Have you ever discovered that there's something brilliant within driving distance of your house that you've never known about? Last Sunday, we went for a drive. On the way home, we passed the entrance to Tullynally Castle, just outside Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath (on the Granard Road). We've passed it a thousand times before, but this time we noticed a sign outside saying that it was open, so we decided to go in for a look.
When we went up the long driveway, we were greeted with the most amazing Gothic style castle. I got a bit filter-happy in places, just go with it.
Tullynally Castle (technically a country house) is over 300 years old. Home to the Packenham family since the 17th century, it is now owned and maintained by Thomas and Valerie Packenham. The castle was built as a semi-fortified house with a defensive outer wall. By the early 18th century, it had been already partly transformed into a Georgian mansion, and an illustrated family diary from 1736 shows a large formal garden of cascades and basins laid out on the southern slope below the house. Soon afterwards, the taste for romantic "natural" landscaping reached Ireland and these were swept away to be replaced by parkland. By 1780 the gardens were probably alread laid out as they are today. The house was changed back from a Georgian mansion to a Castle in 1803 by the 2nd Earl of Longford who added flanking towers and a row of battlements. Then in 1840 the 3rd Earl doubled its size by adding the two great wings (mostly for use as servants quarters) and battlements and towers around the stable courtyard. Source: Leaflet from Tullynally Castle.
There are two car parks. To go to the gardens (all 12 acres of them) you need to pass through the tea rooms.
You can enjoy tea and scones for two people for €7.50, or there are a range of snacks available. Things like cans of coke, ice-creams, bags of crisps etc have a pretty high mark-up (as is usual in places like this) so if you're planning a day trip, pack your own snacks. We didn't, so we ended up spending around a tenner on rubbish. Lesson learned! There were gorgeous looking desserts on display too, and the staff were friendly and knowledgeable.
To get access to the gardens, it costs €6 for an adult, €3 for a child over 6, and €16 for a family pass (2 adults, 2 children over 6). Under 6s go free, so it was €15 for husband, myself, the 10 year old and the babies.
When you step out of the tea rooms, you walk into the courtyard - there are more seats outside, where you can enjoy your beverages. You can also take a look at the Packenham Family Carriage, which is pretty much only used now for family weddings.
The entrance to the gardens was very The Secret Garden-esque.
The scenery is every bit as stunning out this side.
The gardens are to the right - we were given a map when we paid our entrance fee, showing us where to go and what to look for. We were also given a treasure trail for children, and details about several different trees with numbers on them (the tree page was actually surprisingly interesting). The first place we wanted to see was the Grotto - the path to the grotto is littered with hidden gems like stone Gargoyles and creepy wood carvings.
The path up to the grotto is MURDER with a buggy, so myself and the 10 yo went on ahead and had a look, then came back to husband. This is the Grotto:
The Grotto was built around 1830 from eroded limestone from Lough Derravaragh (the legendary lake where the Children of Lir were turned into swans). You can supposedly see Lough Derravaragh from a clearing in front of the grotto, but I couldn't see it that day.
When we went back to the main path, we passed this "Weeping Pillar" fountain.
As we made our way around the gardens, we noticed benches and little summer house-like structures dotted around, so there are plenty of opportunities to sit down for a few minutes.
The entrance to the Kitchen Garden is guarded by two sphinxes, or "merrymaids".
The Kitchen Garden is one of the largest in Ireland. A family of Llamas graze on it now, but according to an information plaque in the garden (these are dotted all over the gardens and are super helpful), there were once 20 gardeners employed for maintenance.
There are two sacred bulls in the Kitchen Garden too - or Nandi. These were made by a local sculptor.
We then continued on the path to the Upper Lake, which was once used for bathing.
There are some stunning wood carvings around the Upper Lake.
At this point we had been walking for about two hours and the babas were getting hungry. I was also wearing ballet slippers that were cutting the feet off me, so we headed back for the tea rooms again.
There's so much more to see in the gardens that we didn't do - we didn't do the Forest Walk, or see Queen Victoria's Summerhouse, or the Tibetan Gardens, or the Gingerbread House, or Chinese Garden, or Swan Pool.
We'll definitely go back again, but I'll be wearing trainers the next time and we'll be packing sandwiches so we can take a break in the Gardens without having to walk the whole way back.
Tullynally Castle Gardens & Tearoom are open from Thursday-Sunday from 11am-6pm from April 19th to September 28th, so you still have 8 opportunities to go for a wander this year - I'm just sorry I didn't discover it sooner. There's a big event happening at Halloween:
From the 25th - 27th October, there will be "Spook Walks" around the Castle and Gardens starting at 6pm. Due to the spooky nature of the event, children under 8 are not permitted. To book, and for information on walk times and what you need to bring, go to www.directingtourism.ie.
There are also Christmas Markets, which I fully intend on attending as soon as I get more information. You can keep up to date with happenings at Tullynally's website or facebook page.
Tours of the Castle can be arranged for groups with a minimum of 20 people. For further information, check the website.
Altogether we spent less than €25 for a family of five and we had such a nice day out. Obviously something like this depends greatly on the weather, but I'll definitely be back - considering it's only 15 minutes up the road, there's no excuse not to return.