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Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews

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The Herald Magazine (Saturday 3 May 2008)

The Jewel in the Crown
By Raoul Curtis Machin

Who stole spring this year? Those folks at Glenapp Castle, that’s who.

They went out into the fields and carried it away in a big black bag with the top tied tightly. When they got back to Ballantrae, into their sheltered, secluded corner of South Ayrshire, they released the sunshine around their hotel, and basked in the warmth while the rest of us reached for a brolly and an extra jumper.

A fairytale? Perhaps, but the whole place is a glorious fantasy, from the second you step out of the car and leave your real-life worries securely in the boot. Once inside the warm sandy-coloured, turreted stone house, you are never far from a large window and the magnificent view.

The formal garden terraces drop away beneath your eyes and the sentinel fir trees frame the sea views and Kintyre peninsula in the distance. The volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig takes centre stage, like the great mounded back of a slumbering ancient sea monster.

Beside the splendour of the terraces, woodland and walled gardens, house, opulent furnishings and décor, there is, of course, the food, all six gourmet courses of it prepared in the Michelin-starred, triple AA-rosetted restaurant. The garden and kitchen have always been closely tied together, but here they reach the pinnacle of their relationship and give visitors the chance to experience the life of old-school aristocratic wealth and privilege.

Each course awakens different sensations that echo parts of the garden. The provocative ginger beer jelly with Ballantrae crab and Granny Smith apple salad suggests the cheeky cordyline and curry plant hedge on the main terrace, spicing up the impressive formal, disciplined geometry. The intense and salty John Dory fillet startles like the show-stopping scarlet-flowered specimen rhododendron thomsonii at the start of the woodland walk. The subtlety of the sea bass with cockles and fennel purée mirrors the interplay of light and shade beneath the hornbeam allee and throughout the woodland walks, while the Dunsyre blue cheese shares a depth of creaminess with the colossal R sinogrande in the middle of the walled garden. As a finale the riotously rich pistachio and chocolate soufflé brings to mind the rainbow burst of azalea flower around the lake.

Glenapp was designed for pleasure and relaxation, but it’s down to the hard graft of Graham Cowan and his wife Fay that it’s still around today. Fay’s parents had built up an impressive hotel business in neighbouring Dumfries and Galloway, and were able to provide the necessary financial muscle. The couple bought Glenapp in 1994, embarking immediately on the long and arduous path of hands-on house and garden restoration, a journey whose starting point hasn’t been forgotten.

“When we saw Glenapp it was in dire need of rescue” says Cowan.

“Our circumstances allowed Glenapp to have a future and the two married quite well. It was built as a statement and it lends itself well to entertaining with its big rooms and views, so what we do with it today is essentially not that different.

“Some of the jobs looked easy at first, like ripping out the old plant nursery house in the walled garden. I kicked over the brick wall and thought, ‘That was easy.’ It then took a week with a pneumatic drill to remove the base. Another challenge was the greenhouse which has been completely restored. The central conservatory was being held up by a fig tree, but it was the fig tree which caused the problem in the first place. Inside, I took the crusty old metalwork staging away to be shot- blasted in Girvan, but nobody numbered the pieces, so I had to piece the whole thing back together.”

. The rhododendrons and azaleas are two of the memorable features of the gardens. The walled garden has been recreated superbly and looks as if it had never been left to dwindle in the first place. The rhododendrons and azaleas are two of the memorable features of the gardens. Fine mature specimens pop up in every part of the grounds, but they reach a zenith around the lake where, if you time it right, you’ll experience the spectacle of massed yellow, orange, pink and red flowers with the trees and castle as a backdrop.

Having rebuilt the place piece by piece, rather than having a particular corner they adore it’s the entire property the couple cherish.

“If all you do is walk around a garden, then the whole thing becomes your favourite,” says Cowan,

“but it’s been getting more and more difficult for Fay and I to get out into the garden because the hotel’s got busier and busier. You can feel guilty about sitting still.”

So says the proprietor, but the sedentary guest need feel no guilt whatsoever.

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