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We're in County Mayo in the west of Ireland
by the shores of Lough Corrib, the country's biggest lake.
I do love Ireland.
We're heading to an establishment
that's aiming to be not just the best hotel in Ireland,
but the best hotel of its kind in the world.
Look at that!
Wow. It's enormous!
Just set on the water there, like it's on an island -
it looks like Camelot.
That is magical.
This is Ashford Castle.
Dating back to 1228,
more recently it was the country house of the Guinness family.
Set in its own 350-acre estate,
the 83-room, five-star luxury hotel
sells a taste of old-fashioned grandeur.
That is an extraordinary chandelier.
That's my corner - that's my corner right there.
Spot of Edwardian glamour.
You can imagine kings, queens, knights passing through these halls.
Golly, I hope it's not haunted. Erm...
As well as having access to a luxury spa,
guests can live like the landed gentry,
with activities such as riding and shooting.
Rooms start at £300 a night,
going all the way up to a majestic £4,000 for the very best suites,
decorated with Venetian Murano glass chandeliers
and Connemara marble in the bathrooms.
Oh, my goodness!
That is the highest ceiling I have ever seen in a hotel bedroom.
That is perfect.
This room is something else.
This is extraordinary - this is an amazing bedroom.
You walk into a medieval castle -
to then not be disappointed by the bedroom
is quite an achievement.
I mean, that is the bed you have in a castle -
it's four-poster, it's velvet and it's gold.
It's even got a gallery,
basically just so you can admire your awesome bedroom
from another level.
The man who currently holds the keys to the castle
is general manager Niall Rochford.
It's my life, you know?
I've invested 15 years of my life and my family's life here as well -
but you know what? I'm lucky in that I operate a castle,
you know? There aren't too many
authentic, genuine castles in the world.
Of course, we're not here just to enjoy the plush rooms -
we're here to find out
what operating a castle hotel is all about...
..but before we can serve any actual guests,
Niall wants us to join some other new recruits at staff induction.
No request too large, no detail too small.
So what we're saying is, our guests can ask us anything,
to do anything - as long as it's legal - and we will do it.
We're innately hospitable people -
particularly in the west coast of Ireland,
we want you to feel at home.
It is sophisticated - but also in a very Irish way.
You're not going to get a very kind of staid experience
where everybody has to whisper.
What is the style of service here?
Yeah, it's a very natural style of service
and I think that's maybe what Irish people are all about,
and here in Ashford,
it's not really that plastic Irish type of experience
that you might associate...
-What plastic Irish type are you...?
-I don't know.
-What can he mean?
-I don't know.
-You know, it's...it's not...
-It's not the St Patrick's Day...
Ireland has moved on from that.
There's more soul, there's more spiritualness,
and it's much more genuine,
so I think when you meet the people you're going to be working with,
you're going to see that.
If the warmth of the Irish welcome is their secret weapon,
the hotel wants it to start right from the front gate...
..and estate manager Thomas
is in charge of ten gatekeepers and doormen.
The welcome you get on your arrival here, it's heartfelt.
We want people to understand how much we love it here,
how much we're proud of it.
For our first job, we're joining the door team.
I love this. Oh, it's so cosy, it's so warm -
and not only that, a top hat.
Oh, look at you!
What are you doing with your cape?
Isn't that what you're supposed to do? Swirl the cape.
You're not a superhero, my darling, you're a...you're a doorman.
So, guys, this is make or break.
Whatever happens inside the castle
can be directly affected by the arrival -
this is the country of the cead mile failte, the thousand welcomes,
and that's you - you are the very first representative,
the first face they see,
so it's of vital importance that your genuine hospitality
and your genuine character comes across -
it's very professional but it's extremely warm.
I'll be working with doorman Frank,
while Giles is at the far end of the drive with Tom the gateman.
-Good afternoon, sir.
It's the gateman's job to radio the names of arrivals
up to the front door
so his colleague there can delight the guests
by greeting them personally, as if by magic.
Check in, Frank, number 10 -
McKeown, and they're travelling in a Jeep.
Number 10, McKeown.
Number 10 - he said number 10 is Shaun.
So, it's Owen and Barbara McKeown.
You're very welcome to Ashford Castle.
Thank you very much indeed.
Mrs McKeown. You're very welcome.
Frank is my name. You're very welcome -
and this is my colleague Monica.
Welcome, Mr and Mrs McKeown. This way, please.
Thank you. Thank you.
Hello, welcome. Welcome to Ashford Castle. Hello.
-Have you had a good journey?
Can I confirm the name of the reservation?
Yes - last name is Everson.
-Lovely to meet both of you. Have a lovely stay.
Mr and Mrs Everson are on their way up in a big black SUV.
I don't know what Giles just said then. Can you repeat that, please?
The Eversons are arriving, Mr Everson -
he's about 36, little bit of stubble, nice-looking fellow,
got his wife in the passenger seat.
The Jeffersons are arriving?
-..and they're driving an SUV.
I think there's something wrong with my earpiece.
Hello, welcome to Ashford Castle, Mr and Mrs Everson.
Thank you so much!
-Where have you travelled from?
Nashville, Tennessee? Is this your first time with us?
-It is, yes.
