My castle has a nice wing to it

Crom Castle is home to the earls of Erne and the setting for the BBC’s latest PG Wodehouse adaptation — but the aristocratic owners have opened up a wing for let, writes Audrey Ward

13 January 2013
Home; The Sunday Times

In August 2011, John Crichton, Viscount Erne, was on his summer holiday at Crom Castle, his family home in Co Fermanagh, when he received an unexpected visit. A television locations director, scouting for a country pile in Northern Ireland that could be used to film Blandings, a new six-part BBC comedy series based on stories by P G Wodehouse, proposed Crom, seat of the earls of Erne for more than 350 years.

Crichton was delighted. The 41-yearold needed only to consider the estate’s eye-watering bills, and to see how Highclere Castle in Berkshire, England, has benefited from its starring role in ITV’s Downton Abbey, to be convinced of the commercial merits of allowing his home to be transformed into Blandings Castle.

He offered the west wing, which his father, Henry, the present Lord Erne, made over to him in 2003. Shooting began last March, although it was mainly in the south wing, his parents’ home.

“I pay huge tribute to my parents because for two months they had 60 cast and crew members in their house and they had two rooms to live in: their bedroom and their kitchen,” says Crichton, who worked as an estate agent in London for 20 years before setting up a property-search business there.

Once an aspiring actor, Crichton returned to Fermanagh from his home in Chelsea for the shoot, and made tea and coffee for the crew and cast. He also managed to bag a role as a footman in a scene with Jennifer Saunders, who plays Lady Constance in the series. “I can blame Dad for this one. He said to the director, ‘You had better watch my son — he’ll be in front of that camera before you know it,’ and next thing I knew I had a part.”

Set in 1929 in the fictional Blandings Castle, the series stars Timothy Spall as Lord Emsworth, who struggles to keep his dysfunctional family in order. Saunders plays the lord’s sister, Connie, while Jack Farthing is his unlucky-inlove son Freddie, and Mark Williams takes the role of Beach, the family’s loyal and long-suffering butler.

The Victorian conservatory which leads off the west wing features in some scenes, as does the west wing’s Buff Room with its four-poster bed. The other five bedrooms were used as waiting areas and dressing rooms, while the continuity checking was done in the hallway.

David Walliams, who makes a guest appearance in two episodes, fell so much in love with the bedroom that was allocated as his dressing room that he insisted on sleeping there during his time in Fermanagh. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast and crew took up residence in the estate cottages and nearby hotels.

Allowing his “semi-detached castle”, as he calls it, to be used as a television location isn’t the first time Crichton has Continued on page 10

Continued from page 9 found a commercial venture for the property. When he took over the running of the west wing almost 10 years ago, he offered weekly and weekend lets to help make it pay its way. Noel Johnston, his manager, now oversees the business while Crichton splits his time between London and Fermanagh.

“Our first let was in 2004. We had the ITN news correspondent John Irvine and his wife, Libby. From then on we grew and grew,” says Crichton.

The castle was designed by Edward Blore, an English architect who was also responsible for sections of Buckingham Palace. The six-bedroom west wing sleeps 12 and is available to let all year round at a cost of £2,500 ($3,000) for a weekend or £5,500 for a week, self-catering.

“It’s very much a home rather than a guesthouse. The guests don’t feel they’re going to bump into somebody else,” says Crichton.

There are three double bedrooms and three twin rooms. All have en-suite bathrooms. The rooms are decorated in a period style and have been given names. The Rose Room, for instance, is decorated with matching red and yellow rose print wallpaper and curtains.

“You don’t want to wake up with a hangover in this room,” says Crichton.

The elegant drawing room has a fireplace and double doors that open on to the terrace, which gives access to Lough Erne. The cosy dining room has a fireplace and oil-fired Aga. Guests are also able to use the estate’s parklands, which have been managed by the National Trust since 1987. The 2,000-acre estate contains islands, cottages — which can also be rented — and the ruins of Old Crom Castle, as well as ancient woodland, which is home to a small herd of fallow deer reintroduced by Crichton’s father, the sixth earl of Erne, in the 1970s.

In summer months guests may encounter National Trust visitors in the grounds, but the castle and the land surrounding it, including the tennis court, are reserved for the private use of the family and guests.

