Keys to the Castle

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything – life has gotten in the way of writing. However, a rather special weekend break has inspired me to try my hand at some travel writing, after a long break. Perhaps it might even inspire a fairytale at some point, who knows…

A sleepy salmon fishing village in County Antrim holds the key to a romantic getaway fit for a Queen, writes Sinead Doyle…

The Barbican, Glenarm - view of bridge

The Barbican, Glenarm

Across the stone bridge, the forest green gates at the base of The Barbican sprung open with a jolt, inching backwards to reveal a seldom seen view of Glenarm Castle Estate; its lush manicured lawns inviting us inwards.

As we drove through the underbelly of the imposing building, tucked away off the main street of the quaint County Antrim village of Glenarm, we knew we were about to experience something special.

“The gate is electric and fully automated. The code is on your keying, you just punch it in here,” explained smiling house manager, Penny, pointing to a keypad discreetly concealed within the basalt wall – a singular James Bond-esque addition to a thoughtful restoration.

We had been given the keys to the castle – ours for one night only.

Ok, it’s not actually a castle. If you want to get technical about it, it’s a miniature medieval castle styled gate lodge.

Modest in comparison to Glenarm Castle proper [a private residence and the ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim], The Barbican offers holidaymakers the chance to experience a taste of fairytale escapism nonetheless.

A ‘Barbican,’ by literal definition, is ‘a defensive outpost.’ Built in 1825, this charming Gothic styled building acted as a strong part of the Castle’s defences; a live-in gatekeeper manning the gate and turning away undesirables in a fashion not dissimilar to the doormen of our modern city nightspots.

Today, The Barbican’s gatekeeper and protector is the delightful Penny. Employed by the Irish Landmark Trust – the charity that restored and transformed this property into a quirky self-catering holiday home – she takes great pride in welcoming guests and giving them a rare glimpse of life on the other side of these guarded gates.

A truly romantic retreat just for two – as you travel the stone spiral staircase of this three-storey one-bedroom fortress, you leave the trappings of modern life behind.

The Barbican - bedroom

The Barbican – bedroom

On the first floor you discover the bedroom chamber – a cosy and inviting room peppered with interesting antiques; an ornate iron framed bed, a beautiful dressing table and a full collection of leather bound Daily Express Encyclopedias amongst the gems.  Travel down a set of wooden steps from this room and you’ll find a large bathroom [formerly the gatekeeper’s sleeping quarters] with an 8ft cast iron bath, seemingly made for long candlelit soaks and giants like me. Bliss.

The second floor is home to a cute country kitchen with a wood fired stove and comfy antique high-backed armchairs making it the perfect place to lounge, whilst enjoying stunning views through its gothic windows over Glenarm village to the front and the Castle Estate to the rear.

As with all Irish Landmark holiday homes, there’s no TV and no Wi-Fi, so you might as well leave the Smartphone at home. There is a radio, however, should you want some background noise to quell the silence.

You’ll also find shelves upon shelves of old books. The makeshift library, with its mismatched bookshelves scattered around the room was a pure delight to this inquisitive writer; less so to my other half, who opted for his football magazine over ancient works. They do say opposites attract.

Lady Antrim

An illustration in Lady Antrim’s book, ‘The Antrim McDonnells’

The literary treasures hiding within The Barbican’s walls range from 19th century travel fiction to prose by Yeats, books on architecture, local landscapes, Irish ghosts and a humorous history of the Earls of Antrim, ‘The Antrim McDonnells’ written and illustrated by the late Angela Antrim in 1977 – a recommended read for her accomplished cartoons alone.

Dusty old English dictionaries can be utilised alongside a Scrabble board [stowed beneath a bookcase] for some extra entertainment. There’s a Chess board too, if you fancy taking the King and Queen metaphor a little further. We settled for Scrabble. I still can’t talk about the score; ‘beginner’s luck’ is as much as I’ll say.

Me playing Rapunzel on the turret tower

Playing Rapunzel on the turret tower

Further up the spiral staircase still, comes the pièce de résistance – a flat rooftop terrace, complete with picnic table and its own fairytale turret tower. By day, you can enjoy sensational panoramic views with the varied vistas of Glenarm village, Glenarm Castle Estate, the North Antrim coast and plush forest competing for attention. And by night, if you’re lucky and there’s a cloudless sky, you’ll feel closer to the stars than you ever dreamt possible.

I challenge even the most determined city slicker not to love this place. The Barbican quickly forces you to into surrender; removing everyday distractions and noise, relaxation comes quickly here.

Unsurprisingly there’s not much nightlife in the small coastal village of Glenarm. There are three pubs if you fancy a quiet tipple, including ‘The Barbican,’ at the end of the street. None of these establishments serve food though, so it’s best to plan ahead. We could have cooked a banquet or travelled to one of the North Coast’s finer restaurants; instead we chose to dine like paupers before sleeping like kings, grabbing fish ‘n’ chips from The Galley – a nautical themed chippie in nearby Carnlough.

Peruse The Barbican’s visitors’ book and the words ‘magical’ and ‘enchanting’ almost lose meaning from the sheer frequency of their use. If you’re lucky enough to call this home, even for one night, you too will understand the beguiling nature of this place.

Before we left, we were joined by my boyfriend’s parents for breakfast. Good County Antrim folk, they’d seen The Barbican but had never travelled beyond its green gate. After just an hour inside its walls, they too were spellbound; drawn into the fantasy of life in your own little castle – the ultimate escape.

The Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle

The Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle

In an effort to acclimatise to the everyday after our regal getaway, we made a trip to the nearby Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle before we hit the road back to Belfast. The castle itself and the surrounding estate are closed to the public, aside from a few designated open days, but the Walled Garden is there for all to see (for a £5 entrance fee).

Open from May to late September, the stunning garden is well worth a visit.  With two keen gardeners in tow, we received quite the education in horticulture but even for those not au fait with their flora and fauna, it’s a beautiful setting for a sunny afternoon. The adjoining Tea Room serves up the most delicious Afternoon Tea, with their freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam, homemade pastries and tray bakes providing a sweet treat to round off a wonderful weekend.

The Barbican is one of over 20 holiday homes owned and managed by the Irish Landmark Trust. North, South, East and West, you’ll find quirky alternative accommodations for unique Irish breaks. From a lighthouse in Wicklow to a Co. Down country house with its own spa; a castle for 10 or a tower for two, there’s something to suit all.  To find out more, visit

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