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Architects Architecture Country Houses

Wilmont House + Sir Thomas + Lady Dixon Park Belfast

Magic Mushroom Off Season

Originally Belfast’s grandest pair of semi detached houses, built in the 1850s for banker James Thompson Bristow and his son, Wilmont House was combined into one house by the Dixon family in the 1920s. Its name comes from a previous house on the estate built by William Stewart circa 1740. Wilmont House is generally attributed to Thomas Jackson, a Waterford City born Belfast based architect. His prolific output was typically eclectic for its day ranging from the wedding cake gothic of St Malachy’s Church to the robustly rusticated Italianate Scottish Amicable Building. Wilmont House is much more reticent: balanced red brick elevations discreetly softened by sandstone dressings. If it falls under the Italianate genre, it only does so as a Belfast variant.

A high two storey main block, a low two storey ancillary block and a three storey campanile type tower all fit more or less into one rectangular footprint (except for south and east facing bow windows and north and south facing porches), neatly threading together the polite and service rooms of the house. Tall chimneystacks, some a storey in height, rising over slate hipped roofs, form a stimulating roofscape. Wilmont House is the centrepiece of a 54 hectare estate on the outskirts of Belfast.

Today, the estate is named after its last private owners Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon, shipowners and timber merchants, who bought it in 1919. This philanthropic couple handed over the house and its grounds to Belfast Corporation, the forerunner of Belfast City Council, just 40 years later. Conveyancing conditions included: “Not to permit the sale of intoxicating liquor upon the said land and premises or any part thereof” and “To use the house and lands for the greatest good of the Citizens of the City of Belfast and in particular to use the lands as a public park and public playing fields and not to erect buildings thereon except as may be necessary in connection with these purposes.”

The park was officially opened to the public in 1963 and the house was converted to a nursing home, so fulfilling Lady Dixon’s wishes. The following year a large rose garden was planted near the house and before long the estate became synonymous with the annual Rose Trials. The horticultural attractions were augmented by a Japanese Garden in 1990. While the park has flourished, the house has not, lying vacant for over three decades. Various attempts by Belfast City Council at reinventing the house have seemingly gone awry.

“Sadly what we look at now bears little resemblance to what the house was in its heyday,” Lady Dixon’s great great nephew Andrew Dixon told the Belfast Telegraph in 2019. “They [the Council] have said they would like to talk to the family. I have plenty of ideas on how it could be used and surely that’s more preferable than letting it go to ruin. I and my father Robin Dixon, Baron Glentoran, have already watched how another of the properties at Cairndhu in Larne has been handled and I would hate to see Wilmont House go the same way.” The Council responded, “We’re currently preparing an invitation for expressions of interest to go to the market to seek a suitably qualified developer for the restoration and regeneration of Wilmont House, to bring it into a new use.”

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Architects Architecture Country Houses

Drum Manor Cookstown Tyrone + Irish Georgian Society London + Ulster Architectural Heritage Society

Lambeg

“Ruins in Ireland have always been political in light of the country’s history,” lectured University College Dublin Professor Fiona O’Kane to the Irish Georgian Society London some years ago. “In contrast, they possess an insouciance in English paintings. Ruins can be framing devices to real landscape. But the perception of how Ireland is drawn carries a long shadow. There’s a constant iterative of land.” Nothing frames a real landscape better than the remains of Drum Manor outside Cookstown in Ulster’s “West of the Bann” territory. The description of a torn history.

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society’s latest addition to the country house book genre is Kimmitt Dean’s The Plight of the Big House in Northern Ireland. The writer reports that then owner Augusta Le Vicomte and her second husband Henry James Stewart went to town and country on her inherited house, William Hastings of Belfast in 1869 “hugely extending the existing villa”. It was executed in that Hilary Mantel stoked Tudor soaked Elizabethan oaked castellated vein that architects so excelled at across 19th century Ireland. But then, he summarises, “It was acquired by the Forestry Service in 1964 with consequences for the house, being partly demolished in 1975 to leave the present shell.” The destruction in part of a big house.

