Architecture Art Country Houses

Lissan House Cookstown + Autumn

A Tense Presence

The last of the lineage, the late Hazel Dolling née Staples of Lissan House recorded at the beginning of the 21st century, “It is very quiet in the house at night but I know all the creaks. Visiting grandchildren scare themselves with ghost stories. None of them like to sleep in the Heffalump’s old room. My mother said she once had a visitor in the night, an old lady whom she saw clearly. She held a candle in her hand and she was peering at her face as she woke up. Visitors talk of people walking around in the night when no one is astir. I have a friend who has seen Lady Kitty here, Sir Thomas’s widow, who made off with all the Lissan Plates. She said she was wearing a beautiful pink silk dress.”

Architecture Hotels Luxury

Dunbrody House Hotel Wexford + Lord Newborough

Searching for a Title

Dunbrody Park Hotel New Ross Wexford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

By hook or by crook we will dine at Dunbrody House. Oliver Cromwell, ever the joker in the pack, reputedly quipped he would take Ireland “by Hook or by Crook”. That is, start a-raping and a-pillaging in one of the two villages facing each other across the Waterford Channel. Our mission is more refined – in search of the perfect fish ‘n’ chips. Make that beer battered fish and chips with a scoop of tartar sauce and a shot of green pea in a neoclassical reception room overlooking a sun soaked terrace leading onto landscaped gardens in a country estate.

Dunbrody Park Hotel Garden New Ross Wexford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dunbrody House was the gaff of an Anglo Irish family right up to 1996. Let us tell you about the very aristocratic. They are different. They have titles. C’m’ere t’us. The last owner was His Grace the 7th Marquess and Earl of Donegall, Earl of Belfast, Viscount Chichester of Ireland, Baron Fisherwick of Fisherwick and Hereditary Lord High Admiral of Lough Neagh. Known to his friends as “Don”. He was once engaged to Sheilah Graham, then a household name, now a footnote in history. Her story was the ultimate top-of-the-bus on the hard shoulder to back-of-the-limo in the fast lane dream come true. From pleb to sleb.

After a lowly start in London’s East End, she became a West End show girl, then a Hollywood celebrity gossip columnist. Before long Sheilah was skating, skiing and skijoring with the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker (of “don’t put all your eggs in one bastard” notoriety), Jean Harlow and the Mitford brother. At the party to celebrate her engagement to Don, she met Francis Scott Fitzgerald. Sheilah became the writer’s partner for the last four years of his life as recorded in her 1958 autobiography Beloved Infidel. Wha’s the story? They were the toast of Hollywood, before getting burnt. Don went on to marry Lady Josceline Legge, daughter of the 7th Earl of Dartmouth.

Ireland’s most distinguished auctioneer, Fonsie Mealy, with half a century of experience behind him, recalls the late Lord and Lady Donegall complaining about “forever trying to make ends meet”. Fonsie launched a sale of Dunbrody’s contents in May 1985. “It was such a social occasion. The sides of the large marquee were down as the weather was magnificent. The prices were magnificent too! Stair Galleries of New York spent £240,000 on a suite of bookcases.”

Now a hotel run by superchef Kevin Dundon and his wife Catherine, the architecture of this long low lying house hasn’t changed much since it was built 180 years ago. The central tower of the garden front has been removed and dormers added. Otherwise, the Edwardian country house party atmosphere continues betwixt its well preserved walls. Craic’s almighty. “You must drive round to see Hook Head,” exclaims the maître d’hôtel. “Visiting this peninsula without seeing the lighthouse is like going to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower, so it is!” With less than Cromwellian perseverance, we decline and sail off on the ferry into the sunset.

Back in London, we catch up with another aristocrat – tenuous link, yes – Lord Newborough, for a topping time at Magazine, the restaurant with a gallery attached (The Serpentine) while enjoying the world’s smallest onion rings. Robert is owner of Rhug Estate (pronounced “Reeg”), one of the largest organic farms and certainly the most ethical in the UK, d’y’ know’d we mean?

Rhug is our brand,” explains Robert Newborough. “All we are really are farmers from North Wales. My family can be traced back to the 9th century – not me personally. We were good at pilfering, stealing farmland. Slate fortunes fell into the estates followed by mismanagement, divorce, inheritance tax. Our estates rapidly diminished. Then my family acquired Rhug by marriage. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good dowry! Across three estates, we farm 7,000 acres organically and pride ourselves on animal welfare. Rhug Estate supplies to over 20 Michelin star restaurants here and abroad, and over 20 five star hotels.”

