This is our Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery. He built the house in 1870,” Colleen Lowry gestures toward a painting as we chat in the hall of the majestic Blessingbourne Estate, the home she shares with her husband Nick.
This working farm, self-catering accommodation and nature reserve just outside Five Mile Town in Co Fermanagh is where Irish Country Living is staying for our “holiday at home” in the county.
Colleen describes the relative in the painting as a “bit of a bad boy” who came to Blessingbourne after he “burnt down his castle in Derrygonnelly, probably after one too many parties”.
As we had visited Florence Court and Castle Coole and been regaled by the well-versed guides of the National Trust, this titbit came as no surprise. It appears that the people of Fermanagh have always known how to enjoy themselves.
The house passed through generations of Montgomerys until Nick Lowry inherited it in the 1960s. Although gracious that they are “lucky to still be here”, Colleen notes that maintaining a grand house like Blessingbourne is a labour of love requiring continuous investment. Since they moved in, the Lowrys have battled dry rot twice.
“That’s been pretty challenging to deal with. It’s like country house rescue. We did tours when we were dealing with the dry rot. People are fascinated with the issues associated with keeping these houses going,” she says.
The outdoor experience
Despite Colleen’s quite clear directions to turn in at the gate lodge, we still ended up in the farm, a beef finishing enterprise, which is where we first met Nick. Although the Aberdeen Angus herd and the other animal residents – Colleen’s beloved cobs and a host of birds and dogs – are an attraction, over time farming started to take a back seat as the tourism activities increased. Son Rory helps out on the farm but has other interests, so Colleen believes that it is when their son Callum returns from Australia they might “up the farming element again.”
Although the area farmed has reduced, the 550 acres have been put to good use with 13km of mountain biking trails now snaking across the estate’s woods, past the private lakes and through the nature reserve.
The tracks, designed by Phil Saxena – who designed the trails for the Beijing Olympics – go from blue (easy) to black (technical). Nick uses words such as jumps, table-tops, berms, rock-gardens and drops. I admit he lost me on terminology after “jumps” but for any adrenaline junkie, Blessingbourne is the place to hone your biking skills. There are also “chicken-runs” for the kids and the more faint-hearted.
Although Colleen wanted horse trekking trails originally, when Outdoor Recreation came to Blessingbourne, they were looking to open mountain bike trails.
“We were the first mountain bike trail to get funding in Northern Ireland. It’s a public-private partnership with Mid-Ulster Council. We are right on the border here, between Tyrone and Fermanagh, so I get goodies off both tables. We are the gateway to Fermanagh” she says.
Fishing is very popular on the estate’s private lake, Lough Fadda, the Long Lake with guests using the row boats to try their hand at catching one of the pike, perch or roach plentiful in the waters. Colleen excitedly tells me that last summer, guests started bringing paddle boards and kayaks to fully utilise the waters. Swimming was also popular.
The grounds themselves hold much history. During the Second World War, American soldiers from the eighth artillery were posted there before going to France. There are two Nissen huts (a prefabricated steel structure for military use) at the back of the walk across the lake.
“We still get people coming from the states whose fathers were stationed here. We had a brother and sister who came and talked about how happy their father’s memories were,” Colleen reflects.
In commemoration of those troops, the family were presented with an oak tree, similar to the one planted in Florence Court.
Colleen tells us a story that Huey, who worked on the estate until he was 95, told her.
“He remembered the Americans well because, he said, it was really hard to get a girl in Five Mile Town at that time because of their American accents and their uniforms. He said they called them the Doughboys because they had so much money and locals couldn’t compete.”
As we walk down to see the oak tree, Colleen expresses her concern for the estate’s 250 acres of forestry.
“We’ve had tree surgeons in, I thought trees just stood but with climate change and the winds that we’ve been having, trees need much more management than I appreciated. We lost a big lime tree at the front of the house. We’ve been trimming the oaks to actually open them up so that the wind can go through them to save them and keep them longer, hopefully.”
Memories of a Victorian childhood
Moving on from that picture of the “bad boy”, we enter the library, which, she explains, “has been set up to evoke memories of a Victorian childhood.
“I’m not really a dolly girl. I was always much more into ponies growing up but ladies that visit enjoy this. When this house was built there were seven boys and these toys and children’s clothes are all original. The house was designed by Pepys Cockerell, who was a great friend of William Morris. I had original William Morris wallpaper in this room but I have put on new William Morris now. Because you’re trying to respect the estate and the house but still live in it and not completely live in a museum?”
Colleen’s own career background was in art and as we walk through the rooms, her passion for it radiates. “We’ve inherited a huge amount of original old art, but I love bringing in new work and I would love to buy more art but I’m always fixing holes in the roof.”
The house itself is only open for tours and private events, with the courtyard self-catering the main accommodation. There are seven properties with space for 27 family and friends or 15 to 18 in a business group. This includes the Courtyard apartments, the five-star Gate Lodge, the Stables and the Cabin.
Nick’s parents started tourism on the estate, renovating the collapsing courtyard at the height of the political troubles and then let them long-term because it was just so hard.
A development in recent years is the Coach House, which is the estate’s function space. Although they do host what Colleen describes as “quirky events”, it is families and those wishing to travel with their pets that is their real target guest.
“We have two rescues, we’re really into our pets. And we would say we keep everything from a hamster to a horse.”
Having won best self-catering in Northern Ireland 2017 and being runners up in 2018, the Lowrys unsurprisingly get a lot of repeat business. Although they admit that they would not be as well-known in the South as the North, COVID has brought a lot of Southern visitors to Northern Ireland.
Colleen smiles as she tells us that people are surprised on arrival that it is such an authentic product.
“I think a lot of people come to the estate and don’t imagine we’ll be running around in our wellies and doing lots of work. I think that’s what throws people – that we are very hands-on and very involved with our guests.
A shadowy history
Colleen almost whispers as she tells me that I was standing in the top spy house in Ireland. A place where all the Cambridge spies spent their summers.
“We’ve lots of shadowy history here on the estate. Now we don’t have that publicised but all the Cambridge spies, Blunt, Philby and McLean, would have been here for visits. Blessingbourne was a house filled with music and parties and artists and I suppose we’ve been picking up the pieces ever since,” she laughs – but I’d say if the walls could talk, the stories would never stop coming. CL
Prices for a self-catering apartment for three nights Thursday to Sunday will cost; £376 (eg The Stables apartment for three); £450 (eg Cherry apartment for four) to £700 (The Gate Lodge for five). For activity costs contact the estate: https://www.blessingbourne.com