-How many pieces of luggage do they need in?
-I have no idea.
-That's a good question.
-That's something you have to ask.
But wouldn't you want all your luggage in?
They're staying till Monday -
I'd presume they'd want all their underwear, at least.
Oh, that's a lot of luggage. Shall we ask them how much...?
I'm a bit worried that they were a bit disappointed
that I wasn't Irish.
Cos I think they're American.
They've come all this way for an Irish greeting
and I went, "Hello, welcome to Ashford Castle,"
and I should have... You know?
But I'm not going to... I can't pretend to be Irish.
Check in there, Frank. Number 2, Mr Burke, number 2, Mr Burke.
-Do you say "Borke" not "Burke"?
-Burke yeah, Burke.
Yeah. That's it, you've got it, yeah.
How do you feel about so far?
I'm enjoying it. It's really nice to welcome people,
especially when it's their first time.
-When you're that first face...
..that warm handshake, that big smile
and that genuine welcome that comes across, and they soak it up.
They're like, "Oh, finally, someone that understands how I feel,
-"someone that wants to make sure I'm looked after..."
..and you're straight in.
-All the staff is, like, so kind and personable.
-No-one's just going through the motions.
Yeah, I mean, you can tell that they really care.
It's not just their job,
it's not something that they kind of do half-heartedly,
it's like this is just who they are.
You don't feel like you're at a hotel,
where people are professional and polite and want to help you -
you feel like you came home.
And, of course, this was once a home -
perhaps not one like yours or mine, but a home nonetheless.
I'd like to know a bit more about the people who lived here
and, as luck would have it,
Ashford has its very own resident historian, Fintan Gorman.
It's not many hotels that have a historian, is it?
I suppose not, but then I suppose not many hotels
have the long history and heritage that this place has -
an enormous history going back to 1228, right up to the present day,
and all the families and people who have occupied it in between.
So, there's a rich story to tell.
Ashford has been built up over many centuries,
with the original castle tower
constructed by Norman invaders in 1228.
Their descendants added a separate French-style chateau in 1715...
..but when the Irish potato famine ravaged the region in the 1840s,
the estate fell into ruin and was put up for sale.
So, always, in times of ruin, enter the people with the money -
and in 1852, in Ireland, that was the Guinness family.
They were in their fifth generation of brewing -
cash rich, nouveau riche.
They were a godsend to the area,
because they started employing people and paying a wage,
which none of these previous owners ever did -
they just took the money and spent it on the good life,
and the result of their employment is all throughout the estate here -
roads, bridges, houses, gardens, forests.
It was Arthur Guinness, who inherited the place in 1868,
who did more than anyone to create the castle we see today.
Arthur was destined to be an English gentleman -
they now had the money, they want the recognition.
He wants to climb up the political scale,
and he wants to climb up the social scale in England,
so, all of a sudden, this remote hunting lodge
in the west of Ireland becomes the place
where he's going to create the playground for the rich,
where he's going to impress various titled families in England.
Arthur built Ashford Castle,
connecting the French-style chateau with the original Norman tower.
He spent the next few decades
entertaining various lords and ladies
with what would become famous hunting and fishing trips -
and, in 1905, Arthur reached the pinnacle of high society
with the three-week visit of the Prince of Wales,
the future King George V.
The coming of George was a wonderful occasion for the Guinnesses -
no expense is spared, there's a flurry of building,
wonderful for the local economy, hundreds of local people employed,
the cocktail lounge in here was added,
the Prince of Wales cocktail lounge, for the coming of George -
and of course the dining room went on to become the George V,
because he became George V of England,
the grandfather of the present queen.
It's always nice when you arrive to be offered a cocktail -
but to have them offer you a whole cocktail lounge...
A whole cocktail lounge,
the Prince of Wales cocktail lounge, yeah. Yeah.
While the decor is very much in keeping with Guinness-era grandeur,
in fact, it's the result of a recent £50 million restoration.
Each of Ashford's 83 rooms has been individually refurbished,
combining restored original features
with Italian hand-woven silk fabrics,
lovingly sourced antique furniture and works of art...
..all of which need special care, whether it's cleaning
historic chandeliers piece by piece
or using only pH-neutral products on delicate surfaces -
and it's all the responsibility
of the hotel's 25-strong housekeeping team,
who work under the watchful eye of supervisor Camilla.
So this is the room ready for the supervisor...to be inspected.
It's better if you have a passion for cleaning,
so you do enjoy what you are doing
and you will actually go that extra mile.
Can you please go back to 417 and just redo the headboard for me?
Lovely, thank you.
This morning Camilla will be putting me to work as a room attendant.
-Oh, hello, Camilla.
-Good morning, Giles.
-How are you?
-I'm very well.
-We have a basket for you ready here.
What am I going to be doing? Cleaning windows and...?
Well, well, basically dusting, hoovering, cleaning.
So, how long does it take to clean a room, roughly?
Erm, well, in most other hotels, it is around 20 to 25 minutes.
In ours, it's 40 up to one hour.
I'm being teamed up with Sally,
who first started working here in 2001.
-Nice to meet you. I'm Sally. How are you doing?
-I'm very well indeed.
-Thank you for letting me join you.
-Welcome to the castle.
