Architecture Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

Sammy Leslie + Castle Leslie Glaslough Monaghan

The Rear View 

Castle Leslie Rear View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney, W B Yeats and Lavender’s Blue have all been. The great and the good, in other words. In recent years thanks to Sammy Leslie and her uncle the 4th Baronet, Sir John (forever known as ‘Sir Jack’), Castle Leslie has flung open its heavy doors to the hoi polloi (albeit the well heeled variety) too, rebuilding its rep as a byword for sybaritic hospitality. Visitors from Northern Ireland could be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu – it’s the doppelgänger of Belfast Castle. Both were designed in the 1870s by the same architects: Sir Charles Lanyon and William Lynn.

Castle Leslie Porte Cochere © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Together these architects captured the spirit of the age. Lynn produced a majestic baronial pile with chamfered bay windows perfectly angled for views of the garden and lake simultaneously. Lanyon crammed the house of Italian Renaissance interiors and designed a matching loggia to boot. Fully signed up members of the MTV Cribs generation will find it hard not to go into unexpected sensory overload at this veritable treasure trove of historic delights. Castle Leslie is all about faded charm; it’s the antithesis of footballer’s pad bling. But still, the place is an explosion of rarity, of dazzling individuality. Sir Jack’s brother Desmond Leslie wrote in 1950:

Castle Leslie Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The trees are enormous, 120 feet being average for conifers; the woods tangled and impenetrable; gigantic Arthur Rackham roots straddle quivering bog, and in the dark lake huge old fish lie or else bask in the amber ponds where branches sweep down to kiss the water.”

Castle Leslie Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

We caught up with Sammy in the cookery school in one of the castle’s wings. “Although I’m the fifth of six children, I always wanted to run the estate, even if I didn’t know how. After working abroad, I returned in 1991. The estate was at its lowest point ever. My father Desmond was thinking of selling up to a Japanese consortium. There was no income… crippling insurance to pay… The Troubles were in full swing. People forget how near we are to the border here.”

Castle Leslie Monaghan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Nevertheless Sammy took it on. “I sold dad’s car for five grand and got a five grand grant from the County Enterprise Board to start the ‘leaky tearooms’ in the conservatory. They were great as long as it didn’t rain! And I sold some green oak that went to Windsor for their restoration. Sealing the roof was the first priority. Five years later we started to take people to stay and bit by bit we got the rest of the house done. So we finished the castle in 2006 after – what? Nearly 15 years of slow restoration. “The Castle Leslie and Caledon Regeneration Partnership part funded by the EU provided finance of €1.2 million. Bravo! The house and estate were saved from the jaws of imminent destruction.

Castle Leslie Urn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Leslies are renowned for their sense of fun. An introductory letter sent to guests mentions Sir Jack (an octogenarian) will lead tours on Sunday mornings but only if he recovers in time from clubbing. In the gents (or ‘Lords’ as it’s grandly labelled) off the entrance hall beyond a boot room, individual urinals on either side of a fireplace are labelled ‘large’, ‘medium’, ‘tiny’ and ‘liar’. Take your pick. A plethora of placards between taxidermy proclaim such witticisms as ‘On this site in 1897 nothing happened’ and ‘Please go slowly round the bend’.

Castle Leslie Lake Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

Bathrooms are a bit of a Leslie obsession ever since the thrones and thunderboxes were introduced upstairs. “The sanitary ware in the new bathrooms off the long gallery is by Thomas Crapper. Who else?” she smiles. “We’ve even got a double loo in the ladies so that you can carry on conversations uninterrupted!” Exposed stone walls above tongue and groove panelling elevate these spaces above mere public conveniences.

Castle Leslie Long Gallery Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

In the top lit gallery which runs parallel with the loggia, the 1st Sir John Leslie painted murals in the 1890s of his family straight onto the walls and framed them to look like hanging portraits. Always one to carry on a family tradition with a sense of pun, this time visual tricks, Sammy has created a thumping big doll’s house containing an en suite bathroom within a bedroom which was once a nursery. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Irvine Welsh’s play Babylon Heights.

Castle Leslie Glaslough Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A sense of history prevails within these walls, from the amusing to the macabre. The blood drenched shroud which received the head of James, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, the last English earl to be beheaded for being a Catholic, is mounted on the staircase wall. “It’s a prized possession of Uncle Jack’s,” Sammy confides.

