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Lavender’s Blue Opera + Selfridges London

Postcode Lottery 

Opera on the Terrace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s our anniversary. Time to celebrate. Christmas – with a little help from Selfridges’ luxury handmade Celebration Crackers – came early to Lavender’s Blue. We’re looking fresh for our 100th and not worn out at all by 1,000,000 hits. After 99 articles from Serbian Royalty to British Royalty, Savannah to nirvana, Cristal to crystal, the falls to the Shankill, Royal Mint to polo minted, Edition to limited edition, Masterpiece to masterpieces, Duck + Waffle to our usual waffle, Knights at home to nights abroad, Clive Christian to Christ Church, Goodwood to New Forest, rural Darlings to society darlings, earls to pearls, supermodels to super models, Futurism to the past, we’ve left Home House for home. Party central at Lavender’s Blue.

Lavender's Blue Party Stuart Blakley

Classically trained soprano Sara Llewellyn serenaded us – and half the postcode – to a dream like performance on our courtyard terrace. After earning her Masters with Distinction from the San Fran Conservatory of Music, Sara’s many operatic lead roles include Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro at Berkeley. And yes, she has performed at the Royal Opera House. After jaw dropping renditions of Bach’s Ave Maria, O Mio Babbino Caro and Con Te Partirò, the tempo slowed down and the sun shone for an awe inspiring Summertime. Sara then proved her diversity while testing our moves with I Could Have Danced All Night. Tear jerkers followed with I Dreamed A Dream and You’ll Never Walk Alone. Finally, words and music at the ready, altogether now: the full Team Lavender Cupcake impromptu choir belted out That’s Amore. The whole postcode was entertained to our new take on Dean Martin’s classic. Glyndebourne SW4 had competition.

Morning Opera on the Terrace Lavender's Blue © Stuart Blakley

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Markree Castle + Knockmuldowney Restaurant Sligo

For Richer for Poorer

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly; and ordered their estate…” penned Mrs Alexander wistfully gazing beyond the river running by, through the tall trees in the green wood to the purple headed Benbulben, Europe’s only table top mountain. Little did the Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh’s wife know her hymn, first published in 1848 to raise dosh for deaf mutes (stolen children), would be an early victim of political correctness. Her Anglo Irish outlook on social immobility grated with later sensibilities so the third verse about a destined housing hierarchy disappeared. Being about Markree Castle the poor man really didn’t have too bad a time at the Francis Goodwin designed Gothic gatelodge, a piece of castle itself. Fortunately Once in Royal David’s City remains intact. The name of the castle has evolved over the last five centuries from Mercury, Marcia, Markea, Markrea and finally to Markree.

Markree Castle Gateway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Cecil Frances Alexander wasn’t the only guest to wax lyrical. William Butler Yeats recalled, “We have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.” He wrote in Running to Paradise, “Poor men have grown to be rich men; and rich men grown to be poor again.” Nowt so queer as fate. Once owned by the McDonagh clan, in 1666 the land was presented to Edward Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier from Norfolk, as a reward for his role in the Siege of Limerick. Defeated Irish chieftain Conor O’Brien’s widow Red Mary married Coronet Cooper and her two sons took the surname of their stepfather. Later, the Coopers opposed the Act of Union so no dukedom, earldom or even baronetcy was bestowed upon them. A fiefdom of 36,000 acres, generating an annual income of £10,000 by 1758, must have acted as some comfort. Any doubts of lineage and loyalty are dispelled by the stained glass window of the staircase hall. Twenty generations of Coopers are iconised between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The enlargement and embellishment of the house finally ended five years shy of the 20th century, commemorated in the date stone over the dining room French doors. In 1902 Bryan Cooper sold 30,000 acres under the Land Acts, at the same closing the basement. A seven year Indian summer was over. Benign decline in line with the times had begun.

