It’s a particularly British pastime, discussing the weather, and we’ve done an awful lot of it over the last week. Not out of Britishness, but because it has been so miraculously sunny. This doesn’t happen to Tom and I usually. If we go on holiday, anywhere, it rains. Always. Ireland, however, has been lucky for us, so we’ve made the most of it.
We started the day yesterday peering at a grey sky whose threat of rain never materialised, and instead turned into blinding sunshine by lunchtime. Ken (the writer, broadcaster and lecturer we’ve been visiting) took us to see Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne, the 18th Century ‘holiday home’ of the Earl Bishop Fredrick Augustus Hervey. Born into a distinguished Suffolk family in 1730, Frederick Augustus was many things; scientist, agitator, art collector and Royal Chaplain to George III, who referred to him as “that wicked prelate”. He was also a notorious womaniser, and Ken’s play explores the bishop’s life through his various romantic liaisons and infatuations.
One of these infatuations, with his young cousin, led to his building Mussenden Temple in honour of her beauty. Perched precariously on a cliff edge, the National Trust now care for it and the nearby ruins of Downhill Demesne, Frederick’s former manor house.
I fell in love with the temple, to be honest with you, though I’m sure the cousin was indeed very pretty. It used to hold Frederick’s library, and a fire was kept constantly burning beneath it to keep the books dry. A nice metaphor for his burning passions! The books have gone now, but you can still see the alcoves where towering bookcases would have stood, and concave hollows above them where marble busts would have rested.
The view from each window is stunning. to the left you can observe the railway that has tunneled directly underneath the temple (apparently quite a crowd gathered the day they blasted through the cliff to build it, hoping to see the temple crash into the sea), and the coastline stretching away into the distance. To the right the view is primarily of the landscape, rolling turf and the precipitous cliff edge. Directly in front of you though, is the sea itself. Staring out at it, I thought to myself that I would sit here all day if it was mine. Waves lap against the shore below, and crash against the cliff face at high tide. Shifting shades of turquoise and ultramarine glitter beneath bubbling white foam, and flurries of sand billow towards the surface, as if sea monsters are stirring the depths.
I could easily imagine stretching out on a velvet covered window seat, wrapped in a shawl with a heavy leather book in my lap, the sea whispering to me and the wind rattling the window panes. Surrounded by books and paintings, a beautiful Persian rug stretched across the stone floor, and two Irish wolfhounds asleep on it at my feet… Yes alright, I may have got a little carried away. Tom only rolling his eyes when I said he could build me a temple if he wanted.
The interior of Downhill Demesne feels too modern to be a ruin, which lends it an air of tragedy. Frederick was responsible for making the Giant’s Causeway famous, both scientifically and as a tourist destination, and he built the house nearby (ish) to reduce his travelling time. Piles of rubble are padlocked behind rusting metal gates, as the Trust are slowly excavating, exploring, and rescuing antiquities that have been buried by the house’s demise. We also walked down to the House’s principal entrance, through a bluebell strewn woodland. Ferns and wildflowers stretched to either side, and we came across an elegant bog garden full of moss, and exotic seeming plants in flamboyant hues. Tom commented on how much more beautiful a garden that had been crafted to look a bit wild and unmanaged was, compared to more classically sculpted gardens, and I quite agree.
After lunch we continued driving along the coast, and ended up at a lovely little cove with a cave, boats, and a small cafe selling ice cream. I really didn’t need any more, and we sat on the sea-wall in the sunshine, watching the battle between waves and shore, and enjoying the sea air.
It was a perfect break for us, and I wasn’t exactly happy to have to leave (I sulked. A lot). We’re both recovering from bad colds, so Ireland was just what we needed – medicine for the soul.
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