At least the damson’d gardens and rolling parkland remain and are open to the public. A silent drum beats again. Balustrades and battlements and buttresses protecting nothing and going nowhere. Transoms and mullions holding air. Crocketed pinnacles pointing heavenward. Metre high green carpet pile. Pearl necklaced capitals. A damsel’d Ayesha Castle tower with no Enya to come to its rescue. And yet Drum Manor has fared slightly better than its neighbour Pomeroy House. All that remains of the latter is a derelict portion of the stable block outbuilding. An adjacent marking on the ground provides a ghostly outline of the house’s footprint encircled by forestry. The demise of a demesne.

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Architecture Art Country Houses Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

Culloden Estate + Spa Cultra County Down + Art + Soul Art + Sculpture Fair

Across the Water

In the land of champ and Portavogie scampi and pasties (Ulster not Cornish) and soda farls and wheaten bread and dulse and Tayto crisps and fifteens and rocky roads and yellowman there’s something new and exciting to go and explore for a wee dander. The original house at the heart of the Culloden Estate – the Bishop’s Palace – may be 145 years old but Art and Soul, the Holywood International Art and Sculpture Fair filling its grounds and interiors, is very much a meantime use.

Dr Howard Hastings, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, explains “At Hastings Hotels, I believe that we can distinguish from our competitors by highlighting the local culture and heritage surrounding our hotels. One way we do this is by focussing on our own locally grown produce in our menus. At Culloden Estate and Spa, another way we achieve this is through the artwork on display throughout the hotel. Some of these paintings were acquired by my father, Sir William Hastings. He selected paintings he liked and which he thought were in keeping with the Bishop’s Palace setting. More recently we’ve concentrated on supporting our local artists, many of whom have international reputations, yet still live and work in Northern Ireland.”

For just three weeks this summer, the five star hotel is brimming over with the work of sculptors Paddy Campbell and Orla de Bri, textile artist Karen Fleming, oil painters Gladys Maccabe and Tracey Quinn, watercolourists Neil Shawcross and Catherine Thompson, and lots more. There are also fine art prints by a certain Andy Warhol. These new arrivals will complement the Culloden Estate’s impressive permanent collection. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by 125 sculptures gracing the law with six figure prices for the bigger pieces. Organised by Gormley’s Fine Art, the exhibition is the largest of its kind in Ireland. There’s always refreshment time too for sipping a wee Bushmills whiskey or West Coast Cooler or C+C brown lemonade in the Culloden Estate’s Cultra Inn.

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Architects Architecture Country Houses Hotels Luxury People

The Old Rectory + St Martin’s Church Great Mongeham Kent

Outer Upper Deal

“An exceptional level of hospitality and quality accommodation is assured at this 18th century country house bed and breakfast,” proclaim hosts Helga and Gordon Kitney. “Thoughtful luxury touches are provided at every turn. Nestled in the heart of a peaceful Conservation Area and less than two miles from Deal, The Old Rectory overlooks rolling countryside and St Martin’s Church with its Saxon origins. This picturesque setting is the perfect base for a relaxing short break on the East Kent coast.” Spread across the red brick house and coach house are The Empire Room overlooking the courtyard; The Polo Room with a coronet bed; The Attenborough Suite with an exposed brick wall; and The Maynard Suite named after villager Captain Robert Maynard who killed the pirate Blackbeard in 1718.

While the parish church next door dates back to Norman times, it has a more recent appearance due to a comprehensive restoration in 1851 by William Butterfield. The prolific Victorian architect is best known for his churches, whether new or reimagined, from Ascot to Ash, Belfast to Bristol, Country Dublin to Melbourne. St Martin’s Church is one of his more hidden gems. The village of Great Mongeham lies just beyond Deal and Little Mongeham, well, a little further. They’re pronounced “Munjum”. Despite being three kilometres inland, Great Mongeham was once a port. The ancient Mongeham Docks have long since silted up. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, often visited the village from her nearby official residence Walmer Castle.

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Architecture Country Houses Luxury

Georgian Houses Kent +

Journeying Mercies

Occasionally a casual perambulation turns into a mud spattered stumble across a farmer’s field but it’s all worth it for the greater good of capturing picturesque rural Kent houses in the Turneresque sunlight. If a picture tells a thousand words, this feature is half a thesis.