-It's your lucky day, you put your feet up.
So we start with hoovering the walls.
-Hoovering the walls?
Do you fancy doing hoovering the walls?
Hoovering the wall?
You vacuum-clean the walls?
Absolutely, cos, er, it's all fabric -
and there's dust gathers on it, so we have to hoover the walls, yes.
-That... That's... It's a strange-sounding thing and...
-Every...every inch of the wall?
In fact, there are over 20,000 square metres of fine fabrics
lining every bedroom
and every square inch of corridor in the castle.
-I start in the corner?
-In the corner.
Oh, it's sucking quite hard.
I'm quite worried about picking out a thread
-and unravelling the whole thing.
-Yeah, up and down.
Sorry, I'll stop talking...
It's not a very good thing to do with a tie on,
I've got to say - every time I look up to do it,
my Adam's apple won't...
I would probably choose more casual dress for this.
Yeah, I should probably have what Sally's wearing.
Do you know what, Sally? You're better dressed for this than I am.
I feel like I should be serving cocktails at a wedding.
I can probably do it like that, actually.
I wonder who this lady is in the portrait.
-Do I try and go up there?
-Yes, yes, do that.
-The whole, yeah.
Can you manage?
I'm not going to admit defeat.
It's very hard to tell if you're just being nice.
Everyone at the castle is so polite and friendly
that I'm sure you'd tell me I was doing a great job
even if I was rubbish.
"Get rid of him, send him back to England with his rubbish cleaning."
You're doing a good job.
Like many of the staff,
Sally grew up just a few miles from the estate.
Now her daughter Mary works here too...
..and it turns out co-working families are a common theme.
My husband - he runs the bar and lounge,
and I have, as well, my first-born...
My sister Eleanor, here,
that's worked with me for the 18 years so far -
we started the same day.
This is my son Steven.
Steven works in our spa.
-We did the same interview...
-..the same day, same time.
Well, it's great I can keep an eye on them.
He used to get every day he wanted off,
and if he didn't, he'd go to his mother.
We work on the same station together,
we work the same hours, we get the same breaks together,
so...it would very bad if we didn't get on,
but we get on very well together.
We don't travel in together.
Most of the staff live in the surrounding countryside
or the village of Cong, just outside the estate walls.
It seems there's more to hospitality here than just Irish charm.
For the people that work here,
many of them, their family heritage is here.
It was their forebears that built it,
it was their families that worked these grounds and the gardens.
So, for them, it's not just a hotel, it's not a castle,
it's not four walls,
this is something that's ingrained in them, it's in their bloodline.
They have something that you just can't buy.
The passion, the pride, the sense of ownership, in one way.
That filters through to the guests from those staff.
Sally and I are still hard at work getting rooms ready for check-in.
Right, what's next?
We'll make the bed.
I've been dreading that.
I'll show you how to do the corners.
After a quick lesson in five-star bed-making...
..I'm sent down the hall to make other beds in Sally's section.
We'll just ignore the whole corner thing.
I actually don't know how you're supposed to...
..get it round the four-poster bed.
I think their sheets are too small.
Do you think they tuck in a duvet?
Do they tuck in a duvet?
How are you getting on, Giles?
-Fine. I-I think I've nailed it.
You can see that the bed doesn't really have a shape.
There, there's... The pillows should be visible,
the pillows should sit on the bedspread.
I wasn't really counting on you taking the bedspread off,
-Well, this is how we are checking it.
Yeah, you see, it looked OK to me,
with the bedspread on, from a long distance.
You're standing too close.
You're standing too close, you want to be back here.
When you look at the bed now, what do you see?
It looks like it's been slept in by...by dogs, doesn't it?
The problem I had is that this is a four-poster bed
and I trained on a normal bed.
I'm going to call Sally, because obviously it needs to be redone
and straightened a little bit, and...
She might need to bring fresh sheets.
While Giles and the housekeeping team are busy in the bedrooms,
guests are off enjoying the rest of the estate...
..and with five restaurants from casual gastro pub...
..formal fine dining...
..as well as afternoon tea and room service...
..Ashford's kitchens run 24 hours a day.
OK, guys, give me a timing for a beef well done on a cote de boeuf.
The man responsible for keeping guests happily fed
is executive chef Philippe Farineau.
It's so, so important to get it right,
the quality should be the same for fine dining or the breakfast,
so it doesn't matter where and what times they are going to eat,
everything needs to be 100%.
To find out what's on the menu,
I'm working with chef Philippe in the kitchen
of their fine dining restaurant.
-Hi. You all right?
As a French chef I have to give you the kiss.
Much like Britain,
Ireland is known more for meat and two veg than haute cuisine.
How many leaves of that do you want? Does it matter?
So the challenge for chef Philippe is to deliver a fine dining menu
that also satisfies guests looking for a true Irish experience.
Guys, on the way, please.
The guests that come here,
do they have certain expectations of trying Irish food?
When they come here, they want to see it on the menu.
So to accomplish that, we want to find the best of the Irish produce
and to make it as a fine dining.
The produce in Ireland is the most important thing.
The most important thing, you know?
You have the oyster sauce?
-Are these local oysters?
-Dooncastle oyster, so...