Markree Castle Gatehouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The recent story of Markree is told in its mention in three books. Brian de Breffny and Rosemary ffolliott ominously note in 1975 in The Houses of Ireland that “Lieutenant Colonel Edward F P Cooper is the present owner and has struggled bravely to arrest the dry rot in parts of the building, though, in order to keep the roof on at all, he and his family have had to withdraw to one wing of the vast place, which was intended to be manned by a host of servants.” Thirteen years later an unhappy ending looked inevitable. The crumbling staircase hall made a poignantly picturesque back cover to the 29th Knight of Glin’s Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. Tome to tomb. By 1997, Luc Quisenaerts gushes in Hotel Gems of Great Britain and Ireland that the resurrected Markree is like “a wonderful journey through time”. Give or take the odd outbreak of civil war or dry rot, presumably. Pray how the turnaround in fortunes? A knight, this time in shining armour or at least with iron will, had arisen in the form of Charles Cooper.

Markree Castle Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree was occupied by the Free State troops during the Civil War causing damage,” Charles reveals. “Bryan Cooper’s eldest son Francis retired in 1930 and by 1950 the family had retreated to the east wing leaving the rest of the castle empty. The majority of the remaining contents were sold off. In 1988 my older brother put Markree on the market. I’ve worked in the hotel industry at home and abroad since I was 16. My wife Mary and I decided to buy Markree with the help of large bank loans and investments from family and friends. We converted it into a country house hotel. Most of the interior needed to be restored. The roof was completely refurbished due to extensive dry rot. My daughter Patricia now manages the hotel.” The top lit billiard room suspended over the porte cochère where nothing stirs remains untouched, resembling Féau & Cie’s Parisian workshop on Rue Poncelet, fit for St Simeon Stylites (“I want to be alone.”) The family live in converted and extended castellated estate buildings. Somewhere between the castle and the gate.

Markree Castle Balustrade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Phew. Still no modern wing repro’d up to the nines. Markree remains 100 percent castle. For Pringle clad budding Rory McIlroys there are six golf courses in driving range, so to speak, for afternoon tee. Thankfully, the castle has stuck to what it does best, afternoon tea. Sleek and new golf courses: once the delight of the Irish economy; now the bane of the Irish demesne. The early 17th century siege wall of a fortress built by the McDonaghs was uncovered in the basement during restoration work. But the sash windows of the basement hold more of a clue to the current building’s true origins. Hard as it is to believe, Markree is or rather was a five bay 18th century house with a three bay breakfront façade and one bay on either side of a garden front bow. So far, so Georgian. That’s till Francis Johnston came on the scene. Joshua Cooper commissioned the architect of Charleville Forest and Killeen Castle to engulf and transform the house into a castle of the early medieval revival symmetrical kind. Not content, in 1866 his son Edward Cooper employed the Edinburgh architect James Maitland Wardrop to continue the transformation, dropping a consonant from gothick to gothic in the process. Wardrop’s output includes the Jacobaronial Kinnordy Castle and Lochinch Castle, part Balmoral part Glamis (drop the second vowel to pronounce correctly).

Markree Castle Contemporary Sculptures © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The result? An encyclopaedic use of castellation, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Archivolts; bartizans; batement windows (no that’s not a typo); batters; colonettes; conical roofs; crenellations; flying buttresses and octahedral roofs (witch’s hat type, keep up); foiled quarters; battlemented servants’ quarters; machiolation; parapets; skew tables (no not sure either); six minarets crowning the billiard room, demarking a mecca of pleasure; strapwork; tracery; transoms and mullions; vaults and voussoirs. An encyclopaedic mind is required to imbue these words with meaning. Back to the late and last Knight of Glin who, ever wearing his erudition lightly, inn quotable resonant lucidity observed in his latter years, “Markree Castle, an 18th century house transformed into a castle, leaves in no doubt the competence, richness and variety of Irish country house architecture as a whole.”

