Breaks: Ballygally Castle Hotel just the place for atmospheric r and r
Jane Hardy visits the historic Ballygally Castle Hotel for a memorable wedding anniversary on the Co Antrim coast
THE Romans had a thing about atmosphere. They called it 'spirit of place' or 'genius loci'. On a recent wedding anniversary trip to Ballygally Castle Hotel, we got exactly what they meant.
As soon as we stepped out of the cab following a stressful train journey, peace came dropping pretty quickly, to misquote Mr Yeats. It could of course have been the nature-as-chiropractor effect, with a calm sea just opposite – the setting of this extended 17th century castle with imposing tower is truly magical.
So, after checking in and noting the pleasant reception area with a small but well stocked bar, we headed for the beach. It's sandy, boasted one or two beachcombers and I couldn't resist a paddle. Having by this time changed for dinner, I dashed in wearing tights, but the experience was as soothing as ever.
Then we headed for a pre-prandial drink, enlivened by watching a few revellers enjoying a wedding reception. This would be a great place to tie the knot – it was certainly a nice spot to celebrate having done just that in Canterbury 16 years ago.
Paul, the charming barman and centre half at Portadown Football Club, poured me probably the second best g-and-t of my life: it involved Hendricks, two slices of lime, Feverfew tonic and ice, and came in a massive glass. We batted about the question of why gin has taken over the world.
Then it was time for dinner in the beamed dining room. Do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the Ballygally menu: cooking is a question of execution and chef Kevin Osborne is really skilled.
Michael had spring rolls to start, nice and spicy and stuffed with beef and duck. I went for the Irish scampi and was blown away by the light, almost tempura batter encasing some seriously good prawns. They were locally caught and fresh as anything. As the amiable manager Aaron told us, much of the rest of the seafood comes from the famous East Belfast provider Ewing's.
Our mains were on the money too. Michael had satisfying fish and chips. Having smelt the roast lamb, I had to try it. I gained a platter-full, with long stemmed broccoli and a potato stack. By this time we'd started chatting to a couple of interesting fellow diners: American singer Ginger Newman, who had just been involved with the Belfast Nashville Songwriters' festival, and her actor son Daniel Collins.
Conversation ranged far and wide as the nice bottle of Languedoc-Roussillon house red went down. We discussed the arts scene here and there, along with stand-out gigs. She raised us Johnny Cash while we extolled Chic.
Anybody visiting this hotel and the Antrim coast area should try the Gobbins Tour and make a detour to Glenarm Castle, another beautiful place with glorious gardens and events including the Dalriada Festival. There is also its Games of Thrones connections and the hotel does special related teas.
The staff left us to it, but by the time we said goodbye, my lamb was cold. Happily, the chef made it into a brilliant sandwich for a midnight feast. And, although we were too full for pudding, there were gluten-free chocolate brownies waiting in our room.
Outside, there was a June moon and some small croquet hoops requiring investigation. He won, easily. We wandered about, then headed for bed.
Julie Hastings, marketing supremo and daughter of Sir Billy Hastings who acquired the hotel in 1966, has a theory about staying in hotels. The quality of sleep is all-important as viewers of Four In A Bed know. So, in a Hastings Hotel you end up on a superior, pricey American mattress. It's money well spent as you speed towards your dreams, in our case lulled by the distant sound of the sea.
You would not guess that the history attached to this place is pretty dramatic. In the 1641 rebellion/revolution, there were several attacks carried out by the Irish garrison based at Glenarm up the coast. Happily, none were successful, something underlined by the motto inscribed on the tower: 'Gods providans is my Inheritans'.
Breakfast was good, especially in the bacon and sausage department, although the scrambled eggs were a little firm. Then, sadly, it was time to go. But not before we'd viewed a room you definitely wouldn't want to occupy.
The 'ghost room' at the top of the tower is the place Lady Isobel Shaw, hapless wife of the first owner James, was incarcerated after producing a baby considered the 'wrong' gender, ie a girl. This tragic tale ended with her throwing herself to her death from a window.
We'll definitely return, maybe to one of the oldest hotel rooms in Northern Ireland in the tower – or maybe not.
:: Seaview rooms B&B £170, tower rooms B&B £190.
:: Dinner offer: two courses for £22 per person, including wine.
:: Book via Hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle or tel 028 2858 1066