Photographs by James Fennell.
That the voice of the sea speaks to the soul is something few would deny. The lives of a thousand generations have been caught somewhere between the thundering crash of stormy waves and the silent ripples of calmer dawns.
On the east coast of Ireland’s County Louth, a two mile avenue lined with beech wends its way through green fields and yellow gorse before abruptly terminating near Dunany Point. The air, laden with manure a few fields inland, now swims with the soft aromas of salt and sea from Dundalk Bay. To the north, across the bay, the mountains of Mourne are shrouded in the same mist that rolls along the Cooley peninsula to Carlingford Lough. It is a sensational view, the sky above vast and ever-changing. In 1860 this dramatic location inspired the owners of the surrounding estate to build a scenic lodge. ‘It was fashionable at that time for wealthy people to have tea houses, cottage orné and shell houses’, explains present day owner, Alicia Chawner. ‘They wanted somewhere to escape from the formal demands of life and this beautiful little square stone house was built precisely for that purpose’.
The Sea Lodge was a retreat, nothing elaborate, just a simple place where the gentry of the parish could come with families, picnic hampers and tartan rugs, and cast their minds away from the daily pressures of civic disorder, economic decline and rigid social life. The design was straightforward – no kitchen, no bathroom, no plumbing. Just four rooms, one with a spectacular views across the bay to the mountains of Mourne. At the time a coastal road passed right beneath the house connecting the village of Annagassan to the fishing village of Clogher Head; old men still recall the milkman using this road with horse and trap but the road is now long gone.
Alicia first spotted the house while walking along the strand in the 1970s. The house, unloved for many years, was in danger of dereliction. Windows were broken, gutters down, doors hanging precariously off their hinges. The grounds to the rear were smothered in brambles. Negotiations began with the lodge’s owners and the deal was struck.
The Chawners had plenty of experience at restoration having single-handedly resuscitated much of the village of Collon, including the Old Court House. With the Sea Lodge, the couple were determined to keep the restoration minimal and to preserve the intimate, uncluttered ambience of the original design. ‘Apart from basic necessities like mending windows, doors, fixing gutters and roof we have kept restoration minimal. As far as decoration is concerned we like it simple – white walls, basic furniture, plain fabrics, stripes and ginghams. All the decoration you need is outdoors and it is impossible to compete with nature’.
The original architect of the house is unknown but his creation was a small masterpiece. The four-room building appears to have been designed almost entirely in tune with the passage of the sun. "In the morning the sunlight explodes into the house through the eastern window and then slowly revolves around the house throughout the day" To reflect sunlight into the bedroom and kitchen, all walls have been painted white to reflect the light that comes in from the north, east and west facing windows. Large framed mirrors hanging along the walls enhances this effect.
In the bedroom, an old iron bed from a second hand shop is fitted with a four-poster frame constructed with long bamboo canes from the garden. The bed was then elevated to ensure its occupants could gaze from their pillows directly across the changing tides to the mountains beyond. The white Egyptian cotton for the duvet came from Home Affairs in Dundalk and the drapes are from Alicia’s childhood dressing up box. Chairs and tables were selected with equal regard for location, their design evoking a hint of the beachcomber.
It is the sound of the sea and the winds upon it that so entranced Alicia when she first found the house. Now she and her husband are utterly hooked, as defined by their location as the sea kale on the rocky shores or the winkles on the strand.
‘People often say "What a wonderful house! Look what you've done!” But the fact is it has always been a wonderful house’. Nearly 150 years after its construction, the Sea Lodge certainly remains a place of peace, tranquillity - and happiness. ‘Each day here is a delight’, maintains Alicia. ‘It’s like going on a picnic in ever-changing weather. Here you catch the morning and evening light and very often a sensational rainbow’.