping into the warm, dry, and beautiful foyer of the stately home. It’s dark wood making is feel even more like a luxurious country retreat, and it wasn’t hard to recognise that this was a castle built by a husband for his beloved. We managed to arrive in time to hook onto one of the free tours they run, and thus we joined the group and began. Now, it must be said, that only a small portion of the manor is open to the public, as the nuns still reside in the remaining space, and only the small open area is fully furnished in its original Victorian style. From the dining room to the drawing room, its everything you would expect from a home of the wealthy socialites of the era, and it contrasts starkly with the one room which displays a number of important religious relics kept by the nuns, along with a number of portraits of the Abbesses throughout the decades. It was surprising, and quite nice, to see a smiling portrait amongst the general collection of dower looking nuns adorning the walls.
After the tour we ducked into the small display they have in one of the side rooms, which recants the history of the school run here, and includes a number of examples of the former school uniforms, which, as expected, are quite conservative. From Indian princesses, to some of the poorest girls from the nearby village, it restored a little of my faith in the world that they were treated to the chance at the same level of education. In a world where money often dictates your opportunities, it is soul feeding to find the less fortunate being treated as equals. In the room beside this, there is a short video explain the restoration and maintenance that the nuns have done, and continue to do, to keep this incredible place preserved, and accessible to the public.
Our visit to the interior may have finished, but this property spans much further than the four walls, and thus back outside into the continuing drizzle we headed. Following the lakeside we soon found ourselves at the small, cathedral-esque chapel hidden amongst the trees. Mr Henry had had the chapel constructed to appear almost as a miniature cathedral. It is modelled after the Chapel of St. Stephen at Westminster; and it was built as a memorial to his late wife. As stunning as it’s facade is, it’s the interior which is its crowning jewel, and it is an almost Taj Mahal like shrine to his lost love, with red, green, and black marbles from across Ireland adorning its walls, intricate gothic stained glass windows, and a stunning vaulted ceiling. Considering the fact that the wealthy of that era often rarely married for love, it was touching to see that this man undeniably loved his late wife.
Just down the path a little further you pass the wishing stone, which you are meant to stand with your back facing and throw a pebble over it without looking; is if goes over the top, your wish is said to come true. Across from this also stands a rather striking sculpture of giant fingers emerging from the ground; although a couple seem to be missing these days. As you venture a little further you stumble upon the mausoleum which holds the remains of both Mr and Mrs Henry; laid to rest side by side once more, tucked away in the arms of nature, on the property which had meant to have been their sanctuary and home together.
Having explored this direction, we took the leisurely walk along the lakeside, back past the house and through the woods, off towards the famous gardens. As we watched the free shuttle trundle past, packed full of the lazier (and a few legitimately less able bodied) of the tourists, we were pleased we had decided to use our legs, whilst retaining the sanctity of our personal space. Reaching the exterior of the walls we stopped for a quick lunch in the glass panelled cafe; admiring the wonders of the lush green while sipping our tea and picking up the last crumbs of our scones.
Satiated, we stepped through one of the entrances and were delivered to a magnificent sight. You see, not only had Mr Henry commissioned a grand home, but also a lavish walled garden, which was most popular in the Victorian era. With countless greenhouses filled with exotic plant species, and symmetrical arrangements delighting the eye, it was said to be one of the finest examples in the country. It even included a large kitchen garden to meet the needs of the household. Unfortunately such a large garden requires a large amount of work, and after the property was sold, the garden fell into ruin, the greenhouses were destroyed by time and weather, and the entire sanctuary within the walls became overgrown.
Recently however, the nuns, along with a little help, have restored it to much of its former glory, although only a few of the greenhouses have been rebuilt. Wandering through the space, it seems that the more you look, the more detail can be seen, from rows of contrasting colour, to pear trees lining the walls (using the heat stored in the bricks to help nurture, encourage, and protect the fruit). Inside the greenhouses you can see the old vents in the floor under which ran hot water pipes, which allowed tropical plants, and even such rarities as bananas, to grow in this infamously damp and cold corner of the world. Even today, one sits with vines, heavy with grapes, clinging to its warm interior.