Castle Leslie Entrance Hall 2 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Our conversation moves on to her latest enterprise: the Castle Leslie Village. “An 1850s map records a village on the site,” she says. “Tenant strips belonging to old mud houses used to stretch down to the lake. Our development is designed as a natural extension to the present village of Glaslough.” In contrast to the ornate articulation of its country houses, Ulster’s vernacular vocabulary is one of restraint. Dublin based architect John Cully produced initial drawings; Consarc provided further designs and project managed the scheme. Consarc architect Dawson Stelfox has adhered to classical proportions rather than applied decoration to achieve harmony. Unpretentiousness is the key. At Castle Leslie Village there are no superfluous posts or pillars or piers or peers or pediments or porticos or porte cochères. Self builders of Ulster take note!

Castle Leslie Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-2

That said, enough variety has been introduced into the detail of the terraces to banish monotony. Organic growth is suggested through the use of Georgian 12 pane, Victorian four pane and Edwardian two pane windows. There are more sashes than a 12th of July Orange Day parade. Rectangular, elliptical and semicircular fanlights are over the doorways, some sporting spider’s web glazing bars, others Piscean patterns. “We’ve used proper limestone and salvaged brick,” notes Sammy. “And timber window frames and slate.”

Castle Leslie Grand Piano © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We question Sammy how she would respond to accusations of pastiche. “They’re original designs, not copies,” she retorts. “For example although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age.” It’s hard to disagree. “There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.”

Castle Leslie Paintings © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Later we spoke to Dawson. “Pastiche is copying without understanding. We’re keeping alive tradition, not window dressing. For example we paid careful attention to solid-to-void ratios. Good quality traditional architecture is not time linked. We’re simply preserving a way of building. McGurran Construction did a good job. I think Castle Leslie Village is quite similar to our work at Strangford.”

Castle Leslie Miniatures © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The houses are clustered around two eligible spaces: a square and a green. Dwelling sizes range from 80 to 230 square metres. “We offered the first two phases to locals at the best price possible and they were all snapped up,” says Sammy. “This has resulted in a readymade sense of community because everyone knows each other already. A few of the houses are available for holiday letting.”

Castle Leslie Conservatory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We’re concentrating on construction first,” she explains. “The hunting lodge being restored by Dawson will have 25 bedrooms, a spa and 60 stables. It’ll be great craic! Between the various development sites we must be employing at least 120 builders at the moment. Estate management is next on the agenda. Food production and so on.” Just when we think we’ve heard about all of the building taking place at Castle Leslie, Sammy mentions the old stables. “They date from 1780 and have never been touched. Two sides of the courtyard are missing. We’re going to rebuild them. The old stables will then house 12 holiday cottages.”

Castle Leslie Tearoom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We ask her if she ever feels daunted by the mammoth scale of the task. “I do have my wobbly days but our family motto is ‘Grip Fast’! I think that when you grow up in a place like this you always have a sense of scale so working on a big scale is normal. I mean it’s 400 hectares, there’s seven kilometres of estate wall, six gatelodges – all different, and 7,300 square metres of historic buildings.” Sammy continues, “The back wall from the cookery school entrance to the end of the billiard room is a quarter of a kilometre.”

Castle Leslie Long Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

“A place like this evolves,” Sammy ruminates. “There’s no point in thinking about the good ol’ days of the past. The castle was cold and damp, y’know, and crumbling. And it’s just – it’s a joy to see it all coming back to life. The whole reason we’re here is to protect and preserve the castle and because the house was built to entertain, that’s what we’re doing. We’re just entertaining on a grand scale. People are coming and having huge amounts of fun here. Castle Leslie hasn’t changed as much as the outside world. Ha!” This year there’s plenty to celebrate including the completion of Castle Leslie Village, the Leslie family’s 1,000th anniversary, Sammy’s 40th birthday, and Sir Jack’s 90th and the publication of his memoirs.

Castle Leslie Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

That was six years ago. This summer we returned to Castle Leslie. Our seventh visit, we first visited the house umpteen years ago. Back then Sammy served us delicious sweetcorn sandwiches and French onion soup in the ‘leaky tearooms’, looking over the gardens of knee high grass. The shadows were heightening and lengthening ‘cross the estate. Her late father Desmond showed us round the fragile rooms lost in a time warp. Ireland’s Calke Abbey without the National Trust saviour. He would later write on 11 May 1993, waxing lyrical to transform an acknowledgement letter into a piece of allegorical and existential prose:

Castle Leslie Cartoons © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I am glad you enjoyed your personally conducted tour. We try to make them interesting and amusing. Thanks also for St John – the only disciple who really understood. His opening verses contain more advanced cosmic science than all the modern theorists bundled together. I also love Chapter 17 ‘that ye may be one’. But now, at least, scientists state it all began with the sudden appearance of light from nowhere, filling the whole of space in a billionth part of a second – The Big Bang. Or more simply – ‘Let there be Light. And there was Light.’ As our old friend Ecclesiastes says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ I hope you will come again when you have nothing better to do on a nice weekend.”