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Architecture Country Houses Hotels People

Mourne Park House Kilkeel Down + The Earls of Kilmorey

The Four Winds of Heaven

The first time we visited Mourne Park House, November 1992, the recently widowed Julie Ann Anley whisked us off on a whistlestop tour. “It’s great!” she laughed. “No one ever bothers us here because the house isn’t architecturally important.” This was no tourist attraction. The country house as time capsule may have emerged as a phenonomen in the Eighties when Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly was applicable to an extreme at MPH in the wilds of County Down. While the Treasury saved Calke, sadly no knight in shining armour would come to MPH’s rescue.

The last time we visited the house, April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public rummaging over the soon to be dispersed contents. Everything was beginning to unravel. Beige auction labels dangled like insipid baubles from Christmas past, hanging on everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard while the building itself was crumbling at the edges. The auction was the outcome of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Needham Fergus Philip Gore Anley in 1992, dragging through the courts until the opening days of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or inter sibling love, it was finally settled.

“It’s something which all our family very much care about,” Marion Scarlett Needham Russell, Julie Ann’s younger daughter with the looks of a young Liza Minnelli, told us back in 1994. “We’ve always known that this house and its land were non negotiable and it was something we would do everything to keep,” agreed her older sister Debonaire Norah Needham Horsman or ‘Bonnie’.

But by the end of the decade, the close of last century, this harmony of outlook had floundered following much brouhaha over how the estate should be run. Events reached a dramatic climax when Marion removed what she considered to be her fair share of the contents from the house in a midnight flit. Her refusal to reveal the whereabouts of these “chattels” as the courts would archaically call them resulted in Marion spending a week at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only concluded when it was finally agreed that she could keep her share and her brother and sister would auction off their two thirds of the contents.

MPH was the seat of the Earls of Kilmorey (pronounced “Kilmurray”). What is it about the upper classes and their delight in orthographic nuances? Althorp is “Althrup”; Beauchamp is “Beecham”; Beaulieu is “Bewley”; Belvoir is “Beaver”; Blakley is “Blakely”; Calke is “Cock”; Coke is “Cook”; Londonderry is “Londondry”; Monson is “Munson”; St John of Fawsley is “Sinjin of Fawsley”. One gets the idea. The Kilmorey family can trace its roots to the Elizabethan soldier, Nicholas Bagenal, founder of Newry. The 4th Earl of Kilmorey died in 1982. Before his death the family inheritance was rearranged because he had no sons, allowing his English nephew and heir, Major Patrick Needham, subsequently 5th Earl of Kilmorey, to waive his right of succession to MPH in exchange for assets of equal value. And so the title returned to England where Charles I had created the original viscountcy in 1625.

This compromise allowed the 4th Earl’s widow Lady Norah and her two daughters to continue living in the house. Patrick’s son, the 6th Earl, is better known as Richard Needham, a former Northern Ireland Office Minister. He’s now the Deputy Chairman of a vacuum cleaning company and declines to use his Anglo Irish title. However his son styles himself Viscount Newry and Mourne. Nicholas, the son of the 4th Earl’s elder daughter, married Julie Ann Wilson at the start of the Sixties and together they had moved into the stables at Mourne Park. He had inherited the estate minus the title in 1984.

Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it doesn’t boast the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or share the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House, to take two other South Down seats. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Georgian and Victorian are the norm. MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn of local granite and its lavish use of green paint (Farrow + Ball’s Folly Green?) on bargeboards and garden furniture, window frames and porches, and the endless array of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century lending the house a magical nostalgic air. And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house and stables are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130 metres above oak and beech woodlands. A Victorian visitor, William Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park. “The scene… from the front entrance is indeed very fine. Before you, in the precincts of the mansion, is a lake. Beyond this lake, the demesne stretches away with a gently rising slope, which hides the intervening land, till one can fancy that the sea waves lap the lawns of the park.”

The genesis of the current building dates back to at least 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey employed Thaddeus Gallier of County Louth to build the central block. It replaced an earlier house on the site. An architect or ‘journeyman builder’, he had already completed Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned that five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the des res of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, the middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. A glazed porch under the semicircular fanlight partially obscures the double entrance doors in the middle of the three bay breakfront. Otherwise, Thaddeus Gallagher’s façade remains untouched. Relieving arches over upstairs windows introduce a motif he was to later employ at MPH. At Anaverna he proved himself to be a designer of considerable sophistication. His was no vainglorious provincial hand. Thaddeus Gallagher’s son James, who recorded in his autobiography that his father worked at MPH for nine months in 1818, emigrated to New Orleans where he carried on the dynastic tradition of designing fine architecture. His grandson, James Gallier Junior, was a third generation architect and his 1857 New Orleans townhouse is now the Gallier House Museum.