Markree Castle Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Exterior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Roofscape © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle @ Lavender's Blue

Markree Castle Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Bow Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Cats © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Ground Floor Plan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Stairs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It may have taken a medley of architects, but oh boy, is the approach to the inner sanctums of the castle processional. Little wonder W B Yeats considered Markree regal. A sumptuous sequence of artistic compositions begins with the grand sweep of the staircase, tipping the ground at basement level before rising in steep ascent to the piano nobile. The double height staircase hall leads to a small hallway on one level. To one side, a cast iron radiator has been recast as a sarcophagus. This accordion-like alternating suppression and expansion of space heightens (yes pun) the sense of ancestral occasion, frozen music, a monument of its own magnificence. Tahdah! Into the double height staircase hall. Things simply can’t get any more exciting, can they? Oh yes – the triple height galleried hall. Francis Johnston at his hammerbeam roofed best. Each generation made their mark on Markree and, unabashed by eclecticism, untroubled by budget, unhindered by neighbours, unperturbed by vacillation, the twinned fruity Corinthian columns and compartmentalised ceiling of the adjoining cushioned sitting room render it neoclassical. Great rooms, beautiful lofty things, where travelled men, women and little childer find content or joy in excited reverie.

Markree Castle Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The dining room is a suite of three spaces good enough for Grace of Monaco to wander through. Calm hues of hammered gold, fleshy pink, off white and pale duck egg blue do little to dampen the Continental exuberance of the gold enamelled and mirrored interior installed by Edward Cooper in the 1830s. The result? An encyclopaedic use of applied decoration, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Acanthus leaves; beading; borders; bows; cornicing; coronets; crowns; egg and dart; festoons; flowers; friezes; fruit; heraldry; masks; mouldings; panels; pilasters; plaques; well fed putti – angels in the architecture; ribbons; rosettes; scrolls; shields; swags; tails; wreaths and reeds. Time for dinner amidst the surrounds of this visual feast. Courgette, mushroom and garlic amuse bouche. Whiskey bread. Ardsalagh goats’ cheese mousse with beetroot textures and lemon basil pesto. Buttermilk onion rings, always onion rings. Cockles from the sands of Lissadell, buttered samphire, cauliflower purée and sauce vierge. Pistachio (flavour of the moment) and olive oil cake, roasted strawberries and rhubarb sorbet. It’s a riot of colour and taste, Jackson Pollock in an Irish country garden.

Markree Castle Sitting Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Double doors sliding into the thickness of the dividing walls in the dining room are panelled like geometric jigsaws. Circles and squares, quadrant pieces and segmental cutouts. Jib doors allow the dado rail to continue uninterrupted. The French doors open onto an external staircase leading down to two acres of formal gardens rich in memory glorified, silent in the breathless starlit air. The staircase was the last addition to Markree and it sure did go out with a bang. It firmly belongs to the Belfast Castle outdoor staircase school of “more is more”. A piece of architecture itself, a central bay containing an unglazed Tudorbethan window is looped in the loops as they turn and turn in wildering whirls. Dartboard windows flank each side of the staircase at basement level.

Markree Castle Sitting Room Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In Ephemera W B Yeats ponders, “‘Ah do not mourn,’ he said; ‘That we are tired, for other loves await us; hate on and love through unrepining hours. Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’” Markree, now old and grey, exudes an air of permanence in an ephemeral age. Centuries of building, from castle to house to castle to hotel, have merged into authenticity, melded by the patina of age: one form hewn from rock, one colour, one character, one craft, oneness. (1) The staircase hall remains just that. (2) Sinéad O’Connor (Sinéad O’Connor is the new Sinéad O’Connor) can still be taken to church in the traditional sanctity of the velvet curtained chapel. (3) The kitchen has been promoted to adjoin the new dining room. (4) The dining room rebranded the Knockmuldowney Restaurant was the drawing room. (5) The library stocks fewer books as the sitting room. (6) The same ghosts peer over the galleried hall to the family portraits below. (7) Drinks continue to be served in the sitting room now it’s a bar. And don’t forget the porte cochère, still there, it’s found a humbler use as a smoking room. These days it’s more upper case Regal. At the extremity of the garden front, just before the lowest wing tapers into the garden wall, a gothic arched outbuilding is now the stately home of two cats.