Castle Leslie Library © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

On another occasion, Sammy’s sister, the vivacious Camilla Leslie, came striding up the driveway, returning home from London to get ready for her wedding the following week. “Nothing’s ready! I’ve to get the cake organised, my dress, at least we’ve got the church!” she exclaimed, pointing to the estate church. This time round we stay in Wee Joey Farm Hand’s Cottage in Castle Leslie Village, enjoy a lively dinner in Snaffles restaurant in the hunting lodge, and once again, afternoon tea, now served in the drawing room. Meanwhile, Sir Jack is taking a disco nap in the new spa to prepare for his regular Saturday night clubbing in Carrickmacross.

Castle Leslie Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

That was four years ago. Visit number eight and counting. More to celebrate as Sammy, still living in the West Wing, turns 50. Sir Jack would have turned 100 on 6th December but sadly died just weeks before our visit. This time, we’re here for afternoon tea in the rebuilt conservatory or ‘sunny tearooms’ as they turn out to be today. The assault of a rare Irish heatwave, 26 degrees for days on end, won’t interrupt tradition. A turf fire is still lit in the drawing room. ‘Apologies for the mismatching crockery as so many of our plates have been smashed during lively dinner debates’ warned a sign on our first visit. The crockery all matches now but the food is of the same high standard:

Castle Leslie Execution Cloth © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Sir Jack Leslie Castle Leslie @ Lavender's Blue

Miraculously, Castle Leslie still has no modern extensions. It hasn’t been ‘Carton’d’ (in conservation-speak that means more extensions than an Essex girl in a hairdressers). Instead, the hotel has grown organically, stretching further into Lanyon and Lynn’s building. An upstairs corridor lined with servants’ bells – Sir J Leslie’s Dressing Room, Lady Leslie’s Dressing Room, Dining Room, Office – leads to a cinema carved out of old attics. Castle Leslie has had its ups and downs but Sammy Leslie is determined to ‘Grip Fast’! And in response to Ms Leslie’s late father’s letter to us, we will come again when there is nothing better to do on a nice weekend.

Castle Leslie Afternoon Tea © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture People

St Patrick’s Memorial Church Saul Down + Henry Seaver

Saints and Scholars

St Patrick's Church Saul Grounds © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Saul Church, also known as St Patrick’s Memorial Church, commemorates the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is built on the reputed spot of his first sermon and subsequent church in the country. When he came to Ireland in 432 AD, strong currents swept his boat along the southern tidal narrows of Strangford Lough. He landed off the River Slaney a couple of miles from Saul. Dichu, the local chieftain, converted to Christianity and gave him a barn or sabhal (pronounced ‘saul’ in Gaelic) for holding services. St Patrick famously used a shamrock from the fertile Saul soil to explain the Holy Trinity. He died in Saul 29 years after landing in Ireland and is buried in nearby Downpatrick.

St Patrick's Church Saul Downpatrick © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick’s Jordanstown designed by William Lynn in the 1860s is the first Northern Irish church to embrace the Celtic revival with aplomb. Saul Church designed by Henry Seaver in the 1930s is the last. Both have a round tower. Henry was a prolific architect who designed many red brick bay windowed villas in the Deramore area of MaloneBelfast. He was also architect of St John’s Church on Malone Road. His brother was rector. St John’s is conventionally gothic. Saul is more Romanesque with its semicircular arched windows.

St Patrick's Church Saul Avenue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Grotto © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Cemetery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Patrick's Church Saul Tombstone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

When the Anglo Irish singer Chris de Burgh penned the words to “In a Country Churchyard” he might have had Saul Church in mind. It couldn’t be any more romantic in both senses of the word. A yew lined avenue leads to this tiny place of worship, spick and span, in contrast to the wild garden around the gravestones and remains of St Patrick’s Abbey. Its hilltop setting allows unbroken views across the rolling countryside of County Down. Unsurprisingly the church is popular for weddings led by members of the clergy from far and wide, including the Reverend Andy Rider of Christ Church Spitalfields. A dedication from St Patrick,

St Patrick's Church Saul Organ © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Go forth, traveller | In the Name which is above every name | Be of good courage | Hold fast that which is good | Render to no man evil for evil | Strengthen the faint hearted | Support the weak | Help the afflicted | Honour all men | Love and serve the Lord | Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And may the blessing of the Eternal God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you in your going out and your coming in.”

