Ballinderry Park played a bit hard-to-get with us - driving to the village of Kilconnell in County Galway was no major problem and the roads were well signposted after leaving the motorway near Aughrim. But once in Kilconnell, the situation changed. A sign for the nursing home, true, but no sign for the B&B we were heading for. Which is a member of Hidden Ireland, doing that name proud.
Cue a call on the mobile to Ballinderry Park, which was answered with "Ah, you are lost ..." and the helpful suggestion that we could be picked up at the nursing home instead of receiving long instructions. Which happened after a few minutes. And was followed by a drive down a lane that became a drive down a track that became a drive up a carriageway to the house. We were at Ballinderry Park, finally. Guided by the owner himself, George Gossip. The next surprise - not the slightly smarmy owner of a smooth-run commercial operation as often encountered in receptions around the world. But in total contrast an almost Dickensian character, everybody's favourite uncle, with a totally benevolent air (but the slight suspicion that he may turn out to be a bit eccentric).
And a very refreshing, honest attitude - "Yes, there are no signposts, we don't really want people to come for a short look and than drive away." All in all an interesting start to a weekend. A weekend that turned out to be one of the best breaks we had in years.
Ballinderry Park - An Old House Restored
Standing in the middle of an expansive, but slightly unkempt parkland, the house itself was built during the first half of the 18th century and has survived (at first glance at least) largely unaltered. An extension was added to the rear and stables at the back of the house were built as late as the middle of the 19th century, but the front is as original as it gets. And certainly looks much grander than it actually is ...
Ballinderry is described by George Gossip as "basically a big farmhouse", it is a quite small building just seven bays wide and two stories plus a basement high. You may notice the steeply pitched roof (in which a third storey "hides"), betraying the small width of the house itself. Which comes as a bit of a surprise when you realize that the modestly sized bedrooms have windows both to the front and rear of the building. Another unusual feature of the exterior is the full-height central bow, its roof the same height as the main roof and thus creating the illusion of a central tower - very similar in style to small French châteaux. Otherwise, decoration of the façade is fairly minimal. And the sides are monotonous, the only relief being the massive chimney stacks.
And the interior is quite plain too, panelled doors and shutters of heavy a heavy style, with only the central staircase providing light relief. All in all a good example of what George calls "solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale".
As he should know - not only as an architect and historian, but also as the man who rescued Ballinderry from a long decline. He bought the building as a hulk. A grandiose storage barn for anything from furniture to old farm carts and agricultural tools. With a roof literally half intact - good at the front but with three (Victorian) dormer windows at the rear collapsed, smashing their way through the interior. Other smashing was done by vandals, stealing amongst other things the chimney-pieces (which were Victorian replacements, so not a great loss to the original fabric).
At considerable expense George Gossip and his wife, aided by able craftsmen and a vision, set out to restore Ballinderry to its former glory - the roof was renovated, the original outline reinstated, drawing room and dining room windows relocated to their original places. Obviously most windows had to be rebuilt anyway, today early-Georgian and Regency windows feature once again.
Internal floors had to be redone, the woodwork replaced in many areas (it was a feast for woodworms), etcetera, etcetera ... one could go on. But enough of that. Let us have a look at the house as it it today.
Ballinderry Park - Rural Splendour to Relax
Today, all of the main (and original) building of Ballinderry is the domain of its guests. The Gossips use the later annex as private quarters, so you never have the feeling of intruding upon the privacy of the owners (or vice versa).
When you enter Ballinderry, you are in the bow-fronted hall, richly decorated with prints, maps, glass, porcelain, sporting trophies and assorted antique and vintage items. And the staircase, rising from the hall to the upper storeys. Plus (at least upon arrival) a beaming George Gossip, every inch the proud owner, yet unassuming enough not the commit the deadly sin of pride. But when he shows you around, you simply know that this house is his (labour of) love ...