It’s not just the gardens that have been restored, but also one of the gardener’s lodgings, as well as the old head gardener’s cottage. Now, most gardeners back in the day were modestly paid, and the meagre accommodation of the average worker is reflected in the sparsely furnished rooms. However, given the massive undertaking that this site was, the Head Gardener was renumerated handsomely, and his residence contrasts hugely with the smaller home, in its almost luxurious fitting out. I’ll let the photos show you what I mean.
Moving on through the next area of the garden, we reached the last section, and my personal favourite; the kitchen garden. We took a long while to wander up and down the beds and it brought about great nostalgia within me, of the massive vegetable garden my grandparents have. A garden that I fondly remember my grandmother pottering around in. From raspberry canes, to apple trees, leeks to lettuce, this garden is abundant in its variety; with everything from the easily recognisable, to those only a keen foodie can spot without reading the sign.
The chef in me could happily have spent the whole day in that garden inspecting all of the produce, but alas, despite my mind running a million miles an hour with recipe ideas of what I could have cooked with it all, the traveller in me was itching to move onto our other destination for the day. Thus it was that we made our way out through more flower lined paths, and back to the car, headed for our next stop; Connemara National Park.
Parking the car, we took a moment to head into the visitor centre, and I’m rather glad we did, as it houses a small, but rather informative display on the unique environment we were about to enter. You see, this national park is made up of mainly large tracks of bogs and heath covered moors, and the information panels explain much about how these waterlogged areas are formed, as well as the flora and fauna which call this difficult environment home. From fun facts, like the fact that peat can have a water content as high as 90%, to the examples of fossilised wood found preserved in the bogs, it was an educational start to the visit.
With the weather insisting on continuing its onslaught of irritating amounts of misty rain, we pulled up the hoods on our jackets and headed out to cut a lap of the medium length circuit of the bogs which runs from the centre. Following the stony path which winds its way through the heath was peaceful, despite the damp, and I took a moment to admire the raindrops clinging to the petals of the tiny wildflowers. As we continued, the fog grew thicker, and as we ascended the hill part of the trail, visibility shrunk to nought but a few metres. It was eerily quiet, with only a few other brave hikers passing us intermittently, before disappearing into the abyss. The terrain changed from rocky heath, to bog; the path from well trodden earth, to netted ground, and finally to board walk to prevent anyone sinking into a watery entrapment. As we made our way forth, there was something about the sound of the wind whistling past, and the unknown before us, that began to fuel our imaginations, and we spent the remainder of this short sighted meander, looking further ahead to the sequels of our current novel, and chattering eagerly about story ideas which might include this surreal environment we had found ourselves in.
Eventually we descended once more, and returned safely from the mist to our car, making our way back to our temporary home, to which we had been left alone as our host had left for a weekend away with her sister. A quiet home cooked meal, and we were in bed before too long. As I thought back on our misty adventure I took a moment to muse on the moments in life which inspire the greatest creativity in us. Travel has given us an overflowing cupful of ideas for our writing, from history to nature; from the most epic of discoveries, to the seemingly most inane of tasks; our minds often whir with new stories and new characters to experience them.
For many artists and writers, ourselves included, their fuel and their passion is usually found in moments and situations which stir great emotions within them; stories of love and loss, paintings of war and glory; the extremes of pain and joy in equal measure. They take their inspiration from the turning points in life; but what about all of the boring trudging we do in between these points?
I think it is important to also find inspiration and, in turn, create art, based on the finer intricacies of the mundane. The great unknown caused by the mist on the moors; the whimsical way steam wisps up from your morning cup of tea; the way your shadow stretches across the pavement as the sun sets; the soothing way the leaves gently rustle on the trees as your eyes wander to the window, and you daydream of a life far more interesting than your current one. These little realities make up the largest part of our existence, thus we must find beauty in these small fragments of life; we must let our minds begin to build its stories and it’s pictures from here.
You do not always need to start with a blank page, start with a boring picture and bring it to life with your imagination; and when you find you are able to do this within fictional realities, it is but a small leap to translate that to everyday life. Suddenly your boring commute to work, becomes an epic adventure; a trip to the grocery store, a veritable treasure hunt; asking your boss for a payrise, an monumental battle for glory and honour. Routine and responsibility sucks so much of our creativity out of our adult lives; let your inner creative spirit roam free, and all of a sudden your life becomes your newest favourite story.