St Patrick's Church Saul Memorial © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Design Luxury People Restaurants

Camilla Fayed + Farmacy Restaurant Notting Hill London

Conscious Coupling

Farmacy Restaurant Notting Hill © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No need to move to the south coast after all to experience the best vegetarian restaurants. Farmacy has opened in Brighton-on-Land, otherwise known as Notting Hill. Brainchild of heiress and entrepreneur Camilla Fayed, the vegan-plus-eggs menu is free from dairy refined sugars, additives and chemicals. Her Alchemy Bar conjures up cocktails mixed with cannabis oil, cayenne pepper and flaxseed. Healthy’s never tasted so good. It helps that the kitchen is headed up by a Michelin trained chef, João Ricardo Alves.

Farmacy Restaurant Notting Hill Alchemy Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Who needs The Ivy when there’s the scrumptious Farmacy Burger (millet, black bean and mushroom with aioli, goji ketchup, pickles, tomato and potato wedges served in a wholemeal vegan bun: £14)? An accompanying syringe shot of Fire Starter (ginger, turmeric, cayenne and lemon: £5) is just what the doctor ordered. Blueberry tart (with almond nice cream and almond praline: £11) next is pure indulgence. Farmacy sources everything from local organic farms. So its name may be a triple entendre on provenance, healthcare and, possibly, a certain MABA (Middle Aged British Artist) owned restaurant spelt less phonetically. On a balmy Sunday afternoon, the cool leafy green interior is a welcome respite from the heated urban chaos. In an exclusive, CADA Design reveal their thoughts behind the interior design and branding:

Farmacy Restaurant Notting Hill Fire Starter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Why did Camilla commission CADA Design? “We have an enviable reputation for restaurant design across the globe and with 25 years’ experience our network is extensive. The connection between Camilla and CADA came about through a mutual acquaintance.”
  • What was your relevant experience? “At CADA we start with the food and work out. Having worked with so many food types in so many sectors we were able to transpose our knowledge to a completely new category to us – exclusively vegetarian and veggan.”
  • How would you summarise the interior design? “CADA worked closely with Camilla to recognise her vision for Farmacy. The interior was designed to reflect Farmacy’s social and environmental conscience, using untreated woods and natural fibre upholstery. A primary goal was to make the dining room an energising and uplifting experience to reflect the health giving nature of the food.”
  • How does the branding fit in with the food and drink? “CADA adapted ‘sacred geometry’ as found in nature to create the marque. It symbolises the sun, the source of all our energy and the light that nurtures life. All the graphic components were designed to connect the customer to that source. Ultimately the whole concept is about balance and harmony, whether it’s through the food or the customers’ state of mind while engaging with Farmacy.”

Farmacy Restaurant Notting Hill Blueberry Tart © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture Country Houses

Baronscourt Agent’s House Tyrone + Gervase Jackson-Stops

Landed and Grounded

Baronscourt Tyrone Agent's House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Writer Gervase Jackson-Stops observed in 1979, “A narrow by-road climbs up out of the broad vale of Omagh with its maze of small green fields and hedges to reveal a wholly different scene spread out on the other side of the ridge: a narrower valley entirely clothed in woods, with belts of grazing in between, sunlight reflected on a lake far below, perhaps a glimpse of curling smoke, a pediment and chimneys among the trees near the shore. Parkland is too tame an English word; here if ever, the Irish ‘demesne comes into its own.”

Little has changed at Baronscourt in the intervening decades. Time stands still on the County Tyrone estate, or, at least, moves, very, very, slowly. The main avenue gently meanders down through the valley before coming to a temporary halt outside the Agent’s House. This single storey Palladian villa erected in the 1740s by build-architect James Martin – outer Omagh’s grandest bungalow? – isn’t all it seems. Records suggest it once had an upper floor which was ignominiously lopped off when the current big house was built. The apparent piece of contemporary art on the lawn in front of the Agent’s House isn’t all it seems either. It’s actually the anchor of the ship the 4th Earl of Abercorn, ancestor of the owner of Baronscourt, fled on to France with James II after the Battle of the Boyne.