All 32 bedrooms are decorated in vibrant shades and furnished with dark Victorian pieces – such antique joy. The six largest are individually named. On the second floor, The Mrs Alexander Room is 370 square feet, the size of a one bedroom flat in London. It would give Temple House’s Half Acre Bedroom a run for its money. Also on the second floor, The Charles Kingsley Room has two great windows open to the south. The second floor W B Yeats Room is a hexagonal shape, pushing into the garden front bow window. Further along the garden front second floor corridor is The Bryan Cooper Room. On the first floor, The Coronet Cooper Room over the bar has a rectangular bay window and is accessed via its own serpentine stairs sliced through the thickness of the internal wall. The Johnny Cash Room (the singer stayed here in the 1990s) over the dining room is semicircular shaped. It too has its own stairs sliced through the wall.

Markree Castle Dinner © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Handmade Soap Company caters for all creature comforts great and small in the en suite bathrooms. Grapefruit and Irish Moss soap; Lavender and Rosemary bath and shower gel; Basil and Sweet Orange shampoo. A storm darkened rabbit warren: a life sized snakes and ladders game of corridors, galleries, landings, lobbies, passageways, staircases, stairwells, vestibules and more lobbies connecting the rooms is lit by a starry bright patchwork of archways, clerestories, rooflights, roof lanterns, casements and sashes. On a smaller scale, beyond the gate and pavement grey in Ballaghaderreen a castle designed by John McCurdy, architect of the Shelbourne Hotel, is for sale. Edmondstown Castle: offers around €800,000. A seven bedroom High Victorian pile on 29 acres for the price of a one bedroom flat in London.

Markree Castle Shutter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

An illuminated address presented by the tenants of Markree to Charles Cooper’s great uncle when he attained his majority hangs in the bar. It harks back to a more hat tugging, reverential era, reflecting a social order recognisable to Mrs Alexander: “Address and presentation to Edward Francis P Cooper Esq, Markree Castle, 1933. We the undersigned employees on your estate beg your acceptance of our best congratulations on the attainment of your majority and we wish you long and happy enjoyment of the position you now occupy as owner of the Markree property. We are all aware of the interest you take in Markree, and as most of us experienced very great kindness at the hand of your late father Major B R Cooper, than whom no better employer could be. We have every confidence in thinking that you will be equally good and feel that it will be a similar pleasure to serve you. We take this opportunity of expressing our deep appreciation of the many acts of kindness that we have already received from yourself and every member of your family. In commemoration of this occasion and a slight token of our feelings, we trust you will accept this small gift that we now offer with our best wishes for your welfare in the future, at the same time hoping you will be long spared to spend many happy days at Markree.” In September 2014, Markree Castle was advertised for sale in Country Life for sale for €3,125,000.

Markree Castle Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architecture Luxury People Restaurants

Claire Clark Afternoon Tea + Royal Opera House Covent Garden London

Upbeat Downtown

View from Royal Opera House Covent Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

What do Bluebird, Buckingham Palace, Claridge’s, Sandy Lane, Sofitel Dubai, The Ritz, The Wolseley and the House of Commons all have in, er, common? Maestro pastry chef Claire Clarke MBE. Yes! She’s sprinkled her fairy dust on them all. Now it’s the turn of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to benefit from her sparkle. Claire has composed an afternoon tea to be served in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. Conservatory is too mean a word for this vast glass vaulted space named in honour of the late philanthropist and publisher Lord Hamlyn. More like Kew Gardens crossed with Syon Park. A Paxton moment. No room for understatement.

