Rachel Gaffney's Letter from Texas

The famous foodie who’s flying the tricolour for us in the USA recalls a memorable visit to County Down with a group of appreciative American visitors

As we draped ourselves over the guard rails, the sea spray softly misting our faces, the 13th-century ruins of Greencastle came into view. We had left the medieval town of Carlingford behind, and the ferry was steadily holding course towards Kilkeel, Co Down.
We were on our way to Ballywalter Park, for a very special sojourn.
As soon as we reached dry land and boarded our bus, our phones reminded us that we were now in the United Kingdom as some services switched from Vodafone to O2.

The drive to Ballywalter Park would take an hour and a half, and as we had plenty of time to spare, it seemed only fitting to visit some places along the way. We stopped at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa for morning coffee and scones, followed by a brisk walk along the promenade and nipped next door to the world famous Royal County Down Golf Club to shop in their pro shop. Our next stop was Down Cathedral, the final resting place of St Patrick who died in 461 AD. Standing by his grave compelled me to silence. My group had gone inside, leaving me alone with my thoughts. The significance of where I was standing was not lost on me. With my only companion a robin, perched above on a branch, I quietly stood, breathed deeply and looked around thinking of all who had come here before me.

We were on our way to Mount Stewart House and Gardens, former home of the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry, and her family in the early 20th century. The house has been lovingly restored over 3 years and is well worth the visit. We went our separate ways for a couple of hours, some pored over the antiquities in this Neo-classical House, others walked the formal gardens and wooded areas with plants from all parts of the globe in every nook and cranny. Lunch was a hearty bowl of leek and potato soup, freshly baked soda bread and pots of tea and coffee to follow. Feeling inspired and replenished, we boarded the bus for the final 6 miles of our journey.

The excitement was palpable as we slowly drove the tree-lined driveway to Ballywalter Park. Like children on a day trip, eagerly awaiting that first glimpse of the ocean, they craned their heads above the seats, each hoping to be the first to spot the Italianate Palazzo style mansion. And then, there came the sight of the stars and stripes billowing in the wind atop the roof of this magnificent home extending a warm welcome to its American guests.

The bus slowly made it's way to the Porte-cochere, the gravel crunching beneath the tyres, all the while making our anticipation even more significant. As we came to a stop, there waiting to greet us were Lord and Lady Dunleath and, for the next twenty-four hours, they made us feel like guests in their home. The estate covers over 1200 acres and is home to one of Northern Ireland's largest dairy herds. We were escorted to our rooms and had just enough time to relax before cocktails and dinner.

Opening the windows in my room, allowing the evening breeze to cross through, I sat at the end of the bed and took in the magnificent vista. Windows and doors have always been a source of inspiration for me. I was indeed a long way from Texas. A red floral antique washbasin set perched on a marble table. A soft white bathrobe hung from the bathroom door. A myriad of books was stacked by my bedside, and fresh flowers from the garden adorned the room. Pewter tankards sat above the mantle of the fireplace, and as I continued to take in my surroundings, I wished that I could stay here longer. Stay here in this room. Perhaps sit at the writing desk outside my room and do what people do not seem to do much of anymore and write a letter to a friend, describing my stay.

Champagne was served in the drawing room and Brian Mulholland, the fifth Lord Dunleath continued to regale us all with stories and anecdotes. Vibse Mulholland, Lady Dunleath could not have been any nicer if she tried. Upon hearing how much I loved elderflower, she disappeared for a moment and returned with a glass bottle of homemade elderflower fizz.
They led us on a detailed and guided tour of their home, every nook and cranny, every portrait and statue with its own story to tell. Richard Turner was a Dublin born iron founder famed for his curvilinear conservatories and is perhaps best known for works such as Kew Gardens Temperate House, Palm House in Belfast, Palm House in Dublin, and Ballyfin Conservatory at Ballyfin Demesne, Co Laois to name a few. Yet, here we were in Ballywalter Park and with cocktails in hand, we walked around a corner and entered what seemed like a dream world. Before us stood the grandeur and splendour of a fully restored Richard Turner conservatory. Every care had been taken to restore it to its former glory.

We dined at the family dining table, and wines were served from the house cellars. The roast chicken was deftly carved by Lady Dunleath and ,as she did so, she explained it had come from the local farm. We had fresh greens from the garden with edible flowers and potato gratin. Rhubarb, also from the garden, was served in rosewater syrup, homemade sorbet and a gingersnap complemented it nicely. Piping hot coffee and petit fours awaited us by the crackling fire after dinner. What a glorious end to a glorious day.

The following morning, before breakfast, I took a walk around the grounds. There remained a light blanket of fog, and the only sound I could hear was that of the cackling of crows. The morning dew clung to the leaves and blades of grass for a time before disappearing completely into the morning sunlight. A stream ran beneath the footbridge and as I crossed it a pheasant in the distance burst upwards frightened by my approach. I returned to the house for breakfast.

After breakfast, Vibse Holland, an eminent food historian took us on a tour of the beloved Victorian walled gardens and glasshouse. She explained the importance of healthy soil, organic gardening, crop rotation and natural weed controlling methods. We walked, listened and took photographs. Asked many questions and laughed. We listened to her stories but most of all we felt her love and passion for her gardens and the importance of really great ingredients.

Our stay at Ballywalter Park was a memorable stay. For me, it has left an indelible mark on my heart and soul, and one day, very soon, I hope to return to sit and write a letter to a friend.

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