Crichton is full of praise for the work of the trust: “As a family we couldn’t have afforded to keep the estate on. There were 22 cottages which all had to be looked after. It was hard to make the estate pay and we did try, but it never really worked. The National Trust deemed it important to take it on and [it] looks after it fantastically. Our only problem is to keep the house going.”

The cost of renovations and repairs to the property, which dates back to the 1830s, have caused him a few sleepless nights over the years. Ten years ago, the wing was in poor condition and had leaking roofs. Crichton embarked on a modernisation project. He fixed the roofs, restored the bedrooms and replaced the boiler and heating.

Two years ago, disaster struck. The castle suffered serious storm damage during the big freeze. Burst pipes caused leaks in all the bedrooms and the insurers had to be called. “Luckily all the leaks happened in the middle of the rooms, so we didn’t have to replace the wallpaper, but it was so depressing as we had got the place into such a good state.”

The past couple of years have been tough, given the spiralling cost of maintaining the estate. “It amazes me, the amount of money it takes to keep one wing with six bedrooms going; the amount needed to get our turnover on wages, electricity, the website and licences. You open a bill for the oil and it reads £1,500 for a fill-up — and that’s just for my wing. It makes the mind boggle. A lot of people think, ‘Oh you’re so lucky, living in a big house,’ but it’s a lot of hard work and worry.”

Crichton, who has four older sisters, doesn’t dwell long on such adversities and instead recalls his idyllic childhood. “My sisters and I would go off on the boats, water-ski, go cycling and swimming in the lough, have pirate parties and play cops and robbers in the woods.”

They also swam in the pool that was once in the Victorian conservatory.

“People don’t come to Fermanagh to swim,” says Crichton matter-of-factly. When he and his sisters weren’t rollicking about outside or swimming, they spent their time in the west wing, which was used as the nursery, and in the evenings they would join their parents in the south wing.

Lettings and shoots aside, Crichton has another money-spinning venture on the go. In an average year, he takes bookings for between 15 and 20 weddings from local couples and those from further afield, such as America, Abu Dhabi and New Zealand.

The idea of hosting weddings in the west wing’s conservatory came when Lord Crichton, a page of honour to the Queen and her late father, George VI, in the early 1950s, was inspired by David and Victoria Beckham’s wedding at Luttrellstown Castle in Dublin and Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’s wedding at Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan.

“We happen to be one of the last large houses that are private and not open to the public,” says Crichton. “Originally, we didn’t want to do weddings as they can be very intrusive, but they’ve been our saving grace.”

He is determined to keep the castle in a fit state to pass on to the next generation. He hopes to marry one day and have children who will experience the Swallows and Amazons-style childhood he enjoyed.

For now he has no plans to base himself in Crom full time. “This castle has got various phases to it. Phase one is now, when I’m looking after one bit of the castle. Phase two is when my parents might, sadly, not be around and I will take control of the whole place. I see the potential to keep it commercial and to use the other wing. At the moment my parallel life seems to be the best way.”

Blandings starts on BBC1 tonight at 6.30pm; NOT FOR KEEPS Be king or queen of your own castle for a week or a weekend with these holiday rentals Co Tipperary Lisheen Castle in Thurles was restored from a ruin over five years and has been turned into luxury accommodation. It sleeps up to 14 people and can be rented at a high-season cost of $5,380 for a week. The castle, set in the Munster Hills, is two hours’ drive from Dublin. It is available for weekend rentals, apart from during the peak season, for $2,200. Co Galway Up to 14 people can spend the night in the seven double bedrooms at Cloghan Castle in Kilchreest, near Loughrea. The drawing room has a large open fireplace and there is a barbecue area on the battlements and a tennis court in the grounds. The weekly high-season rate is $8,000 and the weekend rate is $5,700. Co Mayo Surrounded by 16 acres of pasture land, Turin Castle in Kilmaine sleeps up to 12 people. The bedrooms all have en-suite bathrooms. It is furnished with antique pieces and includes a baronial hall. There is a large patio and barbecue area, as well as a meadow garden. The castle costs $2,800 a week and $1,600 for a weekend to rent in the high season.