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Lavender’s Blue + Castletownshend West Cork

A Glorified Trance On The Irish Shore

We’re never stopped galivanting. Our latest destination is the village where table turning and ghost writing take on whole new meanings. The shadow of authors Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (her real name was Violet Martin) looms large over the village of Castletownshend on Ireland’s south coast. Frank Keohane comments in The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County (2020): “As the long time home of the writer, artist and Master of Fox Hounds Edith (1858 to 1949), Castletownsend is a highly evocative place, redolent of Anglo Irish society during its swansong. The village consists of two streets, of which the main street plunges downhill to the harbour. At the junction with the second street (The Mall) stand the ‘two trees’, a pair of sycamores, in what Edith described as a ‘barbaric stone flowerpot’. Castletownsend is also notable for the number of gentry houses built within the village rather than in the hinterland on small demesnes, in the more customary fashion.”

Maurice Collis writes in Somerville and Ross A Biography (1968), “Castletownshend was an unusual sort of place, because half a dozen families of the Cork landed gentry were settled there, instead of living, as the Irish landed gentry generally did, on estates dotted about the counties, miles apart from each other, as at Ross. Here their houses clustered round the village of Castletownshend, occupying a square mile of ground or less. The site was high ground which shelved steeply to the sea, a deep inlet or haven from the Atlantic like many others in western Cork. The view from the houses down to the haven and out to its mouth on the ocean was very fine. Near the west entrance to the village, a high point on the site, stood Drishane, the seat of the Somerville family.”

Gifford Lewis explains more about the authors in Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish RM, (1985), “In childhood neither Edith nor Martin had recognised social and class barriers and both spoke naturally to those who in England would have been termed their ‘inferiors’. So that although they were from the privileged Anglo Irish gentry, they were at home in the native Irish world to the extent that their record of native speech in English is uniquely impressive. They knew that in their novels they were recording the death throes of their class – they made an unequalled portrait of the collapse of Anglo Ireland and the rise through it of the new Irish middle class.” Uniquely, Martin’s early demise didn’t stop them continuing to write in unison.

The two streets of Castletownshend are perpendicular to one another, meeting at the ‘two trees’ (to circumnavigate this pretty obstacle by car means mounting the pavement). Main Street is beautifully bookended by Drishane House at the top and The Castle at the bottom. The Mall heads out towards the coastline, ending with The Rocket House. Both streets are lined with beautiful townhouses, mainly Georgian. We last visited Drishane House in 1992. Little has changed, except the heavy Atlantic mist of that day 30 years ago has been replaced with serene unclouded skies on this visit. Jane and Tom Somerville are the present incumbents of Edith’s former home. Martin’s family home was Ross House, County Galway, but she was a frequent visitor to Castletownshend.

Frank comments on Drishane House, “A handsome six bay weather slated house built about 1790, the seat of the Somervilles. In the Edwardian period a new entrance was created on the more sheltered side elevation. This has an unusual rock-faced limestone doorcase with a scrolled pediment of vaguely Chinese appearance. The original wide tripartite limestone doorcase, with Tuscan demi-columns, now serves as a garden entrance.”

 

We interviewed Captain Paul Chavasse, owner of The Rocket House, two years before he died in 1994 aged 86. “Cousin Edith and Violet Martin were two energetic, lively, independent young women who were keen hunters,” he recalled. His parting shot was, “Don’t believe any rumours about the girls’ relationship. There’s no substance to them.” The Captain converted a row of coastguard cottages into his seven bedroom home. The cut stone building was designed by architect William Atkins in 1841. It takes its name from the rocket launchers that were used to fire ropes to assist ships in danger. The ropes were then used to haul sailors and passengers to safety. The Stag Rocks in Castlehaven Bay were notoriously treacherous. The Chavasse family home was Seafield, a few metres away from The Rocket House, on The Mall. Captain Paul’s wife was Elizabeth Somerville, Edith’s niece.