Like the drawing room to the left, having a tall chimney-piece of Kilkenny marble, panelled and painted in a soft green, fully furnished in period style, with views over the park, studded with old trees and dotted with sheep. Just across the hall you find the dining room, again wood-panelled, but painted in Prussian blue and again furnished and decorated in (mainly) period style. The family silver is laid out, an ancestor in the robes of the Order of St. Patrick stands guard ... so to say, him being the subject of an oil painting.
Mentioning paint: Prussian blue would certainly not be my first choice for interior decoration. But it works. So do the strong paint schemes in all the rooms, the bold use of colour being in style with the house and, ultimately, very successful. Even the grey ...
We stayed in the Grey Room on the first landing, one of four bedrooms available for guests. It has a generous double bed and a bathroom with a real bath rather than a shower, not the norm these days. Spacious and comfortable it stretches from the front of the building to the rear. Close the wooden shutters and you are literally cut off from the modern world (though the rooms have electricity and central heating, I should maybe hasten to add). We are normally early risers, but nearly overslept, so quiet and dark it was - with only the chimney letting sunlight streaming in.
On the other side of the landing is the Yellow Room, either with a large double bed or two generous twins, while further up the (smallish) leads to two more rooms with steeply sloping and small windows in the end gables. Cosy, yet roomy enough even for a longer stay. The Pink Room again has alternatively a large double or two generous twin beds. The Blue Room is furnished with a large double bed - and both rooms have attached private bathroom with power showers.
To get a visual impression of the house, also refer to our collection of images taken at Ballinderry.
By the way - the last (public) room in the house is the breakfast room in the basement, with a large fireplace and whitewashed walls, much more rustic than the rest of the house (as it befits the former kitchen). The lay of the land has the front windows below the ground level (occasionally, sheep will peek in) and much higher than the ground level at the rear. The very informal room invites you to linger over breakfast. Which George will prepare with panache ...
George Gossip - Host, Heart and Soul
Kidneys for breakfast? I was a bit sceptical, Janet even more, but then we thought "Why the heck not?" A good thought, they were simply delightful. As was the rest of the breakfast fare, from freshly made apple muesli to home-baked granola, from spicy pork sausages to fresh eggs, from home-made bread to jams and marmalades. But this is just a pale shadow of dinner at Ballinderry.
George is a great cook and uses fresh, organic ingredients. Okay, you might say, this many people claim - but we met him shopping at the market in Galway and can vouch for this part. The first night salmon was the main dish. Now salmon are quite common in Irish cuisine, but most are farmed and many are imported. Not at Ballinderry ... this salmon had been caught on the Mayo coast the night before, by George himself (who is not only an angler, but a hunter as well - and even teaches game cooking). Superbly prepared with sublime seasoning, it opened our eyes to the difference to the farmed variety. Texture, taste, a revelation. The same could be said about the lamb chops that were the main course on the second evening, succulent and tasty. Add starters like artichokes filled with mushrooms (accompanied by helpful hints on how to actually eat this work of culinary art), desserts like fresh strawberry parfait ... let it be enough to say that you will not forget dining at Ballinderry soon after you leave.
What you also will not forget is ... George himself. When I described him as "Dickensian" at the start, this was a first impression. After spending time with him, you are more likely to the see the Renaissance man in him. With interests ranging from hunting to cooking, from architecture to history, from travelling to art, he must certainly rank high on the list of people you'd like to be stuck on an island with.
One of the most abiding impressions of our stay at Ballinderry would be the after-dinner conversation in the drawing room, ranging over a wide variety of topics, with humour and insight on George's part, with the feeling of being in the company of a genial host, not a proprietor. Long may he prosper.
A Final Verdict?
Well, you may have gathered that we liked it here. And to use an over-used and often meaningless phrase - we were charmed. By the house in its rural setting, without pretensions and with comfort, even without signposts. It is a house that very much reflects the period of the 18th century, but without the draughts and inconveniences. Charmed by George Gossip and his very personal approach to everything, without ever being too intense for comfort.
Oh, and charmed by Sable the dachshund ... but that would be another story.