The first of multiple incarnations of MPH, Thomas Gallagher’s design was a typical late Georgian two storey country house with Wyatt windows on either side of a doorway similar to Anaverna’s. Next a third storey was added and then some time after 1859 a new two storey front of the same height was plonked in front of the existing house, so that the rooms in the newer block have much higher ceilings that those behind. The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of the Wyatt arrangement are twin windows set in shallow recesses rising through both storeys with relieving arches over them. It is the combination of these paired windows and gentle arches, like brows over the eyes of the building, which lends the garden front such a memorable look. In the central breakfront the bottom of the shallow recess floats over the entrance door which is treated as another window, flanked on either side by a window of similar shape and size. A low parapet over a slender cornice partially conceals the hipped roof which wraps round the roof lantern over the staircase. Five attic bedrooms are tucked under the eaves with windows overlooking the roof lantern, unseen from the outside world.

Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl – the Kilmoreys had climbed a rung or two up the aristocratic ladder when his father the 12th Viscount was made an earl for his services to the development of Newry – commissioned a ‘famine wall’. This was a method used at the height of the Irish Famine by many Big House families to create work and keep locals from starving. The cheaply constructed three metre high granite walls also benefitted the estate. The 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gatelodges, at this time. Whitewater Gate Lodge was built in the 1830s and Ballymaglogh Gate Lodge in the 1850s.

But it was the alterations of the 3rd and 4th Earls which gave MPH its Edwardian air. “It’s not fit for a gentleman to live in!” raged the 3rd Earl upon his inheritance. His gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows to the garden front and continued up until 1904 when he built a single storey peninsular wing perpendicular to the back of the house. Long Room Passage leads to Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and onwards to the dual aspect Long Room (four pairs of French doors face four sash windows) with its hammerbeam roof, the latter finished in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings in the 1890s with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.

A century or more of each generation making their mark on MPH has produced a fascinating interior full of surprising variations in floor levels and ceiling heights and room sizes. The main block is arranged like three parallel slices of a square cake, each different in essence. The oldest three storey slice at the back of the house has low ceilings and small windows, some retaining their Georgian glazing bars. A row of rooms overlooking the stables is accessed off the Long Corridor on the ground floor, the Rosie Passage on the first floor, and the Servants’ Passage on the second floor. The middle slice contains the Hall, Inner Hall, Staircase Hall and Blue Room, opening off each other like first class railway carriages. The first floor bedrooms in the front and middle slice are clustered together off two lobbies except for the Best Bedroom which appropriately takes pride of place in the middle of the garden front and is the only one to be accessed directly off the landing of the Staircase Hall. The ground floor of the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Dining Room (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?), the Ante Room and the Drawing Room where Sir Malcolm Sargent had once played the piano. A low two storey kitchen and nursery wing parallel to the Long Room wing links with the stables to create a courtyard to the rear of the house. Room naming at MPH clearly follows the Ronseal approach (“It does what it says on the tin”).

All the ground and first floor rooms were open during the auction preview weekend. We began the tour that we’d gone on a decade earlier, only with a printed rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats that had followed us around the first time round. “Come on, get out now!” Julie Ann had bellowed as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two! It’s not as if the cats even catch mice; they just watch them race by.” Now people were talking in mellow hushed murmurs as if at a wake, respectfully leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office, thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.

The Hall, dressed like a long gallery with paintings hung on pale painted (Farrow + Ball’s Wimborne White?) panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, MPH’s most exciting interior moment. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight accessed through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and apertures afford tantalising glimpses of corridors filled with shadowy ghosts. MPH, a Mary Celeste in granite.

Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study has an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room tucked away in the far corner of the house. A seven metre long oak bookcase, used as a temporary display cabinet for the preview (sold for £3,000), and a chesterfield sofa (sold for £800) completed the butch mood of the good Lord’s space. On the other hand, the feminity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was enhanced by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoiserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. Outside, a life size marble garden statue of Ulysses and His Dog by Lawrence MacDonald sold for £110,000. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor. The house no longer felt private.