-Look at how beautiful that is.
..please, two veg, two potatoes, two gratins.
Very tasty. Very, very tasty.
-Oh, that's good.
-It is very tasty.
That is very good.
As a French chef, being in Ireland,
a lot of people, I have a lot of chefs, say,
"Oh, why you don't use that from France?"
I'm not in France, I'm in Ireland -
I have the best produce you can find, we want to use them.
Why would you buy from France, oranges, when you can get them here?
Main course on 10, please, one halibut, one venison.
On top of his commitment to local producers,
Philippe is creating dishes that reflect the local area
by using ingredients that are found within the surrounding landscape.
Something we use for generation after generation,
then we forgot about it.
Something that people, when they taste it,
they don't realise the flavour of sea veg can have -
so they come here to experience some things they don't know,
or they won't be able to do at home.
Chef Philippe employs the services of a local forager...
Monica, Brian our forager.
..who's taking us out to hunt for ingredients.
So where are we going, Brian?
We're going to go to the seashore to get some seaweed,
Can't be very specific,
because I don't want everybody to know where...
..where I find my different seaweeds.
-We'd better just cut the cameras.
20 minutes later, we're setting off on foot
at Brian's secret foraging spot -
and it seems we picked quite a day for it.
I have to provide the ingredients for the chef,
so, for me, this is... this is winter-time in Ireland.
In this weather, I am prepared to be waiting inside
for you to bring them to me.
What are we going to find here, Brian?
We're going to find pepper dulse.
It's a very small seaweed that grows at the bottom of the rocks,
and it's available at low tide -
that's why we're... It's low tide now.
I use pepper dulse a lot in my kitchen - I'm sure you do -
-but I've never foraged for it, so... Yay.
-OK, it's a new experience.
We've got just half an hour before the tide starts to come back in
and this valuable ingredient is hidden once again.
-Very slippery here.
Look at that, look at it all there.
Look at that.
Oh, it's amazing.
Pepper dulse is almost a truffle -
it tastes of truffle, the ocean, it's salty.
The challenges of sourcing this rare ingredient
mean fresh pepper dulse can sell for over £100 a kilo.
They're in their best when they're growing during the winter,
because they just love cold water.
So, who are most of your clients?
More top end, so Michelin-star restaurants,
hotels like Ashford Castle.
It's kind of niche - more chefs are getting into it,
realising what's on their doorstep.
Monica's foraging haul
will soon find its way onto guests' dinner plates
here in Ashford's George V dining room.
The long-serving restaurant manager is Robert Bowe.
This is our classic fine dining experience.
Jacket is required, and tie is requested.
There's no dress code for ladies, it's just for gentlemen.
We're being taken under Robert's wing for the evening...
Robert? We are here.
..to work as fine dining waiters.
Robert is schooling us in all aspects of fine dining...
In Ireland, we serve from the left and we clear from the right.
..from introducing the menus...
-"Welcome to George V," that's what we're saying?
-It's your...your a la carte and your table d'hote menu.
..to setting the right cutlery for all eight courses.
Always put down the cutlery that you're replacing first,
-and then take away the cutlery...
-..you don't need.
-Cos you tend to frighten people when you're taking stuff away -
but if you give them something first that usually keeps them quite calm.
Despite all this daunting service etiquette,
Robert's keen to remind us it still has to be done the Irish way.
At Ashford, we have always had very high standards,
but something that guests have always felt coming here
is that, you know, it's going to be very stuffy,
it's going to be very formal, but it's not that.
There is a sense of charm, there is a sense of friendliness.
A lot of them come back for, as we say in Ireland, the craic.
Also on hand to make sure we don't destroy the restaurant's reputation
is maitre d' Martin, who has 43 years' service behind him.
You're going to be the sort of senior fellow
-around me, are you?
-Have you got any last-minute tips, Martin?
Make sure that they have an absolutely wonderful experience
-at Ashford Castle.
-I'll do my best.
Nice to see you.
Welcome to Ashford Castle. Hi.
Thank you very much.
This is our table d'hote menu -
and then we've got the tasting menu here,
which is an eight-course tasting menu.
All right. I believe you're having the salmon?
Fresh knife and fork, which is down there.
Tuna, which is fish knife,
and scallop, which is fish knife and fork as well.
So the setting for the first course is there.
-Oh, my Lord. OK. You've written it down?
-I have done one, two, yeah.
-Is the lady the one and two...?
-A fish fork.
-A fish fork, yes.
Yeah, yeah, that's no problem at all.
-Are you having a soup?
-Are you having...?
So the tartare - I think you'd want that, cos that's a meat knife.
Is it? Let's have that back.
Enjoy. Thank you.
-How was it?
-Great. Yeah, you did well.
OK, I've still got six pieces of cutlery going here.
Erm, what have you done?
I was going so well before.
Who's having soup that hasn't got a soup spoon? Great.
Good, was that your starter? Or is it in the middle?
Right. Here we go.
What we have for you here is a crab apple sorbet
and the crab apples are from the estate.
Erm, with an apple foam on the top.
MIMICS MONICA: Enjoy.
Some, erm, delightful amuse-bouche for you.
Erm, which is a salmon mousse.
