Helen McGurk unearths the pleasures of a unique self-catering cottage in Co Down
The enchanting subterranean cottages at Fairy River Glamping are the stuff of childhood fantasy.
For my young son, an unabashed Teletubby fan, it was as if he had stumbled upon the Night Garden and Tinky-Winky and Laa Laa might, at any moment, come bounding over the mounded, grassy roofs in their fluffy onesies to give him a big hug.
The two stone-clad cottages are a unique development based in the heart of the High Mournes mountain ranges, surrounded by dreamy scenery, a gushing river just outside the front door, and the freshest of air.
Situated at the base of Slieve Muck Mountain, the luxury cottages are neatly tucked beneath an active farm, Their name is a nod to the presence of two fairy trees on the land - in folklore it is thought these trees belong to the fairies and should never be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.
Set snug as a bug into an excavated hill, the clever, discreetly hidden houses are of the sort that would have Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud sputtering big, overannunicated adjectives and he would be warranted, for they are indeed awesome, stunning and a triumph.
Inside, our cottage was bigger than expected - some 700 sq ft, with two bedrooms, both with en-suites, and a kitchen/living area - the centrepiece of which is a wood-burning stove.
There is no television and this, in my opinion, is the beauty of Fairy River Glamping.
Without the distraction of TV, visitors can curl up by the stove and enjoy the old-fashioned art of conversation, a good book - or, as we did, play board game, after board game.
But the absence of a google box doesn’t mean this underground property is troglodyte territory.
Guests needn’t worry about having to live like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, for the upscale cottage is equipped with everything the modern family or group of friends could wish for, including wifi, microwave, washing machine, tumble dryer and even a boot room.
Outside guests have their very own private garden with natural stone picnic table and private lane access to the mountain range.
Fairy River Glamping owner, Conor Murphy, 35, has trudged these mountains many times herding cattle and sheep for the family farm and refers to them by their colloquial names - Rabbit Mountain, Poverty Mountain, the Pigeon Rock and the Long Mountain.
Although Conor is not an active farmer these days, (he works for the family’s stone business) he explained why they decided to diversify into accommodation.
‘‘Farming has become increasingly difficult in the last 20 years.
‘‘We could see with Brexit on the horizon that there were going to be big changes to how we operate and for that reason we said there’s something more we have to do.
‘‘We thought about ways of getting people to the farm, because we still want to use it, and accommodation was a logical step and that led us to the underground accommodation. We thought it’s quirky, it’s new, it’s unique, there’s nothing like it - plus we can still run the farm, so it all tied in nicely.’’
The project is still in its infancy but Conor has exciting plans for the future. There will be two more cottages and a petting zoo with farm animals for kids to coo over, as well as playground and indoor play area for wet days.
‘‘We want to give visitors that immersive experience and see how we actually live.
‘‘We get a lot of day visitors coming to walk in the Mournes, but they don’t stay and that’s no good for the local economy, so what we want to do is invite people to the area and then keep them here.’’
The cottages are in a prime location, just 10 minutes from Kilkeel (where we bought yummy fish and chips on our first evening), whilst Rostrevor’s just 15 minutes away, and Newcastle, Warrenpoint and Newry are close by.
‘‘If you are coming to explore the Mournes, you should be coming here because we are slap bang in the middle of it,’’ says Conor.
Besides the obvious mountain walking, there’s so much to do in the area and our first port of call was the Mourne Archery Centre in nearby Maghera.
Having never tried this before, we were all keen to give archery a shot (pardon the pun). Our kids took to it like Robin Hood, whilst it twanged the strings of childhood nostalgia for us oldies brought up watching and playing cowboys and Indians,
If archery isn’t your thing, you can experience Mourne life of the past at Annalong Corn Mill, meet the miller and follow the progress of the oats through the milling process.
The area is blessed with an abundance of lush forest parks, including Kilbroney, Tollymore and Castlewellan. Silent Valley Reservoir is nearby and Kilkeel Golf Club just a 5 minute drive.
Both my children love horse-riding so we booked into the Mount Pleasant Pony Trekking and Horse Riding Centre. What a friendly place! In the rush to get there my daughter had forgotten to bring long trousers - a quick phone call to the very obliging owner to explain our pickle and his wife arrived with a pair of tracksuit bottoms.
The trek takes in some beautiful scenery and there’s a range of horses and ponies for all sizes.
After all our activities, we had worked up a healthy appetite. There’s an array of great pubs, restaurants and cafes in the area. We opted for the Rostrevor Inn, which is housed in a beautifully refurbished 18th century building.
The menu boasts great local produce, simply but perfectly cooked, generous portions, great value and friendly service. With Kilkeel a few minutes up the road the weekend specials regularly feature the catches of the day . We had a superlative dinner there.
For Sunday lunch we opted for The Maghera Inn, which is something of an institution in the local area, renowned for the quality of its Guinness and scrumptious menu . Our meal was wholesome, filling and very, very tasty.
Back at the cottage, we took a dander along the path towards the mountains, passing stone walls, hedgerows bursting with clover, heather and buttercups and a field of very content looking Belted Galloways.
Conor explained why they opted for this traditional Scottish breed of beef cattle with their stumpy legs and unusual markings.
‘‘With the mountainous ground we have round here, the traditional cows of this area wouldn’t fare too well. Belted Galloways have short legs, so that means when they go down in the mud they don’t often get stuck because they can get back out again.’’
After a couple of days at Fairy River Glamping, we all felt relaxed and, dare I say it, a bit more connected as a family. This rising star of the Co Down is a perfect retreat. And whether you are into walking, nature, or maybe even the hope of seeing a fairy (or a Teletubby), you are guaranteed to dig this underground treasure.
*For further information on Fairy River Glamping visit www.fairyriver.co.uk or call 02830835893. Visit www.discovernothernireland.com for more information on places to stay and things to see and do in NI.