Crowning the hilltop high above The Castle is St Barrahane Castlehaven Parish Church and graveyard. Frank Keohane describes it well: “Delightfully picturesque, with glorious views over the harbour and many fine monuments.” The Somerville and Ross graves are simply marked: Martin’s is a simple squarish gravestone; Edith’s is an uncarved boulder like a menhir from the neighbouring hills. There are unusual metal – now elegantly rusted – graves too.

“Everyone goes to Mary Ann’s!” smiles Sharon Townshend of The Castle. A roll of owners was unveiled in 1996 by then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey. 1988 to the present Patricia and Fergus O’Mahony. 1983 to 1988 William and Ann Hosford. 1970 to 1983 Norman and Leonore Davis. 1963 to 1970 Prudence Sykes. 1947 to 1963 Mary Ann Hayes. 1930 to 1947 Mary Ann and Willie Casey. 1846 to 1930 Hennessy Family. So it’s named after two Mary Anns. Fergus recently celebrated his 60 and a half birthday and hosted a show in the Warren Art Gallery on the first floor of the pub. It included works by Irish artists Aidan Bradley, Susan Cairns, William Crozier, Felim Egan, Mat Grogan, Matt Lamb, Patrick McCarthy, John Minihan, Yvonne Moore and Cara Nagle.

Fergus joins us for an after dinner pint. “I was the manager at Blooms Hotel in Dublin,” he says, “before coming to Castletownshend.” The Chefs join us as well, having cooked dinner to perfection. Our starter was pan seared tiger prawns with fresh ginger, garlic and chilli followed by a main course of locally caught fresh scallops in a classic mornay sauce. Nights are long in West Cork. Next stop, the historian John Collins who has lived a few doors down from Mary Ann’s on Main Street for 40 years.

“The inspiration and aspirations of a community are in their architecture,” he believes. “There are 146 people living in the village.” John restored the three storey Quay Stores overlooking Castlehaven Bay and converted them to residential use. He also helped save the vintage petrol pump and telephone box facing one another further up the hill. “The police station in Graham Norton’s Holding is actually a house on Main Street,” he points out. “That cranky old diva Brenda Fricker appears in the television series.”

It’s now midnight and the wine and conversation are flowing. John is a born raconteur, never better when talking about Somerville and Ross’s table turning and ghost writing. We’re getting that end of the line vibe. The village terminates at The Castle gates. Castletownshend goes nowhere and is going nowhere and everyone is proud of that. We’re back in Savannah again, in another world.

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Lavender’s Blue + Kinsale West Cork

Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver

“The town of Kinsale is a large stinking filthy hole… I was glad to leave so vile a place…” So complained the Reverend Richard Allyn in his 1691 journal. Clearly not a fan. Things have somewhat improved in the intervening centuries. In fact Kinsale is the poster girl for West Cork – it’s bigger, brighter, busier and (running out of alliteration) richer than the stiff competition. There are three independent book shops: Bookstór, Write On and Kinsale Bookshop.

Kinsale’s architecture breathes colour. Every other building is brightly painted – no Farrow and Ball Elephant’s Breath here. It’s pointless being subtle against a usually grey sky. Burnt terracotta, highlighter pen pink, ochre yellow, pig’s blood, salmon pink, swamp green, turquoise sea blue, or “Duck egg blue” or “Tuscan yellow” as Mrs O’Driscoll (formerly Mrs Doyle of Father Ted) observes in Graham Norton’s new television detective series Holding set in West Cork. Bruno’s Italian Eatery (with scarlet red doors and window frames) wears its heart on its (unusually white) walls. A Christopher Morley quote “No man is lonely while eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention,” joins one from Sophia Loren, “Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti.” The tiniest dormers imaginable peep out from the slate roof above.

Frank Keohane notes in his 2020 Pevsner series architectural guide The Buildings of Cork City and County, “Kinsale has a large number of high quality houses, many featuring 18th century first floor oriel windows… the medieval street pattern very much survives, with streets creeping along the hillside at different levels.” He comments on one of the most historic buildings in the town, “Market and court house (former). Market Square. Completed by 1707, perhaps to the designs of Edward Bridges, architect and burgess of Kinsale, and possibly incorporating the remains of a market built circa 1610…” ‘Dutch Billy’ gables are hung with Cornish style weather slates.

