Mary Gostelow visits another Irish Castle and learns how to make Irish cheese and bagpipes

Girlahead stays at Red Carnation Hotel's Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle, three hours’ drive west of Dublin near Cong, County Mayo, is now the Irish treasure in Red Carnation Hotels’ portfolio. Red Carnation’s owners, the Tollman family, bought the massive estate in 2013 and they have since spent “many millions” on overall enhancements, including accommodation for some of the 465-strong team, who are augmented by outsourced gardeners.
At Ashford’s imposing mediaeval stone gateway, credentials are checked by a senior gent in a full-length grass-green winter coat. You proceed slowly along a twisting single-track road, with, as far as the eye can see, the same green just-mowed grass either side. At the bottom of seven entry steps waits GM Niall Rochford, boss of this 83-room treasure, which claims heritage back to 1228, since when a myriad of owners has included the Guinness family.

I was escorted about 40 metres along twisting corridors – past a courtyard where my bright green bike, with helmet, awaited – to #224, the Kennedy Suite (Ted K stayed here around 40 years ago). Wow. I looked through a trio of adjacent four-metre-high cathedral-like windows, their shared cream drapes’ pelmet an elaborate tassel-decorated theatrical prop, and across to Lough Corrib and snow-capped mountains of Connemara. I had a log-look working fire, electric towel rails and a 19th-century walnut bed, its four twisting wood poles topped by cheery wood cherubim with waving arms.

Ashford Castle - Stateroom 224 (The Kennedy Suite)

Time to explore. I started cycling some of the 141 hectares of wooded grounds – Ashford offers trips with former 2008 Olympian, David O’Loughlin. Paths, many tarmac, are thoughtfully well-maintained. At one point comes an enormous squawk in a tree high above – a falcon has landed. The falcon school is right nearby. I passed two brand-new tennis courts and a dog clean-up station (the hotel has a pair of gigantic Irish wolfhounds on daily call). I passed St Mary’s Church (the hotel restricts itself to two or three weddings a year).

Ashford Castle garden path

 I later saw such enhancements as a residents-only billiard room with smokers’ terrace and a plush all-red 32-seat screening room, with daily free showings of John Wayne’s 1951 The Quiet Man (shot here) and two other movies, popcorn included. One of the ground-floor reception rooms is now a showcase for 1,200 pieces of Roebling-marked silver, the formal dining set of the engineer of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, bought by the Tollmans at auction.

Ashford Castle - George V Dining Room

The hotel has eight places to eat and/or drink. Cullens, once a cinema, is now a cottage-like comfy space, all white with a fishing boat and nets hanging over. We drink a Tollman-owned South African wine, Bouchard Finlayson 2014 Walker Bay.

I breakfast in the signature restaurant, the George V Dining Room. I look up at 12 multi-level early-20th-century chandeliers, and down at plush multi-coloured Victorian carpeting. One buffet station has a giant china bento box, each compartment with a different home-made yoghurt or fruit: nearby are half-glass open bottles of drink and today’s smoothie, blackberries. Another station has dozens of bread, all homemade. A la carte includes kippers and farl (potato flatbread) with truffle sour cream and oil.

Ashford Castle Connaught Room

This is a place for destressing and privacy – recently, 10 adult Texan girlfriends flew in for four nights, without going off-campus. General activities include golf, falconry, archery, sheepdog working, clay pigeon shooting, small cruises, walking those wolfhounds, tree climbing, ziplining, history tours, riding, fishing, boating, cycling and kayaking, tennis, paddleboarding, off-road driving, biking and visiting resident artist Rick Lewis. And, as would be expected, there is a good gym (LifeFitness) and a superb spa, a haven of palest greys and big white orchids. Softest music and skilled techniques while away the hour-long facial (unusually, Laura carefully explains why, for my skin, she chose Elemis rather than Natura Bissé or Voya).

Ashford Castle spa pool

But now for Ashford Castle’s cream-on-the-cake: a 30-ish local hotelier, Eoin Warner, working with and exclusively for Ashford Castle, has set up four different days of Irish experiences. First, we head for a distant farm at the foothills of Slieve Aughty Mountains, Co Galway. A former cowshed has, with considerable thought – and money gained from selling 13 milking cows – been turned into Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese. A fourth-generation dairy farmer’s daughter, Teresa Roche, returned from nursing in New Zealand, learned alpine cheese making in Switzerland and four years later she is turning out 1,000 cheese wheels a year. We toured production and the maturation shed, and then made and ate raclette followed by Teresa’s mum’s Irish stew, lamb and veggie bits and boiled potatoes.

Forty-five minutes later we visited another shed-in-a-field, the workshop of veteran Uillean (Irish bagpipe) player Eugene Lambe. About 40 years ago he could not find a maker so he started making his own. Now, with pipe-playing back in Millennials’ sights, he is inundated with work: waitlist for pipes with elbow bellows is over a year (cost: €6,500, though Eugene can make a simple whistle for €450, with a 3D-printed mouthpiece). Such experiences, as I said, are exclusive to Ashford Castle. Put it on your dream list now.
Mary Gostelow’s travelogue is

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