Farmleigh. The coach leaves Dublin Airport at 2.15pm. Given the large number of flights to Dublin from the UK and elsewhere, flights are not included in the package. Farmleigh House, on the outskirts of Dublin, is now the official guest house for state visitors, with eclectic interior decor and extensive grounds. The hotel for the first three nights is Cliff at Lyons, a refurbished estate village in rural Co. Kildare.
Russborough, Castletown. Both are among the finest and best-preserved Palladian houses in the British Isles, with the classic composition of central range linked to lower side pavilions by quadrant colonnades. Both are encrusted internally with magnificent stucco sculpture, and both, having suffered denuding and neglect, are again well stocked with excellent and appropriate furniture and paintings. Castletown is the larger, with a façade more Roman Baroque than Palladian, a breathtaking double-height hall, brass balustrade and a magnificent long gallery.
Emo Court, Abbey Leix, Carton. James Gandon and Lewis Vulliamy were the architects in the 1790s and 1830s of Emo Court, a Neo-Classical masterpiece with a spectacular circular salon. Abbey Leix is an enchanting mid-size Palladian mansion which has undergone exemplary reinstatement as a family home and been filled with choice pictures and furniture. Visit by kind permission of the owner, Sir David Davies, with lunch in the dining room. Dinner is at Carton House, now a hotel, which has superbly decorated state rooms with figurative plasterwork by the Lafranchini brothers (subject to confirmation).
Anonymous, Beaulieu. We hope to see a major house that is currently unoccupied; another property has been lined up for Plan B. Beaulieu is an utterly charming house from the beginning of the 18th century, hipped roof, carved red brick window surrounds and a walled garden which runs down to the fields beside the Boyne estuary. Inside there is the lived-in patina unique to family homes and a couple of outstanding paintings. Cross into Northern Ireland for the first of three nights at Belle Isle Castle, Co. Fermanagh.
Baronscourt. Deep in County Tyrone, Baronscourt is perhaps as remote as any major house in the UK. Still occupied by the family who commissioned it in 1779, the leisurely visit is by kind permission of the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn. There are talks by estate managers, and lunch is in the salon. The sequence of superb rooms was brilliantly redecorated by David Hicks in the 1970s, and the picture collection is among the finest of any house in Ireland (Lawrence, Reynolds, Van Dyck).
Castle Coole, Crom. A superb 1790s Neo-Classical house, Castle Coole is the masterpiece of English architect James Wyatt, and has scarcely changed since its completion for a royal visit in 1821. After a few hours of free time at Belle Isle, drive to Crom Castle, where we stay for a dinner hosted by Lord Erne. Splendidly sited overlooking Lough Erne, and again in the same family as its original patron, Crom was begun in 1834 in a Gothic Revival style by Edward Blore. The splendid interiors include a cathedral-like stair hall.
Hillsborough, Ballywalter. Hillsborough Castle is the Northern Ireland base for the Secretary of State and for visiting royalty. Largely 18th-century, the handsome two-storey L-plan building has pictures from the Royal Collection and 96 acres of magnificent gardens. We continue to the Ards Peninsula in Co. Down and reach Ballywalter Park for tea and a tour. We stay for the next two nights as guests of Lord and Lady Dunleath. Ballywalter has a 1730s core but was enlarged in a final flourish of grand Italianate classicism in the 1840s. Dinner at Ballywalter.
Mount Stewart, Castle Ward. The National Trust has invested heavily in Mount Stewart, an early 19th-century mansion which is amply furnished, has good paintings and extensive formal and woodland gardens. Castle Ward, begun 1762, is distinguished by being conventional Classical one side and rather risqué Gothick the other, internally as well as on the façade; marital disagreement resolved by innovative compromise. The charming result is enhanced by an excellent site on Strangford Lough. Dinner and second night at Ballywalter.
Grey Abbey. Grey Abbey House, also built in 1762, remains in the family which has owned the estate since 1607. The temperate climate in the environs of Strangford Lough allows a wide variety of flora to flourish in the gardens. We have lunch here before driving to Belfast City Airport, arriving by 3.15pm. As with the outward journey, flights are not included as there are several to choose from.
Historian, journalist and travel writer. He has worked with and for the National Trust in various capacities for almost 30 years. His books include Victorian & Edwardian Country House Life and he writes regular profiles of country houses for the Historic Houses Association magazine. He has written numerous travel and guide books, and contributes to a wide range of newspapers and magazines.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,870. Single occupancy: £4,230.
3 lunches, 7 dinners (of these, 3 lunches and 3 dinners are in private houses).
Several airlines link Dublin and Belfast with many UK and other airports, so flights are not included in the tour. You are free to choose flights which are the most convenient for you.
Cliff at Lyons is a hotel installed in the disparate buildings of an estate village. There are between two and six bedrooms and sitting areas in each house, and a restaurant, spa and other facilities are scattered through well-tended grounds. Belle Isle Castle is a pair of adjoining houses dating to c. 1900 and earlier on the shore of Lough Erne. It is not a hotel but has been beautifully converted for private hire and features very comfortable bedrooms, lounges and dining room. Ballywalter Park is a stately home (see above), and our residence here is as guests of the resident owners – it is very much not a hotel! Bedrooms are very comfortable and have en suite facilities (bath, not shower). Being historic properties, none of the accommodation on this tour has lifts.
There is quite a lot of walking on this tour – walking from drop-off points, touring the houses and enjoying the gardens. Stairs are unavoidable as only one of the places visited has a lift. Average distance by coach per day: 70 miles.
Between 10 and 21 participants.