Survival Solutions

Bramleys - AbbeyleixAll over Ireland, hotels have been taking an especially hard hit during the current economic crisis. Many have reduced their prices drastically and, while this may initially sound like great news for consumers, in many cases it will quickly become unsustainable. But the canny ones - either taking out insurance ahead of the gathering storm clouds, or simply seeing opportunities not obvious to others – have diversifed to make their offering more attractive to guests, and concentrate on giving added value rather than simply slashing prices. Castle Durrow Hotel, for example, opened a shop in Abbeyleix to complement their thriving weddings business and included a café to tempt in travellers on the busy Dublin- Cork road. Like the locals,  MARILYN BRIGHT was impressed.

Bramley's in Abbeyleix provides a touch of travellers' joy on the often dreary main route between Dublin and Cork. Shelley and Peter Stokes of Castle Durrow have extended their smart country house brand of restorative, good food and hospitality to the heavily trafficked Main Street and combined it with a bit of retail diversion that attracts both locals and passersby, as well as their own guests.

While other hotels and guesthouses were diversifying into cookery schools sports complexes and own label jams, Shelley was inspired when a traditional old shop cane up for sale in Abbeyleix, one of the few towns not bypassed on the much re-routed N8. Confessing to a lifelong love of shopping, she says it was the perfect project for her, jokingly referring to it as her escape from the daily pressures of running a country house hotel.

The shop opposite the famed Morrissey's Pub had been a traditional draper's owned by a Mrs. Bramley who'd “been here forever, so that's where the name comes from". The property runs to 500 square metres over two floors and had been vacant for years, so the interior with its maze of old rooms had to be completely gutted and restored with new wiring, plumbing, floors and ceilings. The project took 18 months and Bramley's opened quietly in June 2008.

The smart shop has brought new life to the south end of Abbeyleix Main Street and, as well as providing a one-stop shop for guests attending weddings at the Castle and looking for quality gifts or unusual clothing, was welcomed by locals from day one. "It's become a focal point where people meet, especially since we opened the lunch room a few months later. They might come in for a coffee or lunch, or just wander about looking at everything or buying a greeting card. We like to think there's a welcoming atmosphere and there's no pressure to buy."

On the ground, floor there's an eclectic mix of furniture — mainly Belgian and Dutch, glassware, crockery, picture frames, rugs, throws and “quirky antiques". Designer jewellery and ladies fashions are supplied exclusively from Holland and Shelley makes a point of buying no more than three or four of any one style. " If it's some thing really special, I buy only one, so the customer can be certain no one else will turn up in the same thing. They're all reasonably priced, and fly out of the shop."

Upstairs space is laid out in rooms, so that customer can visualize how bedroom and dining room furniture will look in real homes.  “People can see that they needn't have a big Georgian house for a four poster bed to fit in nicely, " Shelley explains.

Bramley’s lunch room - it's not really grand enough to be called a café, Shelley insists - features coffee sourced from The Green Bean Coffee Company, always served with complimentary homemade biscuits. Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables come from Castle Durrow's organic walled garden and Shelley is determined. to keep prices as low as possible.  Homemade soup of the day comes   with two salads and a brown roll for around €5, while hot dishes like chicken and tarragon, Irish lamb stew or a vegetarian lasagne come  with salads and bread at about €9.50.

Pecan pie and warm brownies are house specialties, along with the fresh baked scones that are served with spicy apple jelly from the castle orchards. There are also generous platters of cheese, charcuterie and salads for sharing. Solo customers needn't be lonely either, with seating for 10 at a large table well stocked with magazines and the daily newspapers.

In the ten years since the Stokes family left Dublin and began restoration of Castle Durrow, they have "brought the old estate back into the life of the community. Guest rooms have been added In the converted stable wing, along with conference facilities and a beauty room that caters for the many wedding parties as well as regular customers from the surrounding area. The 30 acres of grounds and the walled garden have been restored with a full time gardener, and a new greenhouse tunnel is being added this spring to supply additional produce for BramIey's, the latest link uniting the Castle and the nearby town.

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