George Skipton inherited Beech Hill in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, from his cousin Thomas Skipton in the 1800s, planted new trees and improved the layout and appearance of the grounds. This image of him and his family is part of an historical display at Beech Hill Country House Hotel in Londonderry.
Ireland is a virtual goldmine for history buffs. There are museums aplenty, multiple monuments, lovely historic homes, and hotels that welcome guests.
MANOR HOUSE HOTELS
This spring, a friend and I headed north and spent two nights at Beech Hill Country House Hotel, one of 29 luxury boutique hotels and castles that are included in the Manor House Hotel group in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.
Beech Hill, outside Londonderry, has a long and fascinating history stretching back to Capt. Thomas Skipton, who built the current mansion in 1739, and called it Beechhill because there were so many trees around the house.
When the last Skipton died, the estate went to his cousin, George Crookshank Kennedy, who continued making improvements, planted even more trees, and added a large porch to the front of the house with a room above now known as the library.
In 1872, when the property was sold to the Nicholsons of Newbuildings, N. Ireland, the estate included 1,169 acres. The hotel now sits on 32 acres.
US NAVY BASE
While the history of Beech Hill ownership and subsequent changes is interesting, it’s the story of the US Navy’s establishment of a World War II camp on the grounds there that is riveting. US Marines billeted in Quonset huts at Beech Hill from 1942 to 1944 to guard the Navy’s Operating Base Londonderry, which was the its main center of operations in Europe until after the Normandy landings.
Londonderry - the UK’s most westerly port - made the city an obvious choice for a strategic base. From there, the Navy could help protect convoys from U-boat attacks during the Battle of the Atlantic. The base also fueled escort vessels, serviced ships from many nations and, at its height, had more than 5,000 American personnel.
Today, when you walk through the manicured grounds, ornamental gardens, and series of trails through at Beech Hill, it’s hard to imagine that more than 400 Quonset huts and 30 shelters were once there, serving as accommodation huts and mess tents, small workshops, and even active theatres.
The history of Beech Hill’s military past is commemorated at the hotel in an on-site museum and trails dedicated to Marine Lt. Gen. Martin R. Berndt (1948-2011) and his wife, Diana, who championed the creation of this museum.
The Londonderry base was decommissioned in July 1944, but Beech Hill still has special meaning for the Marines and their families who continue to visit. They stay in the hotel on grounds that once sheltered their comrades, carve their initials and dates into the huge, ancient Marines’ Tree on the grounds, visit the museum, and stop by the monument erected on the hotel grounds in 1997 by the Beech Hill US Navy/Marine Corps Association.
THE MANOR HOUSE HOTEL
Current owners Patricia (Patsy) O’Kane and her brother, Seamus Donnelly, bought the property in 1989, spent the next two years making renovations, and opened up in 1991.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Patsy said, “and I can’t call it anything else. It’s been almost 30 years and we’re still working on it. It’s a way of life. I’ve enjoyed it and learned so much.”
Patsy is omnipresent. She’s chatting with guests or staff, checking dining room service, and making small changes and improvements here and there. She is a totally hands-on owner, assisted by her nephew, Conor Donnelly, and other family members.
By the end of the summer, Beech Hill hopes to offer self-catering in five two-bedroom cottages on the grounds, Patsy said. “We plow money back in,” she said, “doing things that are sustainable.”
In addition to conferences and events, the hotel also focuses on weddings and can provide all wedding accoutrements in-house, including beautician, hairdresser, flowers, and more. “We bring all the professionals here for the bride,” Patsy said.
A TWO-NIGHT STAY
My large bedroom in the older section of the hotel was spotlessly clean and nicely decorated with antiques as was my friend’s room next door. There are 30 bedrooms and suites at Beech Hill, almost all with garden views.
Much work has been done there since Patsy and Seamus bought the property and it shows. In 2011, restoration work, which included new sash windows, extensive re-roofing, and external and interior redecoration, was completed.
The day after we arrived, we drove up to The Giant’s Causeway and then had an outstanding lunch at Bushmills Inn in the town that’s home to the world’s oldest whiskey distillery near the Causeway. There are many other activities in the area, too.
The hotel staff offered suggestions and provided helpful brochures for activities like Causeway Express taxi tours to attractions along the North Antrim coast and also to Donegal. When you’re in that area, be sure to visit historic Londonderry city to walk the 17th Century city walls built to protect early English and Scottish settlers. Derry is the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland.
There’s so much to do in the area and a visit is highly recommended. See visitderry.com for more information.
We sometimes check Trip Advisor to see how other Americans liked their Irish experiences.
A California resident who visited Beech Hill last month wrote: “The room was lovely and the service was great. However I am extremely disappointed by the quality of the food served. We ordered room service for a light dinner, and for the price of the meals were expecting either a substantial quantity of food or a memorable meal. The salad was overdressed, poorly executed, and uninviting. The cheese plate was an improvement, but nothing to write home about. I would love to return to this hotel, but next time will be making the trip into town for all meals.”
Another Trip Advisor review, this time by a couple from Florida that visited last May, read: “Wonderful old-timey hotel with tons of history. The whole place is essentially a museum.
Nonetheless, the rooms are large, clean, and modern. The lounge is friendly and the restaurant has a medium size menu with excellent dishes from steak and Guinness pie to fine dining.”
My friend and I had two dinners in the Beech Hill dining room and were surprised that there were no fish dishes on the limited menu since we were quite close to the sea. We visited in the early spring, so vegetables served with the meal were seasonal winter root vegetables and not especially appetizing. Our breakfast was good, though – we both ordered cooked-to-order omelets.
The bottom line is that each person’s experience is distinctly his or her own. We’d definitely return and give the dining room another chance to delight us.
There are many things to do in Ireland in the fall, including several events along the Gourmet Greenway in Co. Mayo.
On Sept. 15, visit Murrevagh Honey and meet James McDermott, see his apiary, and watch him harvest Golden Murrevagh Honey.
From Sept. 11 to 17, make a reservation at the award-winning An Port Mor Restaurant in Westport, Co. Mayo, to sample creative dishes made from Clare Island salmon.
From Sept. 22-24, Galway City celebrates the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival. More than 500,000 visitors have consumed more than 3 million oysters since the festival’s inception in 1954. See galwayoysterfestival.com for more.
Westport’s art festival is Sept. 27 to Oct. 1 and the Keel Sheep Show is Sat., Sept. 30, at the Achill Head Hotel, Co. Mayo.
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go.