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.”
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.
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.”
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
It’s quite simply London’s classiest hotel so an invitation to a party in the Private Dining Room of The Goring is frame worthy. A promotion from mantlepiece to wall no less. Saturday night turns out to be an inimitable mix of stylish comfort and comfortable style, high fashion and high jinks; capturing the last gasp of summer, the curtains gently sway in the soft breeze. For starters, mains and after eight (or rather midnight) pudding:
It’s Friday evening and Lavender’s Blue HQ is bursting at the seams: there’s a makeup artist sorting out an assortment of overflowing MML branded bags and suitcases, a stylist hanging dresses and accessories on the resident tailor’s dummy, a photographer testing lighting and changing lenses, a cat meowing and meandering her way through the mayhem, and in the midst of this pandemonium at its epicentre is the crowned Queen of Fashion herself Mary Martin holding court, giving directions and orders and making jokes and exclamations, the sound of laughter mingling with the beat of the background music. The occasion? Shoot prep. All that’s needed now is an haute couture model and a photogenic château. In the meantime, there are always some closeups of the wealth of material to be photographed.
Deane Swift generously described Francis (they were friends) as “the greatest painter and architect of his time in these Kingdoms”. His designs tend to group the windows together towards the centre of the façade, leaving a mass of masonry on the corners. This occurs on the façade of Coopershill and at the country house he designed in County Kilkenny, Woodstock. It lends a certain monumentality to the architecture. Coopershill is designed to be seen from all angles: it’s a standalone cubic block devoid of wings, every elevation symmetrical, the house with no back.
There are another two blind windows on the narrower west, or side, elevation. Unlike the entrance, or north, front, they don’t have wooden frames and glazing so are less convincing. “We repainted them to retain the symmetry of the architecture,” he records. But it is the similarity between the two principal elevations, the north (entrance) and south (river facing) which is most striking. They’re virtually identical. It’s a game of spot the difference: the end bays of the south elevation are closer to the corners giving more regular spacing to the window sequence. This even distribution lendsit a more conventional Palladian appearance; the grouping of bays on the north front make it look a little idiosyncratic, somehow more Irish.
The doorcase of the north elevation is replicated on the south except for glazing replacing the door itself. Under this central window, the wall looks unfinished. Could steps have once been there? Or was this elevation originally intended to be the entrance front? “The house took so long to complete,” Simon reckons, “that changes were made during the course of construction. It’s strange how the landing cuts across the Venetian window on the south front. A flying staircase would solve that design flaw!” Indeed a flying staircase like that at Woodbrook, County Wexford, wouldn’t interrupt the landing window. It’s a quirk and a charming one at that. The slope of the land from north to south would reveal the full extent of the basement save for the rubble wall. Below the wall is a kitchen garden which is put to good use for the Monsieur Michelin worthy top notch top nosh dinner:
Candlelit dinner is served in the dining room which looks out towards Kesh Mountain. Owner and Chef Christina O’Hara reminds us that “all the vegetables are from the kitchen garden” and “everything is cooked on the Aga”. At some stage an Irish rhubarb appears with a hint of curry. Nasturtiums add a dash of colour to the pale monkfish. Silverware, glassware, Wedgwood and Mrs Delaney coasters and placemats perfect the table arrangement.
Before dinner, Simon leads a tour of the top and bottom floors. “We’re slowly recolonising the whole house.” His parents spent £100,000 replacing the roof which is cleverly designed to capture rainwater between the two valleys and funnel it down to ground level. The second floor contains family as well as guest accommodation. The first floor – the Venetian Room, the Pink Room, the Blue Room and so on – is all given over to guest accommodation. Simon knows his stuff: he’s President of Ireland’s Blue Book which promotes the country’s finest historic hotels, manor houses and restaurants. Vintage travel luggage labelled “ABC” is piled high in a hallway. “Arthur Brooke Cooper”.
“Look at the architectural detail,” he observes, pointing to the swirl marking the juncture of the doorcases and skirting boards in the staircase hall. A pair of niches (a Francis Bindon motif) add more finesse. The basement is more or less still used for its original purpose. Although perhaps the servants wouldn’t have had a billiard room… A state of the art washing machine stands next to its cast iron Victorian forerunner. The wine cellar has historic earthenware pots from Hargadon Bros on O’Connell Street, Sligo. That pub is still going strong.
“Perhaps Bindon’s very last mansion is Coopershill, County Sligo, although like most of these houses, no documentary evidence exists for it. Tower-like and stark, of similar proportions to Raford, it is made up of two equivalent fronts composed with a central rusticated Venetian window and door, and a third floor three-light window. The fenestration is reminiscent of Castle’s demolished Smyth mansion in Kildare Place, Dublin. Coopershill is sited particularly well and stands high above a river reminding one of the feudal strength of the 17th century towerhouse. As at Raford, the roof is overlapping and 19th century.
The history of the building of Coopershill is an interesting and typically Irish phenomenon for the house was finished in 1774 though started in about 1755 for Arthur Brooke Cooper ‘before engaging in the undertaking, had provided for the cost a tub of gold guineas, but the last guinea was paid away before the building showed above the surface of the ground’. Cooper had to sell property, and it took eight years to quarry the stone. This 20 years of planning and building explains the extraordinary retardé quality of the house considering its recorded date.”
The Knight isn’t gushing in his summation of Francis’ architectural talent: “With the major exceptions of the Curraghmore court and Castle Morres, the Bessborough quadrants and Newhall, his ventures into the architectural field are not particularly distinguished. As he was a gentleman amateur, moving in the best circles in Dublin, he obtained commissions from his friends and relations. He made the most of his connection with the professional Richard Castle and was quite happy to borrow many ideas from him. His houses are mostly in the south and west of Ireland, an area in which Castle had no connections, so theirs was probably a dovetailed and friendly relationship.”
His critical tone continues, “On looking at the photographs of his buildings… one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naïve and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.” He considers there’s one exception: “If it is his, the forecourt at Curraghmore is certainly his masterpiece.”
Coopershill survives amazingly intact. “It was a secondary house for most of the 19th century,” explains Simon. “Annaghmore was the principal O’Hara seat.” So while Annaghmore was much altered, Coopershill remained untouched by Victorian aesthetic enthusiasm. To cut and paste William Butler Yeats’ poetry: Coopershill is an ancestral house surrounded by planted hills and flowering lawns, levelled lawns and gravelled ways; escutcheoned doors opening into great chambers and long galleries. Perfection.