Lord Newborough of Rhug Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley


Inch Island + Inch Pier + Inch Strand + Inch House Inishowen Donegal

Take a Mile

… or several. Driving over the causeway which links Inch Island to the mainland, the mainland being an aqueous bulge of land itself (Inishowen Peninsula), we are faced with one of life’s merrier dilemmas. “Strand 2 kilometres” to the left and “Pier 4 kilometres” to the right. We do both: the full breadth of the afternoon lies before us. The journey to Inch Pier is infinitely longer than suggested by the signpost (Irish miles?) even if it does end rather abruptly. Clinging to the hill, the road ascends and narrows to one car width. Then almost drops off a precipice. The last leg of the journey is a slippery slope slithering straight into the mini harbour. Best travelled by foot. Gingerly. The things we do for a few decent snaps.

A distractingly beautiful house stands close to the road somewhere between the causeway and the pier. Inch House is surprisingly low profile. It gets a passing mention here and there in literature about Buncrana Castle. The houses, or at least their final versions, are of a similar age and ilk: early 18th century austere neoclassicism. Inch House is seven bays wide, the central three bays set in the slimmest of breakfronts. A “missing” window either side of the pedimented doorcase adds to its spare charm.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “The Isle of Inch lies directly north of the Isle of Burt and the north of Inch lies beyond Fahan Channel nearly west of Fahan Churchtown. It is about eight and a half miles in circumference. About two and a half from the southeast extreme of Carrickanee, north westward to the point of Binnault or Bheinaalt at the Hawk’s Nest; and but little more than two miles from the ruins of Inch Castle at south to Carrignahaa Point in middle Grange at north.”

The Memoirs list the townlands of the island: “In Grange, which norths the island, are comprised the townlands of Greddy, Grange, Strachack and Fergans. Moress has no subdemoninations, lies northeast. Carrickanee comprises near or north Carrickanee and far or south Carrickanee at east. Byletts has no sub denominations, at south east. Ballymakernaghan, Upper and Lower, in the interior of the island. Castle Quarter, no sub denominations, lies at south. Bohullian comprises Bohillian, Glaak and the Milltown of Inch. Ballynakillue is the westmost quarterland and comprises Bhinaalt, Drum, Mullnadee, Cloghglass and Boarran.”

Inch Island is drenched in history. English ships sailed to Lough Swilly and landed on the island during the Siege of Derry. The event wasn’t just part of Irish history. This small city and its environs on the edge of Europe was for 105 days (straddling 1688 to 1689) the hinge on which the history of the continent swung. It had ramifications not only for the Second British Civil War but also the broader struggle for the domination of Europe. The defeat of the Jacobite forces helped shape the continent for centuries to follow. And Inch played its part. Not that you’d ever guess today. The freshening lace of lapping water is the only sound of the sound. And then there is the sunlight, as efficacious as a prayer.


Villa Bleuler + Zürich Lake

Castle Copeland

On warm autumnal days, when nature is turning from green to lemon and amber and scarlet, wandering through the leaf strewn gardens on the east and west banks of Zürich Lake is one of life’s finer pleasures. Open the gates and beyond one is guaranteed a villa to behold, or in the case of Museum Rietberg, three villas. On the opposite side of the lake from Museum Rietberg, high up on the east bank, is Villa Bleuler.

Grand American and Swiss houses tend to be called after their grand owners. Villa Bleuler is no exception, borrowing a barrel from the surname of its original client. Colonel Hermann Bleuler-Huber commissioned the local architect Alfred Bluntschli to design his house in the 1880s. A neo Renaissance palazzo was the result. It’s one of the loveliest of the city’s many villas. The brick changes from pale pink in the sunshine to orangey terracotta in the rain.

The building is beautifully complemented by gardens also designed by the architect and executed by Otto Froebel and Evariste Mertens. The interiors of dark marmalade look out across manicured lawns towards tree framed views of Zürich Lake. Like many of these houses, Zürich Council now owns Villa Bleuler and it is occupied by the Swiss Institute for Art Research. An oval glass lantern set into the front lawn is the only visibility of a contemporary architectural intervention underground.


Zürich + The Doors

Alpine Wood

Zürich, where wealth is worn unabashed.

Architecture Country Houses

Zürich + Swiss Cottage

Say Cheese

Swiss Mountain.

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Villa Escher + Belvoir Park Zürich

Swiss Heir

“You must have good taste!” exclaimed Lucy Worsley over lunch at the Marriott Grosvenor Square London last week. The Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces was looking resplendent in a red velvet dress. She was returning the compliment to our compliment about her entertainingly educational educationally entertaining history programmes. It was The Sunday Times British Homes Awards:

Lunch at the Marriott Grosvenor Square is always fun, whatever the occasion, but how much more fun would lunch be at the Marriott Zürich? There’s only one way to find out. And so, here we are, pleased as punch plonked on plumped up cushions. Actually we’re a few miles downstream from the Marriott in the Odeon Restaurant but you get the drift. Sometime later, we will admire the assured elegance of Villa Escher and its apron of greenery known as Belvoir Park but for now there’s truffle omelette to be devoured.

Art Fashion

Mary Martin London Fashion + Lissan House

The Most Beautiful Dress

Country Houses Fashion Luxury People

Mary Martin London + Ireland

The Moon Under Water | Ogee

MML Fashion in Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Romantic, feminine, elegant, unconventional, dreamy. You are about to enter another world. One of ghostly passageways and arresting narratives. One steeped in fantasy and subliminal presence. A demanding duchess? A languid lady? An actress, aristocrat or model? Maybe all three. You decide. Sometimes the moon rises above water, beyond the line of beauty. A vision emerges, a dress made in memory of Cecil the Lion.

Mary Martin London in Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Mary Martin London Cecil the Lion Dress © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Mary Martin London Fashion in Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture People

Crevenagh House Tyrone + Autumn

Beauty Call

Astonished by our brilliance in front of behind the camera, the pictures speak for themselves.

Architecture Town Houses

Lifford + The Doors


Designed by Michael Priestley in the mid 18th century, Lifford Courthouse (now a restaurant and prison museum) with its Gibbsian keystoned rusticated pedimented doorcase is reckoned to be the most impressive public building in County Donegal. The better half of Strabane has several other discreet moments of architectural merit.

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The Marshall Doran Collection + Belleek Manor Mayo

China in Your Hand

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Terrace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belleek Manor, or Belleek Castle as it’s now called, is unique and we don’t apply that word obliquely. Surely it must be the only example of 19th century Gothic Revival meets 20th century Medieval Revival in the country. Certainly it’s the only case of this hybrid style in Ballina, County Mayo. Two distinct (in era and nuance) building extravaganzas by two extraordinary (in talent and obsession) characters come together in this west of Ireland setting.

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

First glimpse is of baronial grandeur. After a long drive through forestry, the house is revealed behind a balustraded forecourt propped above a grassland bowl. Sir Francis Knox-Gore set out to impress his wife who came from Lissadell, the neighbouring county’s most palatial country house. He lavished £10,000 on their John Benjamin Keanes designed marital home; hopefully Her Ladyship approved. His descendants must have: the Knox-Gores lived here from 1831 to 1940. After being used as a tuberculosis hospital, it lay empty until Marshall Doran bought the house and its immediate 20 acres.

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Marshall, who died in 2007, was a Great Gatsby type adventurer. Born Jack Fenn, the Liverpudlian ran away to join the American Merchant Navy, changed his name and made a fortune which he invested in transforming Belleek Manor into Belleek Castle. It only cost £5,000 to purchase but that was just the start of the spending spree. Jack Fenn’s Courtyard Café in the former stables – anyone for deconstructed scone or spicy avo and egg? – is named in his honour. His son Paul now runs the hotel. There are 10 guest bedrooms. But hang on. The interior! Wow! Where to begin?