The main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. Shabby chic, to use another Eighties cliché, sprung to mind. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Ascendancy and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days. In the Billiard Room (or Morning Room), a corner timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declared this room to have been decorated in the early 20th century. Paint (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?) was peeling, curtains were crumbling. An air of faded grandeur pervaded the Long Room. Triumphal flags now in tatters and coloured wall lamps dulled by the passage of time poignantly hinted at past glories and forgotten parties. A suite of oak bookcases had been supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of window openings. One pair sold for £3,000. The kitchen had lost the lived in look that we remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. The rows of ceiling hooks for hanging game had gone. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.

The principal bedrooms – Avenue Bedroom, Corner Room, Caroline’s Room, Best Bedroom, His Lordship’s Bedroom, Her Ladyship’s Bedroom – contained plain sturdy furniture. A mahogany breakfront wardrobe and matching half tester or four poster bed dominated each room, accompanied by a matching desk and pair of pot cabinets. On average the wardrobes sold for £3,000; the beds, £5,000. The bedrooms looked slightly sparse. Perhaps they had been fuller in happier times. Minor bedrooms – Captain’s Room, Chinese Room, Knockcree Room, Garden Room – and servants’ rooms had brass beds (the one on the Housekeeper’s Room sold for £70), lower ceilings, less dramatic views, and were full of clutter. Not for much longer.

“People say it’s as if time stood still in the house,” Philip Anley told us on the opening day of the auction. “That’s a tribute to mum,” he added, acknowledging Julie Ann’s efforts to maintain MPH while working full time as a teacher. Sales had taken place at Mourne Park before. Shortly before his death, Nicholas had sold more than half the original 800 hectare estate to Mourne Park Golf Club (since renamed Kilkeel Golf Club), allowing it to extend from a nine hole to an 18 hole course. A decade before he had bought out the interest of his aunt, Lady Hyacinth, which allowed her family to remove various heirlooms in lieu of any stake in the house itself. The inheritance of the title and estate had already split in 1960. However this sale was different. It was “the end of an era” according to Philip.

In the words of Herbert Jackson Stops’ introduction to the 1920s sales catalogue of Stowe: “It is with a feeling of profound regret that the auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sales catalogue which may destroy for ever the glories of the house, and disperse to the four winds of heaven its wonderful collections, leaving only memories of the spacious past.” A rare level of disarming honesty compared to recent excuses for flogging the family silver. Try, “We are delighted that others will have the chance to enjoy objects which it has given him so much pleasure to discover…” Or, “In this sale which has been carefully selected so as not to damage the overall integrity of the collection…” Alternatively, “In order to allow for reinvestment which will underpin the long term future of the estate, the trustees have carefully selected a number of pieces to be sold at Christie’s this summer…”

The raven haired Sara Kenny from HOK Fine Art (she would later set up on her own launching Sara Kenny Fine Art in 2005) conducted the auction raising a total of £1.3 million. Prices were high with dealers bidding against collectors against locals. “My dad worked on the estate so we want some sort of keepsake,” we overheard. It seemed everyone wanted their piece of MPH. Auction excitement reached fever pitch on the last day when lot 1391 came up. It was the ‘Red Book of Shavington, in the County of Salop, a seat of The Right Honble [sic] Lord Viscount Kilmorey’. For those who don’t know, Red Books were the invention of Humphry Repton, a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. He created or transformed over 200 English estates. His mantra was natural beauty enhanced by art. His practice was to complete a Red Book for each client.

The Shavington Red Book was a slim volume encased in red leather containing his proposals for “Improvements” outlined in neat copperplate handwriting and illustrated with maps, plans, drawings and watercolours. Several bidders appreciated its exquisite beauty and historical importance. In the end it went under the hammer for £41,000. The 3rd Earl of Kilmorey had sold Shavington, the family seat in Shropshire, in 1881 to pay for debts his father had accrued. He crammed much of the furniture into MPH. Shavington items auctioned included two early 19th century pieces by Gillows of Lancaster which each sold for £11,000: the Corner Bedroom wardrobe and the architect’s desk from the Library.