VOICEOVER: Just when I thought it was all going rather well...
So serve from the left.
-Yeah, not bad.
-It does, cos that's in England.
You go to the right.
Here we have it here, serve from the left, clear from the right.
It feels weird but it's great that you have a different way.
How was that?
-Was it good?
-Are you having some English wine?
-And how's that?
What about Irish wine, is there, is there anything much there?
You should try it. It's different.
-Oh, it does, it does exist?
-There is, it's only one.
It's black and it comes in a pint glass...
LAUGHTER ..with a creamy head on it, I've heard of it.
How am I doing with my, erm, with my chat?
Oh, very good, excellent, they're very relaxed, very happy.
-They're delighted with you.
-That's OK. I think my, erm,
my actual table skills are perhaps...
That doesn't matter. With a bit of charm you'll always
make up for what you lack in, in table skills.
What they're doing here is
giving you the five-star, top notch experience that you want
with beautifully presented food, very well timed service,
ornate dining rooms and chandeliers
but with the charm, with the fun, with the relaxation,
with the craic that gives you an experience
that's genuinely enjoyable.
When I came here as a young fella in 1974
I worked at the bar and I ran out of it after a week
and I've never left the restaurant since.
As I said to people all down the years, if I had my life to
live over again I would do exactly the same as what I've done.
Ask anyone round here about Ashford families
and they'll tell you about Martin Gibbons.
His father and grandfather worked on the estate -
now his two sons are following in their footsteps.
24-year-old Steven is a waiter in the lounge
and 21-year-old Mark is a cocktail barman.
After my limited success as a waiter
I've been sent to work with Mark in the Prince of Wales bar.
-Hi, how are you?
-Hi, you must be Mark? I'm Giles.
Nice to meet you.
-How long have you been working here?
-Near enough four years.
-So straight out of...
Straight out of school, yeah.
Yeah, kind of the same thing as my father did.
VOICEOVER: We're making an Ashford signature cocktail called Gunpowder Blush.
Made with Irish gin, elderflower liqueur...
We use some cherry wood chips and spray with bergamot.
..and smoked with woodchips from the estate.
Oh, it's got a little thing that draws it in.
Look at that!
And is that nice? Is it a good feeling having your dad here?
It is, yeah. But it's professional.
There's no, there's no messing, there's no joking.
Once we come across that bridge it's, "I'm working".
It's not dead, it's not dead.
At home, is the sort of family chat, the banter,
is it often about work? Do you talk about this?
No! No, once you cross the bridge, it's family at work.
Mark's great grandfather was working here as a gamekeeper
when the Prince of Wales visited in 1905.
The future King came specifically to shoot woodcock
and, of course, shooting is very much still on offer.
Estate manager Thomas is in charge of activities.
-Very good morning to you.
This morning he'll be putting us to work wearing what is,
believe it or not, the actual activities department uniform.
And the first job of the day - cleaning guns
with the clay pigeon team.
These will be used very regularly, every single day, erm,
quite often late into the evening in the summer months
and they have to be kept in pristine condition.
Feidhlim manages the hotel shotguns.
-Go a little bit more.
Down the barrel. All the way through to the end.
-Oh, that's all right.
It's come back, it's come back out.
So see how it looks, is it cleaner compared to the other one?
-There you go.
I suppose the face of the,
the breach is probably one of the most important parts.
Oh, look at that. Ah, that makes sense.
Oh, there we go.
With up to 50 guests shooting each week,
Ashford gets through over 120,000 clay pigeons a year.
They break quite easily in there,
-they're biodegradable so once they break...
That's how easy they break.
They break down, and once the small pieces get wet, they biodegrade
and they're gone in two years.
There we go!
So, Monica, Giles - would you like to have a go
-before our guests arrive?
I'm a bit nervous.
VOICEOVER: It's harder than it looks.
Unless someone else shoots yours for you.
She shot it before I got my shot off.
She's getting pretty good over there.
-I like this now.
You got over your nerves, then?
Oh, yes. I got a few, actually.
It's interesting because, erm, as well as the five-star luxury and the views and all that kind of thing
they are selling this lord and lady of the manor stuff - look at us.
-Look at us, pair of idiots.
-We look great.
Well, we look great but imagine people who, you know,
from 5,000 miles away who'd been watching Downton Abbey, erm,
and the likes of that and just want a little piece of that
and you can't really get it, it's unattainable, then
-you come here and you can have it.
-It's absolutely attainable
and then making it accessible for, for anyone visiting.
I can't get away from this slight bitterness that I don't own
20,000 acres of my own prime shooting land.
I think that would be better.
Whilst shooting is in keeping with the Guinness era,
you've got to go a lot further back
for the origins of the hotel's most popular outdoor pursuit.
This is Ashford School of Falconry.
Not exactly your run-of-the-mill hotel activity.
Guests can actually try their hand at this UNESCO-protected sport
which was originally developed as a hunting aid.
The school is run by Debbie.
I'm joining her as a trainee falconer.
Every day before guests can actually fly the birds, poop must be scooped.
It's much cleaner than cleaning up after my dog, that's for sure!
And the aviary's kept spotless.
I'm sure we're the only place in the world that washes gravel.
The hawks must also be weighed as part of their regular health checks.