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s definitely the sole instance where, under one roof, we’ve come across Spanish Armada salvage, Cistercian abbey pieces, Venetian caryatids, samurai armoury, woolly mammoth tusks and Grace O’Malley’s fourposter. It all makes the taxidermised last wolf of Connaught look almost commonplace. As we wander through the rabbit warren of labyrinthine museum rooms, subterranean Aladdin’s Caves, taking in the visual feast we leave it up to the story boards on the stone walls to continue the narrative, the story of how a manor became a castle:

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Tall, handsome, barrel chested and powerful, young Marshall was an accomplished athlete and earned under 18 championship medals in boxing and swimming. At 16, Marshall already radiated charm and was most enthusiastic about girls. He fancied a gypsy trapeze artist from the circus and so signed on to be a highflyer. After a few exciting moments on the high wire and a fallout with the gypsy, Marshall thought it prudent to reposition his career, and moved to a shooting gallery at the fair.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Fanlight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley“To supplement his earnings he went on the ‘knock’ calling door to door, buying gold and silver. This triggered a lifelong passion for things old – antiques to fossils, and everything in between. Still 16, in Liverpool, Marshall stowed away on a ship bound for America, the first of countless ocean passages. In 1998, then aged 82, Marshall took part in a survey for The Geological Curator magazine.”

Marshall’s passion for antiques required that he find a place to store them. He attempted to buy Rozel Fort, a beautiful property dominating the cliffs at Rozel in Jersey, but was gazumped. So he decided to build his own castle at Flicquet Bay in Jersey. In 1961, Marshall decided to buy a second castle, this time in Ballina, County Mayo. He commenced the monumental task of converting the former manor house into a fine hotel and medieval museum – Belleek Castle. As an avid collector he threw away nothing, everything was of value.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Banqueting Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“In 1961, Marshall bought Belleek Castle. Visitors would find him swinging hammer and chisel on immense blocks of timber, a red bandana tied around his again against the perspiration, holes in his trousers and worn shows from toes protruding. He worked alongside other stonemasons, and taught his tradesmen proper adze technique, and how to use a drawknife to age and fashion wood in the medieval style.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“On his time off, he combed Europe’s auctions and shops, amassing what is thought to be the finest collection of armour, weaponry and fossils in Ireland. As an avid collector he could never pass up a bargain. Some of these bargains remain in this room today where he left them – he called it his Junk Shop.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Fortunately for us today, many of his original papers survived and his collection of books remains intact. Many treasures have been discovered, from the original sales catalogues to the receipts for payment. On 30 April 1973, Marshall attended an auction at Christie’s in London. He bought 16 items that day all of which are listed in this catalogue as being from a sale of items from the Tower of London.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Wolf © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture People

Villa Patumbah Zürich + Zollikerstrasse

Smoking Hot

It’s official. Smoking is good for your wealth. Or at least it was if you happened to be a tobacco plantation owner a century ago. With money to burn from his Sumatra based enterprise, in the 1880s Carl Fürchtegott Grob hired architects Alfred Chiodera and Theophile Chudy to design him a house in the hilly Riesbach district of Zürich. Actually this being Zürich, everywhere is pretty much hilly. It’s on Zollikerstrasse which is like Kensington Palace Gardens – with gardens. Über villas lurk in sylvan settings, each richer with a richer patron than the last.

Villa Patumbah is one of the most flamboyant. It’s a typical eclecticism of baroque, gothic, Italian Renaissance and just a little Swiss chalet (all that wood!). Two years before he died, Herr Grob got the landscape architect Evariste Mertens to give the house a setting worthy of its opulence. Its inspiration was English formal gardens. “Patumbah” is Malay for “longed for land”. Carl got his longed for land – and house – and more recently, the Swiss Heritage Society has ensured the public can share in his dream. Not such a drag.

Architecture People

Villa Wesendonck Zürich + Museum Rietberg

Overtures in Exile | Canon Balls | Isolde’s Tower

Its deep loggias are deliciously Palladian. Vicenza comes to Zürich. Its painted decorations are supremely Pompeiian. Naples arrives in Zürich. Although being Swiss, Leonhard couldn’t resist adding window shutters.

The von Wesendoncks were great pals with the composer Richard Wagner and his wife Minna. The Wagners lived for a while in a cottage on the estate. Villa Wesendonck is one of three villas with gardens flowing into one another which together form Museum Rietberg.

Art People

V+A + The Bern + Ronny Schwartz Gallery London

Shooting Range 

It’s the museum made for lost Saturday afternoons. Just when you thought the V+A couldn’t get any bigger or better, down a corridor, past five galleries, through two hallways, up three flights of stairs, a new gallery has just opened. Designed by David Kohn Architects, it is one of four new galleries dedicated to photography. The collection spans from experimental silhouettes to pioneers such as Julia Margaret Cameron right up to digital imagery. The entrance to the new gallery is through an installation of 150 vintage cameras. So now there’s an excuse to get lost in the V+A on Sunday afternoons too.