Another impressive public building is positioned high up overlooking the marina. According to Walter’s Way 2015, “The Municipal Hall was rebuilt in the late 1920s having been burnt during the Civil War in 1922. Prior to that it was The Kinsale Club, the social hub for the British Soldiers stationed in Kinsale. In front is a lovely bowling green, with a magnificent view over the harbour. The Municipal Hall later became the offices of Kinsale Town Council.”

Frank states, “Municipal Hall (formerly Assembly Rooms). The Mall. A pretty affair in pasteboard Gothick, described as ‘recently built’ in 1837. Two storeyed. Four bay front, the outer bays advanced and raised above the centre to give the impression of towers. Big pointed windows look out over the harbour. Coursed rubble sandstone, articulated by string courses and tall shallow arched recesses to the end windows. Burnt in 1922, interior reconstructed in 1928 in a nondescript manner – adjoining bowling green laid out before 1656.” It bears more than a passing resemblance to Hillsborough Fort in County Down.

Founded in the 12th century by Anglo Normans, Kinsale soon became established as an important port trading in wine and salt, a taste (pun) of things to come. It’s now as famous for its restaurants as for being the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 kilometre touring route of oceanic coastline. Cherry blossom floating down the pavements in the spring breeze, like yesterday’s confetti, adds to the colour of the town. Kinsale is like a snow cooled drink at harvest time – it’s refreshing.

On a peninsula south of Kinsale, high on a hill across the River Bandon, lies Castlelands Graveyard. Collins, Keohane and White are popular surnames on the gravestones. One inscription reads, “Here lyeth the body of Cornelius Raily who departed this life August 15 1801 aged 42 years. God rest his soul.”

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Lavender’s Blue + Skibbereen West Cork

The Capital of the Carberies 

It’s 30 years since our last jaunt but The West Cork Hotel has barely changed – it’s under new ownership (the latest generation of the Murphy family having retired) but there’s still the same relaxed country vibe. Seafood chowder and beer battered fish and chips are served with the obligatory West Coast Coolers in the bar overlooking the old railway bridge crossing the River Ilen. It is what it was.

In his comprehensive 2020 book The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County, Frank Keohane describes Skibbereen as, “A substantial market town, the southernmost in Ireland.” And The West Cork Hotel as, “A four storey, four bay Italianate block built alongside the bridge in 1902. Stuccoed, with string courses and a hipped roof. First floor windows with architraves and flat cornices. Upper floor windows with chamfered jambs. At street level the façade is articulated by pilasters and paired round arched windows.” At four storeys in height, the hotel is a skyscraper in West Cork terms, visible from the fields around. A cast iron balcony stretching across the first floor of the façade lends it a Deep South – America not Ireland – quality.

Why say three syllables when one will do. Skib has gone a tad hipsterish – more of that in a moment – but Dick Draper, the local optometrist who died a couple of years ago aged 104 would still recognise most of it. His friend and fellow Gospel Hall attendee Lillian Clerke is still around. Her very sweet shop (she sold the best clove rock in town) on Bridge Street may have closed but her surname is clear for all to see on the fascia. Our driver from Dolphin Taxis remembers Dick well. Chauffeuring us through the countryside as the hazy pink haloed golden circle of the sun sets, he recalls as a child having an accident and when he woke up in hospital, Dick was praying over him. “A very holy man. Did you know the Brethren have their own separate cemetery in Skib?”

On things hip, there’s a foodie farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in the town centre car park next to Abbeystrewey Church of Ireland. The Methodist Church is now a restaurant; architecturally it’s all show: a tall gabled red brick façade conceals a cement faced low pitched block behind. Trance music vibrates from The Mardyke Maggie antiques warehouse, a treasure trove of bygones ready to be revived. Then there’s the Antiquity Bookshop and Vegan Deli where you can have cruelty free edible treats while browsing for bestsellers. “Skib is the hub for small villages around like Baltimore,” confirms our driver.

Mona Best owns Bridge House, a long low two storey gaily painted bed and breakfast in the heart of Skib. She muses, “My perfect day is a day when I make other people happy; it’s in the giving that we receive. So when people come to stay with me I welcome them to a world full of magic as I like them to enjoy and experience something truly unique and memorable. My home is an installation representing my creative artistic temperament and eclectic bohemian taste for quirky Victorian objets d’art and antique furniture. This is my stage where I take people on a journey and transport them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I’m a fun loving person: I love to entertain and bring happiness into people’s lives. It is not how much we give but how much love we put into giving. Every day is beautiful and it is our responsibility to ourselves to pursue and experience all that is magical and wonderful in our lives.”

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Lavender’s Blue + Goleen West Cork

Islands in the Dream  

Sounding like the title of a Dolly Parton song, Goleen is so beloved throughout Ireland that even a bungalow in Carryduff outside Belfast is named after it. The hamlet at the crossroads pulls on the heartstrings. Frank Keohane’s 2020 masterwork The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County mentions two of its buildings: St Patrick’s Catholic Church and Kilmoe Parish Church of Ireland. He also refers to two buildings in its neighbourhood: Ballyrisode House at Toormore and Church of the Poor Church of Ireland at Altar. Goleen’s architectural presence is mainly two storey vernacular except for one grand three storey Georgian house with shell pink painted walls and steel blue painted window frames and front door. Heading northeast from Goleen is Dunbeacon Castle or at least a wall of what was once Dunbeacon Castle. To the southwest is the golden expanse of Barley Cove Beach. West Cork never disappoints.

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Pilgrimage + Rochester Kent

Pilgrim’s Progression

Proverbs 4:18, “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”

Charles Dickens writes in his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquaries and ruins are surpassingly beautiful with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air.” The sun shines brighter in Rochester; it’s a good day for a pilgrimage, whatever that may entail. “A pilgrimage is a journey, a quest,” advises John Armson in his Rochester Pilgrim Guide (1999). He continues, “The cathedral church has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries.” Prepare for an avalanche of pictures. The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary is the supermodel of English ecclesiastical architecture: it’s got good features and is very photogenic. “Growing in Christ since AD 604,” states the Order of Service for Sunday Eucharist. Free of hobgoblins and foul fiends, the nave is filled with the sound of a rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah to be performed tonight and tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. The town is the catwalk of English settlements with beauties parading wherever you gaze.

According to the Rochester Pilgrim Guide, “Like most old churches, the building is based on the shape of a cross lying flat on the ground. The cross, of course, is so shaped because it had to carry the human form when people were crucified – as Jesus Christ was crucified. The cathedral is a crucifix in stone. It represents, symbolically, the body of Jesus Christ – the nave is his torso, the transepts are his arms, the sanctuary is his head. If the sun is shining it will be filled with light. The cream coloured stone from Caen in Normandy glows in the sunshine.” The writer suggests, “Christians can remind themselves of all this by making the sign of the cross on their own bodies.”

The immaculate state of the cathedral contrasts with the ruinous presence of the neighbouring castle. Coffins are piled up against the ramparts in a Larkinesque gesture: “dead lie round”. The Norman Gundulf Bishop of Rochester (1077 to 1108) commenced the construction of the castle. His contemporary William de Corneil Archbishop of Canterbury built its keep. The keep – an accidentally minimalist structure with gaping holes in place of windows and doors – has been reinvented as an adventurous walk up spiral staircases and along loggias and gangways and battlements overlooking the cavernous void below and across the former city beyond.