Paul Hamlyn Hall Royal Opera House Covent Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” It’s pure indulgence by its very nature. Afternoon tea is a superfluous meal to be enjoyed while lesser mortals, nine-to-fivers, toil. Let the rich eat cake. Add a crystal palace, edible compositions by the UK’s leading pâtissière for over a decade (The Caterer’s words and just about everyone else’s), a flute of Ruinart and musical accompaniment by a classical pianist selected by The Royal Ballet and the ceremonial gastronomic extravagance is raised an octave or two. Music to our ears, so to sing.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The tea. Tea for two by Soho based specialists My Cup of Tea. White Jasmine has a light delicate flavour, the flowers layered between whole green tea leaves. Opera Afternoon harmonises black teas from China and Sri Lanka with the rounded sweetness of Bourbon vanilla. The savouries. Like movements in a symphony, variations in lightness and colour at once distinguish each one and complement each other. Severn & Wye smoked salmon blini; carrot and coriander humus on pear and walnut rye bread; cucumber and cream cheese on sourdough bread. The sweet savouries. Scones are accompanied by Dorset clotted cream and homemade seasonal strawberry jam. Lady Grantham would approve. The sweets. Exquisitely presented nostalgia is key to Claire’s creativity. Perennial favourite banoffee takes the form of a macaroon. A pistachio éclair with praline grains is a dolce diminuendo in subtle green. Glittering gold leaf performs a grace note atop a mandarin and kumquat amandine. A floating bar of music is the icing on the cake on Opéra Gâteau – a crescendo in chocolate.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Afternoon Tea © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Claire, still in chef whites, joins us for a chat. “I wanted my afternoon tea at the Royal Opera House to be traditional. This isn’t the place for modern interpretations. I’ve stuck to classical roots. My catering company is more about content – substance over style. All the ingredients are British. And there’s nowhere more British than the Royal Opera House. I’ve previously worked a lot in the West End.”

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Afternoon Tea Carrot Sandwich © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

She also spent five years as head pastry chef for Thomas Keller at Napa Valley’s triple Michelin starred French Laundry, reputedly America’s top restaurant. “I’m just back from celebrating my somethingth birthday there!” Claire confides. “I was in the garden of the French Laundry last week. Working at the French Laundry is like army boot camp – but in a good way. One where everyone wants to be fit. The staff are in the best five percent in the world. Everyone’s so passionate about giving the customer a special experience they’re prepared to go to extremes. Even the gravel outside has to be raked a certain way.” This perfectionist streak is clearly shared by Claire in her passion for pastry.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Afternoon Tea by Claire Clarke © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

You don’t need to buy an opera ticket to enjoy afternoon tea in the Paul Hamlyn Hall although it would make the perfect prelude to Parsifal or Pagliacci. It costs £47.50 (for no champers knock a tenner off). Time for one more musical metaphor. Claire Clarke’s performance at the Royal Opera House really does hit all the right notes. A midsummer afternoon’s dream (that’s two).

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Pastry by Claire Clarke © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architecture People Restaurants Town Houses

Victor Hugo + Place Les Vosges Paris

French Disconnection 

Place des Voges Paris © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Everything sounds better in French. But when the Garllic nation attempts English, sometimes all is lost in translation. Take a stroll through Le Marais, try not to smirk as you pass a shop unromantically named ‘I Do Marriage, Be Sweet’ on Rue Beaubourg or ‘Hello, I Love You, Can You Tell Me Your Name?’ on alliterative Boulevard Beaumarchais. Bewildering, dazing, confusing. No lines to learn to forget to read between. Maybe this is where Cecilia Ahern gets inspiration for the titles of her doorstopper potboilers. Stopping a few doors down on Boulevard Beaumarchais, the grammatically challenged ‘Restaurant Loving Hut’ conjures up all sorts of scenarios. An amorous small structure with a fondness for eating places, perhaps? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Jules Verne Eiffel Tower Restaurant © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Time to chill in 17th century Place Les Vosges, grab a coffee under the arches at Café Hugo. Everybody’s changing; some places stay the same. Parisians are so friendly. C’est quoi? In the sandy square, children, substitute pets, hang from climbing frames like miserable uncaged monkeys. Better not seen not heard but they’re far enough away. Disconnect. Seats, lovers populate. Paris can’t wait. Tucked away in an unforgotten corner of Place Les Vosges, the apartment where Victor Hugo penned the Hunchback of Notre Dame, rooms wallpapered to within a square inch of their dead lives. He’s gone, the wallpaper’s still there. An empty Edouard Vuillard interior brought to life. No doubt in part thanks to said conquering author, a queue snakes out of la cathédrale, slithering round the statue of Charlemagne. Skedaddle; head for the queueless Saint Gervais et Saint Protais, near yet far from the clueless maddening crowd, hifalutin, lording it above the City Hall. Get a high in a high church in a high church. No usurpers of grace. Experience multiple epiphanies. Peerless chanting fills the nave. As we said, everything sounds better in French.

Castlemacgarrett Claremorris Mayo © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley