Emailed invitation cards are so dreadfully last season. This fall it’s all about (minimum 600 gsm) hard copy personalised travel journals arriving first class. Ever since George Pullman launched his eponymous coach in 1874, that surname has become synonymous with luxury train travel. The British set of sumptuous carriages dates back to the swigging swirling Swinging Twenties. The Belmond British Pullman service forms part of Venice Simplon-Orient Express’s British journey. You really can’t overdress on the Orient Express. And certainly not on this ride for it could be your last. Best looking drop dead gorgeous, so to speak. Wait, just dress to kill or be killed! Now all aboard! There’s a murder mystery to solve – although not before five course table d’hôte lunch is served on William EdwardsPhoenix Blue (The Queen Mother’s favourite hue) finest bone china.
Bang! The dashing self proclaimed wine connoisseur Van Quaffleur bombastically bursts into our carriage. He was a close friend of Nicholas 6th Lord Deville who was poisoned a few days ago at a dinner party in Knightsbridge. Van Quaffleur is now a suspect in his murder. “Nicholas face planted the semolina,” he howls. “A splurge and a splat!” Hang on, there’s something fishy and we’re not just talking about the off menu red herrings. Lunch – the Chef de Train has clearly been scouring the archives for some vintage seafood favourites – is served:
The supremely attentive exquisitely liveried marvellously mannered completely courteous waiters cater to our every caprice. All is calm, serene, peaceful. Sleuth! Strewth! A fracas breaks out in the middle of our carriage. “That nurse is a gold digging little trollop! I would’ve killed her, not dear Nicholas!” Lord Deville’s close friend Mrs Tamara Crispin-Pettipace aka TCP has arrived. Tamara’s referring to Brenda Elsie Ware aka B E Ware, a rather attractive and by now very indignant nurse from Tender Temps who has turned up unexpectedly. Awks. Brenda was engaged to the somewhat older Lord Deville and is now suspected of senicide. As the quarrelsome madams jostle their way into the next carriage, the Honourable Jezebel Horne-Deville, the 6th Lord Deville’s younger sister, rocks up, dressed head to toe in blood red. She’s suspected of fratricide. “I arranged a huge life insurance on Old Nick just for the fun of telling him he was worth more to me dead than alive!”
Smith the Butler, Lord Deville’s faithful manservant, joins in the melee. He cuts quite a swathe. “I have no motive! But the nurse is a flighty thing. So vulgar! She was very hands on with His Lordship!” he smirks. The frisson of intrigue intensifies but surely we’re not losing the plot? “Oh, do you know Nick? I think we’ve seen you at one of his soirées perhaps?” Flummoxed, banjaxed, poleaxed, we slink off to the bathroom. The Indian summer sunlight streaming through an oeil de boeuf window illuminates its mosaic floor. Floris, The Queen Mother’s favourite handwash, stands next to the marble basin.
Back in Minerva, the final suspect introduces himself. “I am the Honourable Seyton Deville, Old Nick’s son and heir.” He’s suspected of patricide. “Ask me questions, I’ll tell you no lies. The others have all spoken complete poppycock.” Van Quaffleur reappears: “The more you drink, the easier it is to solve the murder!” We start tying up the loose ends. And then there was one. So whodunnit? Well, we couldn’t possibly say – only servants tell tales before bedtime. A rumbustious scuffle breaks out. Mercy! Such brouhaha! Somebody makes a dash for it. Is the guilty party about to escape? You really can’t overstress on the Orient Express. The Murder Mystery Lunch on the Belmond British Pullman is a day of curious tensity, filled with indulgent fun, and heaps of occidental decadence.
“Growing up nearby I used to cycle past St Giles and think what a strange place it was – from another era.” A series of very unexpected events resulted in Nick inheriting the derelict house and its 2,220 hectare estate just south of Cranborne Chase, Dorset, in 2005. The first phase of restoration of the house was to “create a cosy family space akin to our Earls Court flat life at that time”. Nick and his wife Dinah along with their three children moved into this “cocoon” occupying a few rooms. He remembers, “We needed to live and feel and breathe the building.”
Despite lying empty for 50 years, “It was an incredible house just full of stuff. Our challenge was navigating our way through what was worth salvaging and what wasn’t. We found some beautiful unique pieces we wanted to showcase. Otherwise, the interior is a combination of beautiful architectural decoration and relatively modern pieces. My wife loves to be bold and not use more mellow colours!” He adds, “At the time, a lot of people asked how do you go from being a DJ to running an estate? But running a venue was something I could do – I could bring people in.”
And so the second phase of restoration began. “I told the builders not to leave. The public rooms have been kept sparse to allow them to be used for events. The architecture is so beautiful and you are drawn to that. There are very few curtains on the ground floor – you don’t need them. The thing that makes it magical is you’re going into a space that has been used by generations of people. In some ways this is imprinted on the structure. Patination is an important part of the atmosphere.” A particularly innovative approach was taken for the Great Dining Room.
“This room was really badly hit by dry rot,” explains Nick. “My father was forced to rip out much of the panelling. And so it was a room in pieces really. But we had six family portraits, features in their own right, and a wonderful overmantel. During restoration you lose character if you put everything back. Here was a space that you couldn’t create – it was what it was. We wanted to allow people to interact with its current condition, a new dimension. There is no one time period that necessarily trumps another. Patina gives it that movement and feeling of character which is very hard to create.” The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury concludes, “It’s been a wonderful journey of exploration, a really big adventure. If we get this right, we will have turned around the estate for several generations. Sometimes I feel like the stars have aligned on this project!”
Really, a newspaper cutting was enough to book Forss House for a Highlands escape. Those chimneys, even looming large in a thumbnail! Close to the northernmost point of Britain, Dunnet Head, the hotel overlooks a serpentine river and is surrounded by an enchanting forest. Ian and Sabine Richards have owned it for the past dozen years. Anne Mackenzie, a Forss force of nature, has been General Manager for the last 32 years. Later she will show us a Viking style pine cup. “Major Radclyffe found it in the attic in 1900. Are you quite pleased to see it?”
The chimneys are a riot. Even more so up close and personal when viewed from a roof ledge. They’re so tall and Tudorbethan, or as Sir Charles Barry would’ve said, “Anglo-Italian”. Joseph Gribben, a mid 20th century Belfast builder, always insisted on lofty chimneys because they keep smoke away from the roof. Some of them have windows between their stacks. They look like they belong to another house, not the 1810 Regency one below. Together they form a defensive ring around and above the perimeter walls. What a silhouette!
John Gifford writes in The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands, “Eight kilometres west of Thurso. Harled early 19th century mansion of the Sinclairs of Forss, with huge chimneys on the wallheads as well as the gables. Lower mid Victorian west addition; the east gable’s conservatory is also late 19th century. On the north front, a crenelated porch added in 1939. Beside the Forss Water to the west, an early 19th piend roofed mill; at its south end, a small miller’s house with gable stone dormers. On the river’s opposite bank, a second mill, probably also early 19th century. Two arch bridge with rounded cutwaters, of circa 1800.”
The five bay garden front is a chessboard of blind windows: the central window on the raised ground floor is a visual trick; so are the alternating middle windows on the first floor. “Forss House was built as a hunting lodge by the Sinclairs of Orkney,” according to Anne. “The wild game hunter Major Charles Radclyffe retired here at the end of the 19th century. He had the first coloured tattoo in Britain.” There are plenty of reminders of its hunting lodge past, from the stags’ heads in the entrance hall to the fresh fish on the menu. Dinner is held in the dining room which overlooks the south garden and river:
In the whisky bar next door to the dining room is a framed letter from a newspaper published by the Continent’s first English bookshop. It’s addressed to the Major’s father: “C J Radcoyffe Esq, Hyde, Wareham, Dorset. Dear Sir, We the undersigned desire as members of the Staff of The Galignani Messenger to collectively offer you and your family our heartiest good wishes for a happy Christmas and a bright New Year. We take this opportunity of earnestly trusting that you may be spared for many years to preside over the ever increasing success and prosperity of The Galignani Messenger and we on our part will use our best endeavours to attain that object. Paris 24th December 1894.”