Looking down on the southwest front of the cathedral is Minor Canon Row, England’s best preserved terrace. It was built in 1722 for the lucky cathedral clergy. The Spitalfields Trust has taken it over and now every precious square centimetre is virtuously munificently pristinely gloriously restored. The doorsteps and basement areas of each townhouse are protected by unusual timber balustrades. A parapet rising from the brick front and side elevations conceals narrow hipped pitches visible to the rear: each three bay house is the width of two pitches. The top floor of the three storey over basement houses has casement windows to the rear. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood it is alliteratively renamed Minor Canon Corner, the home of Reverend Septimus Crisparkle and his widowed mother.

Rochester High Street does kooky (Store 104 and Victoria’s Books, Yarns, Coffee), cookery (Pastures New) and cookies (The Candy Bar). Its shopfronts are well dressed. Established in 1985, or so the sign says, is The Candy Bar with its suitably candyfloss pink shopfront. A calorific display contains dozens of Mrs Bridges pots (banoffee curd; celebration Champagne marmalade; chilli jam; mango chutney with lime and ginger; Scottish raspberry preserve) and very sweet stuff (cherry Bakewell fudge; coconut ice; fruit fondant creams, peanut butter fudge; raspberry Prosecco fudge; Rochester rock). It’s as if the “Lumps of Delight Shop” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood has come to life. Pavement presentations are nakedly ambitious: colourful tailor’s dummies pose outside vintage shop Fieldstaff. Rochester boasts England’s largest secondhand bookshop (Baggins Book Bazaar). Pied wagtails living up to their name (wagging their tails) flutter down the pavements in a fuss of monochromatism.

Occupying leaning jettied plastered buildings on High Street are The Cheese Room Deli and Café and The Cheese Room Botanicals Restaurant and Bar run by Chris and Julie Small. “We love cheese! It’s just so versatile, tasty, comforting, grownup and sexy!” Lunch is aubergine fritters with chipotle mayo followed by – naturally – the five British cheeseboard. Crackers and quince accompany Baron Bigod, Bowyers, Kent Blue, Kidderton Ash and Vintage Red Leicester. And when in KentChapel Down Flint Dry 2020, a blend of Bacchus and Chardonnay. A street corner violinist serenades customers in this upper room. Pudding comes later, perfect lavender cupcakes from Hobbs and Tee’s stall on High Street. Regarding the building housing The Cheese Room Botanicals, John Oliver notes in Dickens’ Rochester (1978), “This was the home of Mr Tope, the Chief Verger of the cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It is the last building mentioned in the writings of Charles Dickens.”

It has a lot of competition but Eastgate House wins the prize for best building on High Street. Masquerading as the Nun’s House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and as Westgate in The Pickwick Papers, “This fine Elizabethan building was erected in 1590 to 1591 for St Peter Burke, who was a paymaster in the Queen’s Navy,” according to John Oliver. Fragments of late 16th century wall painting survive in a top floor room. Eastgate House is now The Charles Dickens Centre. There’s a surprising addition in its grounds: the Dickens’ Chalet. This Swiss mountain folly is where the author penned The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was relocated from his home Gads Hill on the edge of Rochester. Actually make that The Guildhall for High Street’s finest building. It is after all a Sir Christopher Wren masterpiece dating from 1687. The Guildhall is now a lively museum. Charles Dickens’ character Pip in Great Expectations describes its interior, “The hall was a queer place, I thought, with higher pews in it that in any church… and with some shining black portraits on the walls…”

The novelist spent some of his childhood on the outskirts of the town when his father got a job in nearby Chatham Dockyard. Dickensian is a literal adjective in Rochester. A plaque on the front wall of The Bull Hotel states “This ‘good house’ with ‘nice beds’ described by Mr Jingle in Pickwick Papers is also ‘The Blue Boar’ in ‘Great Expectations’.” It still retains a coaching inn appearance: a regular Georgian façade gives way to two return wings featuring a merry assortment of weatherboarding, half timbered jettied and gabled projections, box sash tripartite windows, Crittal windows and a rectangular oriel window. The seminal film of Great Expectations is David Lean’s 1946 version starring the Northern Irish born actress Valerie Hobson as Estella.