Baronscourt Estate Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architects Country Houses Hotels

The Titanic + Enniskeen House Hotel Newcastle Down

Pink Panter

Enniskeen House Hotel 1991 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Halfway up the forested Shimna Valley, close to the Tollymore estate which is forever haunted by the wandering Blue Lady, and just beyond the seaside resort of Newcastle is Northern Ireland’s most charming hotel. Discreet yet assured. Spa-free. Anti-ostentatious. Bling where art thou? Hotels should be about three things: food, place and people. Easy. Not golf courses. Enniskeen House Hotel scores top marks in all classes. It knows its French fried onions. It’s perfect for admiring the great outdoors from the great indoors. And the staff are a delight.

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • 1895 three storey house is built in typical very late Victorian style with a proliferation of randomly placed gables, dormers, bays and a turret. More of the turret later. Might be by William Batt who designed the mildly Romanesque Ballynafeigh Orange Hall and the roughly Italianate Clifton Street Orange Hall and the loosely eclectic Monaghan Orange Hall and the vaguely gothic Portaferry Orange Hall. Client is Virginia born Robert Wallace Murray, tobacco and rope magnate.
  • 1899 architectural practice Hobart Heron is founded.
  • 1905 Murray’s Erinmore tobacco politically-not-so-correct slogan is launched, ‘Don’t stop smoking because tax on tobacco has increased. It is your duty to the State to keep on smoking.’
  • 1911 Titanic sets sail with officers puffing on Murray’s Erinmore tobacco and guests eating off Liddell linen tablecloths.
  • 1913 Mr Liddell buys Enniskeen House.
  • 1930 Colonel Panter becomes owner, breathing new life into the interior. Hobart Heron reconfigures the main hall and adds panelling to the reception rooms.
  • 1940 Lindsay family take up residence but after three years widowed Mrs L moves out to a bungalow nearby.
  • 1958 Esme Porter purchases the down-at-heel house and gets busy sensitively converting it to a 12 bedroom hotel.
  • 1961 Colonel’s daughter Eveleigh Finola Margaret Panter marries Major William Stephen Brownlow.
  • 1966 Enniskeen House Hotel is now fully established and ready for the next half century of hospitality.
  • 1974 modern but sympathetic single storey porch and bathroom wing is added to the entrance front. Traces of tracery lend a suitably vague gothic air to the doorway and windows. The building is now an intriguing blend of 1890s, 1930s and 1970s styles. Welcome to informal retro.
  • 1978 A Guide to Irish Country Houses by Mark Bence-Jones is published but no mention of the elusive Enniskeen.
  • 1983 Esme’s son Ian Porter takes over the running of the hotel and the gardens of dewy multicoloured perfumed rhododendrons falling down to the Shimna River are restored.
  • 1994 Kimmitt Dean gives Enniskeen a mention in his publication on gatelodges, ‘To a faintly Scots Baronial roughcast pile, a contrasting Picturesque | Neoclassical stuccoed gatelodge.’
  • 2016 Hobart Heron continues to thrive as an architectural practice in Belfast.
  • 2016 Lavender’s Blue come to stay in the octagonal turret room, admiring the view through 12 panes of original liquidy glass, and have a rollicking good time.

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Porch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Turret Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Landing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Erinmore Tobacco © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Shimna Valley © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle River Trail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Flowers © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Enniskeen Hotel Newcastle Sunset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture Country Houses Hotels