This morning I'm weighing seven-year-old Harris hawk Joyce.
Extend your arm clear of your body, this is how we fly them as well,
with the back of your fist facing to her.
And so here she comes, and there she is.
Now she's landed, you can slowly relax your elbow
so it's resting comfortably into your side.
-And just release your grip. There we go.
She needs to be as fat as possible
but if she's too fat, then she'll sit in a tree
and she'll refuse to fly,
exactly as she would do in the wild, they don't fly for fun.
Erm, that's a human view of it because we can't fly, they fly only out of necessity.
-So you're seeing them perched and sitting in their cage...
..you're thinking, well, that's not right, they should be out flying.
-But that's actually what they do, just...
It is, it is. They don't fly around their aviary,
they have the space to do so but they don't.
This is so cool. I have never held any bird of prey so close.
She's a lovely lady, she doesn't seem to mind. Erm, so beautiful.
-With the prep work done, Debbie's going to teach me how
the falconers take guests for what they call a hawk walk.
So you can open your fist now to release your grip of the jesses,
she's free to go now at any time.
Shall I put my arm up or she'll just..?
You're going to, yes, you're now going to lift her up.
-There we go, perfect.
Close up your fist and bring your glove towards me. Look at this.
Oh, my goodness, doesn't she look so beautiful?
There we go. Perfect.
She's free to come and go as she pleases.
As we walk, you just have your glove down by your side
so it's clear to her that we're not asking her to come in.
And she should follow us. Here she comes.
Why bring falconry to the hotel?
There's a long history of falconry here.
It's been in Ireland since about 400 AD.
We tend to read about it as being the sport of royalty and
of landed gentry and so on, and of the wealthy
but in reality, erm, the peasants as well would have all had
a goshawk or a falcon that they will have been hunting with
as a serious means of putting food on the table.
You are amazing!
What an experience.
Hotels always offer some kind of activities
but this is something that's quite unique.
While this is definitely a great experience for the guests,
what's more important is
falconry is being preserved as parts of the Irish culture.
While Ashford today is able to preserve ancient traditions,
things could have been very different.
I'm on the road with historian Fintan.
He's taking me to see how grand country estates were
affected by Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain -
a time that could have easily spelt the end for the castle.
So what have we got here? What are we looking at here?
Erm, well, unfortunately in the early part of the 20th century,
especially during the War of Independence,
the fate of a lot of these great mansions was, erm,
that they were burnt to the ground.
These would have been seen as symbols of British imperialism,
colonialism, landlordism -
all the things that we very much resented
as we moved towards being a Republic.
And often in that era, erm, misguided patriots or whatever
would come along at night, throw in a gallon of petrol,
hoist the Tricolour, sing some rebel songs and destroy them.
This place had an extensive library,
a beautiful country estate with a sweeping driveway
down to the lakeway and gardens and sheds and staff and all of that.
You sound, you sound, you sound genuinely angry about it.
Well, of course, we would all be angry at the destruction
of our heritage. Can you imagine, this has the potential
to be to this area, on the edge of beautiful Lough Carra,
what Ashford is to Cong today.
In the same way as you say this could have been like Ashford,
of course, Ashford could have been like this.
Well, of course it could, yeah.
Ashford was just one of the ones that were lucky.
I suppose that, that's symptomatic, isn't it, of war -
the destruction - you know, and this is exactly what's happening
in the Middle East at the moment and places like Palmyra
and all of those places, people are destroying their own heritage.
-That's exactly what it's like, isn't it?
-That's exactly what's happening and this is exactly what
we were doing and, you know, anger and people that are infused with
that anger and political fervour, they seem to do strange things.
I suppose looked at in the context of the time,
obviously some people supported the idea.
By now, Arthur Guinness had realised his ambition and been made a Lord.
But when he died in 1915, the changing social landscape
and soaring cost of labour were making estates like Ashford
unviable, so his family donated the whole thing to the Irish Government.
After languishing for years, it once again got lucky.
Leased by a hotelier by the name of Noel Huggard,
it opened for business as a hotel in 1939.
It's astonishing that anything should survive for 800 years.
At so many times in its history,
Ashford Castle could have just fallen into ruins.
But every time it's been on the brink of disaster
it's been saved, until now
it's arrived in what's arguably its golden age
where people come from all over the world to experience a living, breathing monument to Irish history.
I want to know how the return to prosperity is felt
beyond the estate walls.
And after chef Philippe told me of his commitment
to using local producers, I'm off to see one for myself.
An hour from the castle out on the Atlantic coast,
I'm meeting John, owner of Dooncastle Oyster Farm.
-What a gorgeous morning.
I'm glad I've got one size fits all.
-I think I'm ready.
-I think you're ready.
Oysters reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm into the water.
The fertilised eggs are incubated in a local hatchery
before being transferred here to mature.
In a shallow inlet, the oysters are then grown in mesh bags
that are strapped down and submerged by the tide.
Aren't they gorgeous!
So essentially these are the babies?
Yeah, that'll be close to what you call spat.
-The seeds, yeah.
How long will it take for a small oyster like this to reach maturity?
I'd be hoping for two and a half to three years.
Two and a half to three years.
-At first, there are 1,500 tiny oysters per bag.
They feed on nutrients from the water, so we have to flip
the bags to ensure they're not starved by green algae growth.
What's a typical day for you?
There's two tides a day so you work
the tide during the day and the tide at night.
So they're... They can be ranging up to four hours each shift
and then I can be doing the deliveries and packing in-between.
So even in the middle of the night when the tide is out
-you'll come out and do this?
Wow. I... Oh, my gosh!
-The tide is my boss.
As the oysters get bigger, they must be sorted
and separated into new bags to give them more growing space.
First 800 per bag, then down to 150 per bag.
How old are they now?
They're about 18 months.
-OK. So a good, another 18 months to go still, isn't it?
Along with tending his crop by hand, clean waters, classified by the EU
as grade A, help John produce a five-star oyster.
What's the castle like to work with?
The support I've got from the chefs has really given me
a lifeline in the business
because you're guaranteed a steady income all year round.
-Just pour them in.
-They are heavy.
After three years, John's oysters are ready to be graded
by weight and sent to market.
-And do we put them on one by one?
-Yeah, one by one.
-So the machine weighs them and drops them?
Oh, that was a big one.
This is grade 1, this one would be grade 2
and then we're going down to grade 3.
So this is the grade that, erm, that Ashford prefers. It's smaller.
-It's a nice eating size, isn't it, all in one?
So, can I try one?
It's the freshest oyster I've ever eaten.
Oh, they're fattier.
Oh, they're beautiful.
Just so fresh, delicious.
I am hugely impressed by the quality of John's produce.
These oysters are just beautiful.
Thank you so much.
Actually, Ashford Castle could easily buy the oysters from a bigger
producer but instead they choose to support an artisan producer.
What all that means is a vibrant local economy,
a vibrant local culture.
Despite its healthy position today,
just a few years ago, the estate found itself facing ruin once again.
The Irish property boom saw Ashford bought by developers
and heavily mortgaged.
The financial crash struck
and by 2012 it had fallen into receivership.
It was a very, very difficult time.
The castle was under significant threat -
nobody really knows what's going to happen, erm,
whether it's going to continue as a viable entity.
Unfortunately we had to make redundancies.
All the team took major significant pay cuts.
With the banks controlling all spending,
years of underinvestment were starting to show.
There was this huge decline in the physical structure of the property.
We used to have to allocate rooms depending on wind direction.
And it really, really does need a miracle.
It needs something to happen, it needs something to change.
Finding a suitable buyer was proving a problem.
I met 30 potential purchasers from Russian oligarchs to, erm,
people who wanted to purchase this at the lowest price,
invest a small bit of money and flip it very, very quickly.
Also in the frame were successful South African hoteliers
Beatrice and Stanley Tollman.
In the past, there had been well-publicised tax evasion cases
against Stanley in the US
which saw him pay over 100 million in back taxes and fines.
But Niall saw something that convinced him
they were the ones to take on Ashford.
Showing Mr and Mrs Tollman the estate, Mr Tollman turned to
Mrs Tollman and said, "Wow, Bea, this is just an amazing place,
"it's absolutely fantastic,"
and Mrs Tollman turned around and said, "Yes, Stanley, it is, it's wonderful but it's the people,
"it's the people," and that very moment
I thought that these were the people for Ashford Castle.
In 2013, the Tollmans bought the Ashford estate.
The piper is going to meet them at the bridge and then
we'll have our great staff line-up
so if we can have as many people from each department, ready to go.
And today the staff are getting ready for one of Beatrice Tollman's flying visits.
I think they'll be here around 12.30 is my understanding so if you could make sure that every element
of the room, Camilla will go through the room in a few minutes,
just make sure everything's perfect.
With Mrs Tollman's arrival imminent,
I've been asked to hoist the company flag.
And we're joining the rest of the staff
on the front steps to welcome her.
Now, if you're starting to think this is all a bit royal visit,
you're not alone.
This is an extraordinary effort you're making for this lady.
It's a bit of fun, but it's something that we just do
out of genuine appreciation for what they have done for this property,
for this estate and for the employees of the estate.
What have they done?
I mean, they run a hotel business, they've bought a hotel,
they're making money out of it - what have they really done?
When Mr and Mrs Tollman first took over,
and I always remember Mr Tollman getting on the front steps of the castle
and saying the property is debt-free
and they wanted to create the best hotel of its kind in the world,
so to hear that from where we were coming from
was just something very, very special.
When the Tollmans closed Ashford for seven months of renovation,
they insisted that every member of staff was kept on.
They paid 25 million for the estate
but poured a further 75 million into its complete restoration.
1,000 square metres of roofs were reinforced
and 820 new windows fitted.
All-new plumbing and 750 kilometres of cabling were installed.
Local craftsmen and materials were used wherever possible.
And Mrs Tollman oversaw every detail of the decor.
This isn't a refurbishment, it's not a renovation,
it's much, much more fundamental than that.
It's a restoration of a grand old estate that could have been lost.
OK, here they come.
HORSE HOOVES CLATTER, BUGLES AND BAGPIPES PLAY
Standing here in the rain with everyone,
you get a sense of the affection that's felt towards the new owner.