All the raised ground floor reception rooms are carpeted with Hunting McKay Black Watch tartan, the only non clan tartan. Breakfast is in the adjoining conservatory. The original 19th century conservatory was doubled in size in the second half of last century. It overlooks the east garden. A shallow sweeping staircase leads to four first floor bedroom suites. Rooms are named after hills and types of fishing bait. Cairnmore and Torran overlook the river. Brimside has a view of the east garden. Tulloch overlooks the entrance. There are a further four bedrooms on the lower ground floor plus accommodation in estate buildings.
A family house steeped in 5,500 years of history – well of course it’s going to be riddled with ghosts! And it would take a Norse code to unravel its beginnings. The current building is a conglomeration of wings and whims from the early 17th century to the mid 20th century. It has an amazingly unified appearance despite – or should that be because of? – a thorough 1950s rejigging. Skaill House is set between the Loch of Skaill and the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby, a World War II Italian Chapel and German warship wrecks are remnants of more recent history. Captain Cook’s dinner service is a sign this Laird and Lady Laird boast serious provenance.
Major Malcolm and Jane Macrae are the current owners. Their daughter Kate was born in 1987 and son John in 1990. The Laird restored the unoccupied house and opened it to the public in 1997. It’s incredibly charming with low ceilinged rooms except for the centrally placed double height staircase hall. A drawing room upstairs has gorgeous views across the Atlantic Ocean. The house is surrounded by the plainest of parterres and simplest of sunken gardens, as befits this windswept treeless location.
The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands by John Gifford records, “1.2 kilometres south of Sandwick. Rustically smart harled laird’s house placed on a low hillside between the Bay of Skaill to the northeast and the Loch of Skaill to the southwest. The earliest part of the main house is the narrow crowstep gabled north range, probably built for Bishop George Graham circa 1620, apparently as a freestanding block, its slightly off centre south door from the present stairhall provided with a bar hole and clearly the original entrance from outside. In the late 17th century the Bishop’s grandson, Henry Graham of Breckness, converted the house to a U plan by adding a southwest link to a broader straight gabled south range, the two west gables being joined by a screen wall. In this wall, a roll moulded round arched doorway, its weathered keystone decorated with a cherub’s head surmounting the Honours of Scotland (crown, sword and sceptre). Above this, a reused lintel, probably from a fireplace, carved with a monogram of the initials of Henry Graham and his wife Euphemia Honeyman and the inscription ‘Weak things grow by vnitie [sic] and love by discord strong things weak and weaker prove Anno 1676.’ The date may be that of the additions.
The south range was damaged by a fire circa 1800, and subsequent remodelling of the house introduced late Georgian windows, including a big ground floor bullseye window in the south range’s west gable. Probably at the same time the open centre was partly filled by a piend roofed stairhall with a three light first floor window looking over to the sea. In the mid 19th century further alterations took place, two gabled stone dormerheads being added on the south side and a flat roofed porch built on the east, providing a resting place for early 17th century carved stones. In the porch’s south side, a panel taken from Breckness House bearing the arms and initials of Bishop George Graham. In the porch’s east front, a dormerhead, its strapworked cartouche again containing Bishop Graham’s initials. At one corner of this front, a skewputt carved with a shell, at the other a skewputt bearing a rosette.
Office courtyard attached to the house’s north side, its present appearance largely informal late Georgian. Tall crowstepped north range. On the east range’s east front, shaped dormerheads, perhaps mid 19th century. Over the entrance through the single storey west block, a reset 17th century dormerhead carved with a cherub’s head under a star. Mid 20th century courtyard to the northeast with a battlemented screen wall on the southwest and north ranges, the north with shaped armorial dormerheads, forming two sides. The fourth side is closed by the north end of the 19th century crenelated walled garden.”
In 1835 to 1837 Elizabeth, Duchess and Countess of Sutherland, undertook what she described as ‘a plain and correct restoration’, reroofing the nave’s central vessel (but demolishing the remains of its side aisles) and fitting up the choir as a monument to her husband. Drawings for the scheme were produced by William Burn; but the Duchess, disliking his ‘modern gothic in bad taste and ‘useless plans of ornament’, dismissed him before work began, and the executed designs were by Alexander Coupar, the Superintendent of Works on the Sutherland estates, assisted by William Leslie. Advice was provided by Francis Chantrey and sketches by the Duchess. Further work was carried out in 1924 to 1927, when harling and plaster were stripped from the walls to expose their naked rubble to the gaze of the prurient.”
“That is possibly the funniest episode I have ever read,” emailed the much missed Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, in response to a descriptive summary of a group visit to a certain castle in Sussex. Said summary included a luxury coach breaking down, a shuttered up gothic castle, a game septuagenarian scaling a battlemented wall, a mass trespass into the castle, a hungover hostess lying in a four poster bed… and then things went from bad to worse… Fortunately, a visit to The Castle of Mey is less turbulent.
Following a three year reconstruction, The Queen Mother spent four weeks every August and 10 days every October at The Castle of Mey, as she rebranded it, right up to her death in 2001 aged 101. She furnished it simply with purchases from local antiques shops complemented by a few family pieces. And a Linley occasional table. Curtains are draped below bathroom basins in that upper class domestic fashion. Prince Charles continues the holidaying tradition and stays in the castle for 10 days every July. The building dates from the late 16th century except for the double height front hall which was added in 1819 to the design of William Burn for James Sinclair, 12th Earl of Caithness.
Elizabeth Angela Marguerite’s younger daughter wasn’t just so keen on The Castle of Mey. Despite having a bedroom named in her honour, Princess Margaret never slept in the castle, preferring the luxury of the Royal Yacht. The Queen Mother’s favourite colour, Phoenix Blue, is everywhere from picture frames and towels to her raincoat on display in the front hall. There’s a well stocked drinks table in the drawing room. “The Queen Mother’s best loved tipple was one measure of Gordon’s Gin and three measures of Dubonnet served with lemon and ice,” explains her close friend Major John Perkins. He’s still a regular guest at the castle. “She always had ice in drinks and used her fingers, claiming ice prongs were an American invention!”
“The Queen Mother frightfully loved picnics,” he continues, “but when she formally dined in the castle, the seats on either side of her were called the ‘hot seats’ for special guests. At the start of the meal, everyone spoke to the person on their right and then swapped to the person on their left. That way no one was left out of conversations. She rang a bell for the next course to be brought out. Her three corgis would bark at the same time. After dinner, the gents would remain in the dining room drinking port, while the ladies would withdraw to the drawing room. If the gents lingered too long, The Queen Mother would start a rousing rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’! That meant get packing!”
The Major adds, “The Queen Mother had a terrific sense of humour. She was highly highly intelligent. She met all the world leaders of her time except for Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.” On décor, “The Queen Mother didn’t like suspended lights. She liked soft lamps which cast more flattering light and shadows. The castle is exactly as she had it as her home. We haven’t added posh stuff!”
Caledonian you’re calling us. We’re tartaned to the nines. This week’s Country Life confirms: “In August the Caledonian Sleeper fills with… denizens of the Highland season.” It’s certainly one of life’s more memorable experiences, enjoying a wee dram (one for the rail) in London Euston then wakening up while crossing a viaduct slicing through pine fringed glens. “The Scottish Highlands are the best for me ever darling,” shares leading hotelier Astrid Bray. “I last visited them in October when the evenings were still light. The pine trees were red with the sunset. I was blown away. I just like what I like. That’s really important. I love trekking round a loch!”