Bel-Air Hotel + Equestrian Centre Ashford Wicklow + Ecclesville Fintona Tyrone

Wall Street | Behind Mansion Walls | The Writing on the Wall

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Is Ashford the Los Angeles of Ireland? No. But it does have its very own Bel-Air. Mansion, not zip code. Originally called Cronroe, Bel-Air in County Wicklow not surprisingly got its name from an early 20th century American owner, clearly feeling homesick. The original name lives on in nearby Cronroe Lane. Right from the get-go, it’s had a back yard for dilettantish partying. In the 18th century, fairs were held on the real estate. Tents erected, punch and whiskey sold, and a good time had by all. A forerunner of Glastonbury or Electric Picnic. These days, the party is more likely to be indoors for sure.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Missing from Burke’s Guide, here’s the architectural summation. The current house harks back to 1890. Period. Typical of the twilight moments of the 19th century, extreme Victoriana is clearly on the wane allowing the early plainer trappings of Edwardiana to emerge. Red brick has given way to grey render. Detailing is concentrated on the entrance: a gabled campanile rising past the hipped roofs forms a pyramidal silhouette. The timber panelled double front door below a large plain fanlight is framed by floral capped columns. Segmental arched two pane sash windows are either single, in couples or threesomes. Some are set in canted or boxy days. Stepping inside, the timber staircase takes off with great gusto. Not quite Lissan House; nevertheless a flight of fancy.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Drive © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It all really got going in 1716 when Sir John Eccles, the Collector of the Port of Dublin, rocked up. He was descended from the Scottish Barony of Eccles. Settling down, his son Hugh built the original house in 1750. An Eccles generation or two later, Cronroe was sold to Julius Casement in 1862. After it was burned down in the 1880s, Julius built the present house. His rather better known relative was his cousin Sir Roger Casement. Roger spent many summer vacations at Cronroe. Outbuildings and stables with light gothick touches appear to predate the house.

Bel-Air Hotel and Equestrian Centre Ashford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Wicklow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Campanile © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Encaustic Tiles © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In 1934 its American owner Nicholas Burns took over. Despite selling the house to the Murphy family just three years later, the name stuck. Tim and Bridie Murphy converted Bel-Air to a hotel and riding school with the help of their three daughters Ita, Ena and Fildelma. In 1980 Fidelma and her husband Bill Freeman took over. A third generation of siblings William, Aileen, Margaret and Noni now run the show. For our hosts it’s a full house party; no carriages required for guests. This house breathes us. Disco in the drawing room. Speakeasy in the library. Encapsulation of feeling in the bedroom. You’re either in the moment or you’re not.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

William Murphy explains, “This is a home rather than just a hotel. It’s full of history too. There are ghosts – but they’re all good! The painting over the hall fireplace is of Lady Casement. She appears to be watching everything going on around her. My mother was redecorating a bedroom and uncovered Roger Casement’s signature under the wallpaper. She had his signature certified – it’s protected now in a glass display on the wall. Seamus Heaney was a regular at Bel-Air and spent time writing here. We’ve a 200 acre farm and 50 horses.”

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Lady Casement © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s still very much a country house so Bel-Air has done well for itself. Not even a modern extension. The same can’t be said for an Eccles manor north of the Black Pig’s Dyke. Ecclesville in Fintona, County Tyrone, was the seat of another branch of the Barony. Two refined neoclassical main elevations were placed at right angles to each other like Castle Grove: a six bay slightly asymmetric entrance front and a five bay symmetric garden front. Breakfronts between dentil corniced setbacks and ground floor windows set in blind segmental arches gave rhythm and subtle character. The interior was equally fine, especially the plasterwork in the interlinked drawing room and music room.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The last owner of Ecclesville was the rather jolly cross-dressing multi-barrelled man-about-town Raymond Saville Connolly de Montmorency Lecky-Browne-Lecky. His chauffeur driven two toned green Austin 16 was often spotted around Fintona and nearby Omagh. Clad in his trademark mauve suits, his penchant for performing convinced him to convert a barn into a theatre. He died in 1961 aged 80, leaving his estate to the nation. Three centuries of heirlooms were auctioned by Ross’s Auctioneers of Belfast raising £23,500. No buyer was found for the house and after a stint as a nursing home, it was demolished in 1978. Traces of Ecclesville still remain. The name lives on in the Ecclesville Equestrian Centre built on the estate. Its entrance piers and sweep of railings are just about intact. A salvaged stone plaque of the Eccles family arms dated 1703 which was placed over the front door of the house, although surely predating it, is on an outbuilding.

Ecclesville Fintona Tyrone in 1905 @ Lavender's Blue

At the top of Church Street in Fintona, rising out of the overgrown cemetery is a statue of a female clinging to a cross. On its plinth are the words: “In memory of my beloved husband John Stuart Eccles of Ecclesville County Tyrone who died the 24th of April 1886 aged 38 years | Eldest son of the late Charles Eccles Esq who died the 4th of November 1869 | Also of my two infant boys. This monument is erected by his sorrowing widow. ‘Suffer little children to come onto me and forbid them not; for such is the Kingdom of God.’” The widow is buried beneath the statue: “This tablet has been placed here by Rose and Dosie Eccles in memory of their beloved mother Frances Caroline Eccles who died 12th February 1887.” A stone dog guards her final resting place. Bel-Air and Ecclesville: two houses, an overlapping family history, sashes and Casements, two fates.

Ecclesville Fintona © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley