As always happens on package tours, some days are decidedly more laid back than others. Certain attractions don't lend themselves to high intensity exploring for instance, or there may be fewer locations planned. Sometimes, there's even a confluence between the two. This can all too easily lead to the feeling that the days have effectively blended into one another, and afterwards you can only mentally sort out the route traversed by consulting the date stamps on the hundreds of photos taken along the way. This was one of those days.
We remained within the bounds of Co. Galway on this lazy Monday, heading first to the Connemara Marble Visitor Centre. The Streamstown marble quarry near Clifden was opened in the early 19th century, and today it remains one of the few green marble quarries still in operation in Ireland, under the ownership of the Joyce family. Connemara marble is one of the rarest types of marbles in the world, found only along the Western coast of Ireland. The family controlled quarries only extract a limited amount each year so as not to exhaust the mines. Diamond wire extraction technology is used to work around the special mineral properties of Connemara marble, which make them more difficult to cut than other types of marble. One of the Joyces gave us an informative grand tour, showing us everything from hewn bits of rock to beautifully polished slabs.
Connemara marble formed in the Precambrian era over 700 million years ago, and today come in almost every single shade of green imaginable, from deep moss to a silvery grey-green, sometimes even within the same shard of rock. The variations in colour for other kinds of marble quarried from the same mine can be even more dramatic: the big square below isn't a landscape painting but a chunk of marble. Other types of marble that have been quarried include the Shelly Black, once part of the shoreline of Galway Bay before being compressed and hardened into marble during the Ice Age. Fish bones are sometimes found within, which helps us to date certain pieces - the jet stone below is around 200 million years old.
While not quite a precious or semi-precious stone, green Connemara marble has been called the national gemstone of Ireland, and the Joyce family have chosen to specialize in jewellery making. All of the products are created by artisans who craft the marble pieces at the in-house workshop nestled within the visitor centre. We watched bracelets get assembled and polished before being let loose in the store round the front. There were a number of lovely items on sale, but to D's everlasting delight, I didn't end up spending a small fortune there. They had earrings in every shape save the triskele that I wanted, and after a hunt round the store the salesgirl seemed about as disappointed as I was.
From there, we took the scenic drive up to Kylemore Abbey. Oscar Wilde described Connemara as having a savage sort of beauty, and there was a definite ruggedness to the landscape that seemed almost alien at points. Today the Kylemore Estate is home to an order of Benedictine nuns who fled from Ypres after their former abbey was destroyed in the First World War, but back when it was first constructed, the Estate was a labour of love undertaken by Mitchell Henry, who along with his wife, became entranced by the wildly picturesque sight of mountains, lakes and bogs of Connemara while travelling on their honeymoon.
The house they built, using the cotton fortune that Henry had inherited from his merchant father, is an enchanting piece of architecture, set off very pleasingly against the natural beauty of the grounds. It's still a lovely place to visit today, but back when it was owned by the Henrys, it was one of the grandest homes around, furnished with the very latest in modern appliances. It was fancy enough to host the King of England in 1903, and as the story goes, Edward VII very nearly tried to purchase it for himself before hearing about the sheer costs that went into the running of the Estate. Too expensive for a King apparently.
One of the main attractions of the grounds is the Victorian Walled Garden, but it's a rather long uphill walk from the entrance, so we opted to take the free shuttle bus to it. The bus departs every ten minutes or so, and we caught one just as it was about to leave. When we were getting on the bus though, there was a bit of a commotion from some nearby bushes, and as the German schoolchildren behind us yelped, two rams emerged and began to make for the hills. The three second long incident was easily the most exciting thing that happened all day.
In spite of my eagle-eyed watch, it soon became apparent that the Dash of the Runaway Sheep was not about to have a sequel at any point in the near future, alas. The shuttle to the Garden was uneventful, though the intermittent drizzle that greeted us at the top was an unwelcome reminder of the fact that we'd left our umbrellas on the coach.
Back in the golden era of Mitchell Henry's management of his estate, the Victorian Walled Garden was a marvel of the times, and often favourably compared to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Given the simplicity of the layout today, the first reaction might be to think that the Edwardians must have been massively exaggerating the loveliness of the walled garden. It must be noted though, that the garden is but a shadow of its former self.
While the nuns have done their best to restore and rejuvenate the garden since 1996, previous owners had let it fall into such a state of disrepair that apart from the flower gardens growing wild, the 21 glasshouses that Mitchell Henry had constructed were all collapsed, leaving only their brick foundations. Currently, two of the glasshouses have been repaired, but it would have been such a treat to see the originals, which were heated by three boilers and 5000 feet of hot water pipes.
The six-acre 19th century walled garden was the largest ever built in Ireland, the grandest and the most technologically demanding. The entire thing was built on top of a bog, taming nature on a wide scale rather than letting it dictate what could and couldn't be planted there, all rather in keeping with period notions on science and progress. The feats of engineering that went into the construction of the original walled garden were astounding indeed, and terribly advanced. Compared to the rolling landscape beyond the walls, the expanses of well-cut lawn within would have been quite exotic.
As the rain came down, I hid in one of the restored greenhouses, where a cat that had the same idea was already making itself comfortable on top of the guestbook. From the inside, we could see the well-manicured hedgerows of the pleasure garden, where the spring flowers were budding. The plants inside the greenhouse didn't seem to follow any particular theme, with the odd tropical looking plant and a rather lonely aloe. What a lot of visitors don't realize is that all the plants in the current garden are species that would have been cultivated in the Victorian era. Even if we don't know for sure all the plants that had grown within these walls over a hundred years ago, the gardeners have made educated guesses and incorporated varieties typical of the period.
The garden is naturally divided into two sections by a mountain stream cutting through it, with the pleasure gardens to the East and the food garden hidden away on the other side behind tall hedge walls for being too "common" and therefore decidedly not good enough to be seen by the gentlemen and ladies who were guests of the Estate.
The Benedictine nuns may have required some time to revamp the East side of the garden, but they've always worked on the food plots, and the chefs at Mitchell's Cafe by the entrance of the Estate incorporate the fresh herbs and vegetables grown here in the dishes served. We had rather good savoury scones made according to the recipes provided by the nuns of the Abbey, and I wondered which parts of the salad that came with my lasagne had originated from the garden.
From there, we went back down to the house and were in time to join in the tail end of the free guided tour, which dealt mainly with the legacy Mitchell Henry left as an employer in the Connemara region and the tragedies that befell him later in life. For all the good that he had done for the local people by providing work and education to help them recover from the effects of the Great Famine, Henry led a rather sad life at the end. His beloved wife died young after contracting Nile Fever while they were on holiday in Egypt, one of his sons squandered away the family fortune, and a daughter died in an accident just days after he'd made her return to the house.
The story of the Benedictine nuns there is thankfully, much happier. They used to run a girls' boarding school in the house, and one of their former students was Anjelica Houston. There aren't all that many nuns left, but they still make a number of handicrafts and goodies to sell for the upkeep of the Abbey, including some pretty amazing fruit jams. At lunch, the jam came in a little paper tub to accompany the scones we had. I remained resistant to the idea of spreading it on my scone, but I tried some with a spoon after M looked as though she'd just had a revelation.
It was amazing jam. If not for pesky flight restrictions and a hard earned lesson about the importance of not eating things straight out of jars (The sight of too much peanut butter still makes me shudder), I would have stocked up like crazy. M got one to take home and slowly ration out, and I was going to do the same, only I couldn't decide between fig, raspberry and blackcurrant. In the end though, my eye was caught by the toiletries section (My one great weakness!) and I wound up purchasing Lavender and Ylang Ylang face cream made by the nuns instead. It's really good face cream - the scent is gorgeous and it's surprisingly soothing for my sensitive skin. These nuns make quality stuff.
As we drove back towards Galway, we passed by rural peat land, where chunks of turf that had been cut out were laid along the sides to be dried out by the wind and the sun. Domestic turfing still occurs across Ireland on a small scale for heating and cooking purposes. Bog land is also important for archaeological purposes. Things that get thrown into bogs tend to stay rather well preserved because of the lack of oxygen in the system slowing down the rate of decomposition, and the oldest fleshed bog body ever found was over 2000 years old, discovered in Ireland during a peat harvest. The moral of the story is this: never dispose of a body in a bog.
We made a stop to see Killary Harbour, which is supposed to be Ireland's only fjord. Extending ten miles in from the Atlantic to Leenane at the head, the fjord reaches up to 45 metres in depth. Mussels are grown there on floating rafts, and there's a salmon farm there as well.
By the fjord there was also a Wishing Tree, where a whole host of people left behind bits and bobs of things to represent wishes they hoped would come true. Boots and shoes are common items to tie on for people wanting husbands it seems, and bibs for children, but I'm not too sure why there were so many colourful bird plushies placed on the tree.
That night, we got Chinese takeaway from Galway and spent the evening watching bad television before having an early night. A bit of a rest as we reached the halfway point on our holiday, before all the excitement to come.