There are over 30,000 castles in the Irish countryside, but this one looks like it was built right in the sea. A single, squat tower rises 10ft out of the water, a stubby roof topped with sea grass, walls made with handsome grey stone that blends with the granite coast. It has a door facing the land and, crucially, one facing the water. At high tide, the Irish Sea splashes across the top step.
The building is younger than it looks. ‘It’s actually a ladies’ changing room from Victorian times,’ says Sue Moore, writer of this Discovering Britain viewpoint. In the 19th century, sea swimming was a more prudish activity. At other seaside resorts, women would change in small huts called ‘beach machines’ that could be wheeled down to the waterside, limiting their exposure to beachgoers. The ‘Ardglass bathing house’, as it’s called, offered something different. A more permanent facility in the shape of a castle ruin. ‘Back then, bare flesh was concealed at all costs,’ says Moore. It’s still a tourist attraction, but more as a curiosity than as a way to cover up.
A new spa town was the brainchild of landlord William Ogilvie. His scheme was to regenerate a humble fishing village into a spa location, drawing in the middle classes for restorative seaside treatments and ‘vapour baths’. The tower was built around 1830, just as Ardglass became one of the most fashionable resorts in Northern Ireland. An 1847 advertisement read: ‘The superior water and salubrious air of Ardglass are too well known to require comment’. Salubrious being Victorian-speak for healthy.
The spa’s success meant that many of the 19th century buildings along the seafront were built especially for renting out to summer visitors. The tower is all that’s left of the original spa facilities.
Ogilvie wasn’t the first to recognise Ardglass’s potential. The town sits on a natural inlet, Phennick Cove, which had once been the busiest fishing port in Northern Ireland. By virtue of its geography, it offered shelter as well as deep-sea access for herring boats. The shelter is relative, however, as powerful wave surges can still come through. In fact, nearly 200 years of exposure to the elements meant that even the robust bathing tower threatened to collapse in 2015. A conservation project meant that after two centuries, the curious feature finally got a restoration of its own.
This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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