Well, hello, Mrs Tollman. How are you?
And it looks like this grand welcome is about showing
appreciation for a job well done.
-How are you?
-Fine, how are you?
-Very good, thank you.
Hello. How are you?
-I thought I recognised you.
-Thank you for the kiss.
Absolutely, as always, well, great to have you.
With the fanfare over and everyone off back to work,
I'm spending some time with Mrs Tollman,
to find out what it was like taking over such a venerable institution.
What did it need most of all?
It needed everything.
Everything, you know - new furniture in every res...
in the restaurant. Just wherever you look, is new.
So the mirrors and the pictures, was this all...?
I bought everything that you see, I bought.
-Yes, yes, at auctions - everything.
-Gosh, they must have been pleased when they saw you coming?
-Oh, well, I...
-For a few years.
Was it all a business decision
or were you thinking about the future, about leaving a legacy?
Yes, I suppose so, just because it deserved it.
We just felt we must put everything into it, you know, our souls
into recreating what it deserved to be.
And despite the full VIP arrival,
Mrs Tollman is here for business, not pleasure.
She always casts an eye over every department.
This, Mrs Tollman, is our vanilla cheesecake.
And her first stop is the kitchen.
Mine has a little bit more sugar.
But I'm back helping Philippe
prepare for tonight's dinner service.
It is really delicious. What did you add to it, you said?
-A little spice at the end.
-That's what gave it...
-In olive oil.
I get an analysis every day of every restaurant that we've got
and how, you know, how many people and what they ate.
And if I see something never sells on a menu, I'll say,
"Take that off, and, you know, you'll put on something else."
There is something a bit special about Ashford Castle.
Well, yes, we love it here
because of the staff more than anything else.
They're so dedicated, they're so passionate
and that is the greatest reward for everything we've put into it.
As when the Guinnesses took over,
what's good for Ashford tends to be good for the area.
Restaurant manager Robert is taking me to one of the most important community hubs...
Giles, how are you?
Beautiful day for a game of Gaelic football.
..the local Gaelic sports club, where some of the staff play.
Gaelic sports are big in every parish or every town in Ireland
so if you play for the parish, it's a great honour.
We've come to the Neale,
a Gaelic Athletic Association club, to watch some Gaelic football.
-So, this is Adam here, he works in reception.
Yeah. John Colman worked in the restaurant,
in the George V Room, he's the goalkeeper.
We've got Jack Murphy as well, he works in wash-up at the moment,
he's going to college, he's playing as well.
So it sounds like there's a strong connection between the castle and the team, is there?
Yes, we, we've always been sponsors of the club.
What it's going to do, it's going to bring more people into the community
who are going to want to work here, who'll want to live here, and that
makes the community stronger and it's going to make Ashford stronger.
The only way you can pass is to hand pass.
Because I'm struggling to get my head round this curious mix
of soccer and rugby, Robert has kindly agreed
to give me some coaching.
A new thing for you.
You can't run with the ball more than three steps - if you do
you have to bounce it, all right,
but you can't bounce it twice.
But what you can do is drop it on your foot and
kick it back up into your foot.
And if I wanted to score,
I would just try and kick it over those posts?
Kick it over the bar.
Once, solo, once.
Should I tell him it's a children's goal?
It's Saturday night, Mrs Tollman's in the house
and we're helping the staff prepare for an evening of entertainment.
A young local band have been booked to perform in the lounge.
MUSIC: Whiskey in the Jar
# As I was goin' over the Cork and Kerry mountains
# I met with Captain Farrell and his money he was countin'... #
I've been roped into shucking oysters for the evening.
# Stand and deliver for I am a bold deceiver
# Musha rain dum a doo, dum a da, hup!
# Whack for my daddy, oh
# Whack for my daddy, oh, there's whiskey in the jar... #
-They're great, aren't they?
Absolutely, I remember the first time seeing them, erm,
I was drinking a pint of Guinness. I don't get out that often, erm,
but I heard them and kids like this are the future of the area
and we're so thrilled to be able to give them an opportunity like this.
# Musha rain dum a doo, dum a da
# Whack for my daddy, oh
# Whack for my daddy
# There's whiskey in the jar, oh! #
In 2012, we had 210 people employed on the estate. Now today we've 420.
The challenges that we now face are really positive challenges.
The future of this building and this estate,
it's safeguarded for generations.
You know, I've never stayed in a castle before.
Coming here, you walk into this amazing hotel,
the grandeur that, that's so splendid
but in fact, it's very relaxed here, you feel very welcome, it's warm.
It's all about the roots that are sunk deeply in the local soil,
the 30 or 40 years that some of the people have been working here.
And, and with that, they bring this level of service that is
full of pride and joy.
I think what, what's extraordinary is when you walk about, erm,
the castle and you walk past cleaners and you walk past maintenance men and stuff,
they all look like they're having quite a good time
and in really posh hotels they all care and they all want it to be great
but there's always a sort of underlying hint of misery,
erm, and there isn't here.
This hope and this opportunity for the next generation
that's going to, to come through.
After 800 years of up and down,
the various different economic travails,
there's this sort of sense they're all going to be all right.
TRADITIONAL MUSIC CONTINUES
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Thank you. Great dancing.