Luxury time travel: the colourful history of one of the world’s oldest hotels

One of the joys of travel is the chance to stay somewhere completely different from your home. And unless home happens to be in a medieval fortress, then opting for a hotel which started life as a castle certainly ticks that box. Built in the 13th century, Ashford Castle in Ireland’s County Mayo is absolutely steeped in history. In the Anglo-Saxon de Burgo family for three centuries, it passed into the hands of the English Lord Sir Richard Bingham after a fierce battle. In the 17th century, the castle got another new owner, Baron Oranmore, who received the estate in a Royal Grant.

Ashford Castle

By Victorian times though, Ashford had clearly fallen on hard times. In 1852, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, who became the richest man in Ireland because of his family’s brewing empire, bought the estate. It was sold to him through the Encumbered Estates Court, which was set up to sell off Irish estates whose owners were facing money troubles because of the Great Famine.

While each of its owners had added their stamp, with a new fortification and hunting lodge already in place, Sir Benjamin and his son Arthur, or Lord Ardilaun, were the ones to make the most impact. Two Victorian extensions were added, the estate was extended to 26,000 acres, the space of nearly 130,000 football pitches. New roads were built and trees planted. Lord Ardilaun in turn rebuilt the whole west wing of the castle, added battlements and oversaw the development of massive woodlands.

Ashford Castle bedroom

The castle was retained in trust for the Guinness family, right up until 1915 when it was bought up by hotelier Noel Huggard and it began a new lease of life as a hotel, attracting the attention of some of the most famous movie stars in the world. The grounds of the castle formed the backdrop for the action in director John Ford’s The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, with several of the cast and crew staying there too.

Ashford changed hands again over the years before being bought by its most recent owner, Red Carnation Hotels. With such heritage, the new owners were determined to restore Ashford to all its former glory. An extensive project split over three phases, the key was getting the balance right between preserving the history and heritage of the castle, while providing the luxury and comfort that modern-day guests expect.

First, the grandest suites of the castle were lovingly furnished by President and Founder of Red Carnation Hotels, Mrs Beatrice Tollman, along with her daughter Toni Tollman. Each room now boasts antique furniture, luxury fabrics, bespoke carpets and marble bathrooms.

Ashford Castle four poster

Ashford Castle bedroom

The second stage of the restoration meant the castle had to be closed to guests for two months while major work was carried out to the public areas and remaining guestrooms. To ensure Ashford is here for centuries to come, stonework, windows and roofs have all been renovated, while the latest mod-cons were added. A stunning double aspect library has been created near the entrance hall, while the walled gardens, tennis courts, falconry centre and golf course have all had an overhaul.

It is perhaps what is coming in the third phase, however, which is most exciting.

The old boathouse on the shores of Lake Corrib is set to become a secluded honeymoon suite. Plans for phase three, which will see the hotel close again at the beginning of 2015, also include a new 32-seat indoor cinema, billiard room, cigar terrace, children’s games room, spa, indoor swimming pool, which will add to the plethora of activities available at the hotel including falconry, horse-riding, water sports, clay pigeon shooting, archery, catch-and-release fishing, hiking, golf and tennis.

Ashford Castle has already attracted a string of famous guests, including former US President Ronald Reagan, Beatles’ stars John Lennon and George Harrison and Hollywood royalty Woody Allen, Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan, who had his wedding reception there in 2001. The latest renovations could well mean it attracts even more stars as Ashford follows in the footsteps of other historic hotels, to get the delicate balance between history and luxury just right.

The 13th century Roch Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for example, was completely wrapped in plastic to protect its stonework during restorations to convert it into a corporate retreat. London’s Savoy Hotel, whose origins date back almost to the exact year Ashford Castle was built, reopened in 2010 following a three-year £220 million restoration project.

Just as the Tollmans have brought in local artisans, The Savoy employed skilled craftsmen to bring the Edwardian and Art Deco styles of the Grand Dame of hotels back to life. When it comes to historic hotel restoration, whether i’s a castle or a palace, The Savoy’s general manager summed up well when he said: “We are very aware of the place that The Savoy holds in many people’s affections”.

Ashford Castle from the air

It’s been a similar story about holding onto and improving the heritage of Ashford Castle, while taking the hotel to what its new owners hope will be ‘another level’ of comfort and luxury. With the completion of the final phase of refurbishment pencilled in for April 2015, everything is in place to give the hotel a fitting way to celebrate its 75th anniversary as a hotel next year.

Comments (3)

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  1. Francois says:

    The castle is absolutely stunning, the building itself worth the visit!! Then room are not necessary my taste but well.. Going there must be an experience!

  2. Lash says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks so much for this interesting history of the castle’s many owners and renovations. It’s a gorgeous place!

    I know that nowadays some castles are used as hotels, but I had no idea that way back in 1915 castles were being used as hotels! Amazing.

    I really must stay in a castle one day when I travel through Europe (maybe starting next summer). Maybe this one! It must be a very unusual experience.

    Out of curiosity, how much are the rooms there?

    Thanks again for a great insight into the castle.

    cheers, Lash

  3. Paul Johnson says:

    Thanks, Lash… I think the cheapest way to book is via their website where you can get an Advance Purchase Rate for their standard room on a B&B basis starting from around £70 per person.

    When choosing this option, though, your credit card is charged at reservation stage for the full amount for accommodation, and that rate is non-refundable and non-transferable.

    Paul

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