It’s Waverley meets Wuthering Heights. Rugged architecture for a rugged location. Black painted window surrounds like heavily applied kohl eyeliner add to its air of mystery. Farr Bay Inn was built as a manse precisely two centuries ago.
Babes, every summer, just when the mercury’s rising, Mary Martin London is the star of Africa Fashion Week London and it’s not just her hotter than hot clothes that steal the show. She’s famous for mixing her own tunes for the models to strut their stuff to down the catwalk. Last year, she collaborated with D J Shack of Seven Wallace for her song ‘Article 10’. Inspired by the wedding of Harry and Megan, it features Mary’s own lustrous vocals: “Mary Martin London Article 10 The Royal Collection… How do I look? How do I look? Wow you look fabulous darling! If you got it flaunt it!” This year, Mary asked emerging Afrobeats musician Oluwande Ayodeji Oluwaga aka DejaVu to come up with a mega track. The Nigerian music artist produces beats for local and international artists. DejaVu says, “I’m unleashing my potential to be the well spring of music to the world!” Mary gave him the concept and DejaVu pulled out all the stops on the lyrics and rhythm. ‘Fashion’ is the result. “Gucci, Fendi, Mary Martin London, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Prada, rocking finest designer…” played at the catwalk to loud cheers. “You looking fresh and clean you are the one for me…” got a standing ovation. “Sexy body fine face like you…” Such was the incredible sensation that a major label, M I Raw Recordings, has picked up the track. M I Raw CEO Tony Portelli says, “As a label we pride ourselves on being truly global. We’re proud to present our newest release to the world. We’re confident you will appreciate the vocals, song writing and high energy projected from ‘Fashion’. It’s a first in multiple ways for the company to mix an Africa Fashion Week London vibe with DejaVu’s creative artistry. We expect this single to do big things in the scene and beyond!” Yeah! It’s the ultimate case of multi hyphenates in a hyper talent pool.
On a wild and windswept Sunday morn, we’re wandering through the 189 rooms, grand and not so grand, of the largest house in the Scottish Highlands. Dunrobin Castle, a fairytale in stone as mostly imagined by the Houses of Parliament architect Sir Charles Barry and later by the Edinburgh architect Sir Robert Lorimer, stands proud on a precipice. Far below, between the south elevation and the north coast, framed by a forest of violet shadows, lies a garden of nature tidied: clipped trees, manicured bushes and shaped hedgerows. Distracting, no doubt. Dizzying, definitely. Yet somehow, we’re transfixed by a didactic sign in the servants’ hall. Prosaic, probably. Poignant, possibly.
“Fire. In order that the Household Servants should be instructed in their duties in the event of fire, I direct that the following rules be observed: Every Indoor Servant is expected to make himself or herself fully acquainted with these rules, with the positions of the fire alarms, chemical extinguishers, fire hydrants etc, and to act with the utmost speed. If the fire discovered appears to be more than can be quelled by an extinguisher, the alarm should be given by the cry of ‘Fire’ and by sounding the Castle ‘hooter’ from the nearest point. This is done by breaking the glass front of any of the alarm boxes. This is to be followed by ringing the fire bell, using the steel rope which is accessible at any point of the Clock stairs. Any servant, hearing either of the foregoing alarm signals, should immediately ring the electric bells within the wall case with sliding glass cover opposite the door of Housekeeper’s Sitting Room, and the Telephones, as per notice in the Telephone box. Servants, other than those engaged in sending out the last named fire calls, should at once proceed to the scene of the fire and act as the situation requires, which may mean collecting of more fire extinguishers, buckets of sand, smothering cloths, or running out hosing from the nearest hydrants, as per Drill instructions, and carry on extinguishing operations until relieved by the Fire Brigade. Sutherland.”