Mourne Park estate may not have benefitted from the romantic touch of Humphry Repton but its rugged character, derived from the granite face of Knockcree, remains mostly unchanged from sepia tinted 19th century landscape photographs. The same can’t be said for the interior of the granite faced house. “I’ll always remember the day you visited Mourne Park,” Julie Ann had said, strolling up the old drive, “as the day the boathouse collapsed.” And sure enough, the gable ended half timbered boathouse, which had stood there for centuries, not so much collapsed as gently slipped into the lake like a maiden aunt taking a dip in the water. After a few ripples, it disappeared. Forever.

And so 11 years later, masterpieces and miscellany, a record of Edwardian living in its original setting, is gone, just like the boathouse. It was a sad ending for the collection that formed the soul of one of Ulster’s Big Houses. Sad for the family and for the people of Newry and Mourne whose toil allowed the family to amass a fortune in very fine things. In the middle of the (now) 57 hectare estate still stands the house itself, stripped of its contents, naked as the classical statues that once graced the lawns around the lake, awaiting its fate.

Much Ballyhoo! That was then and this is now. Following the auction, Marion placed MPH on the market. “Life is taking us in a different direction,” she said wistfully. “We’re spending more and more time abroad. So it’s made a bit of a nonsense us being here. Em, so a very difficult decision. But we’ve decided to put the estate on the market. I’m sure the moment that I leave is going to be difficult. But having made the decision, you just have to go with it, really.” Its £10 million boom time price guide soon slumped to £6.5 million then £3.5 million but there were still no takers. Marion clung on, admirably restoring the house and beginning to add suitable furniture. Impressively she uncovered and restored an extensive lost Edwardian rock garden. “It was so exciting,” she enthused, “A bit like an archaeological dig. Every day a bit more would emerge.” A happy ending of sorts, but this is MPH, forever permeated by Ibsenesque melancholy.

In June 2013, Marion and her family returned from holidays to find fire engines lining the driveway. More than 80 firefighters were tackling an inferno which had engulfed the main block. The roof, where the fire had started, had collapsed – molten history. Fire Service Area Commander John Allen said, “Our priorities were, one, to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjoining wings of the building and, two, to save as many of the artefacts in the building as we could. Not only the artefacts in terms of history and legacy, but also, this is a family home where children live. Our intent was also to save their items which were of sentimental value.”

Mourne Park House: the place with the endless postscript. The irrepressible Marion Scarlett Needham Russell has plans to transform the house into a 126 bedroom hotel and spa. Since 2000, Irish architects Mullarkey Pedersen have been working up a vision to convert and extend the house and its outbuildings. The châtelaine confirms, “Since the fire, we have done everything we can to preserve the structure of the building: removing, storing and shoring up where necessary. We’re absolutely committed to seeing the restoration of Mourne Park once again and have open minds as to how this would be achieved. The rebuild is currently on hold until the right person or group comes forward to claim the opportunity.” Is a northern Castle Leslie in the making?

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Architects Architecture Country Houses Design Developers Town Houses

Lee Manor House + Garden Lewisham London

Banking on Success­­­­

Vitruvius’ desirable virtues of “firmness, commodity and delight” spring to mind. “There are so many moments of true quality within and outside this villa,” believes heritage architect John O’Connell. “An inspection of the exterior would suggest that there were once small wings. This is such a clever and compact plan. The vaulted lobby on the first floor is so accomplished and structurally brave. The first floor central room with its closets has a bed alcove.” Lee Manor House and its remaining three hectares of grounds form one of the thrills of southeast London. The house has been repurposed as a crèche, a library and a doctors’ surgery with reception rooms for hire. The garden is open to the public.

In the late 20th century a glass lift was inserted in the middle of the staircase hall. “I used to be disturbed when I saw alterations like this super lift, but now am more understanding,” remarks John. “But one is always encouraged to place the lift on the exterior of an historic building. The best example I know, apart from Montalto in County Down, is Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria in Genoa. An astounding museum, and a must. Indeed Genoa is a city of palaces and many are accessible. This city is the Liverpool of Italy: rough in parts!” Another successful example is the Office of Public Works’ elegant full height glass and steel shaft abutting the rear of the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square, Dublin.

Architectural historian Dr Roderick O’Donnell summarises, “Stylistically the Manor House is quite conservative – Taylorian rather than Chambersian.” Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner’s entry in their Buildings of England South London, 1983, reads: “The Manor House (Lee Public Library), probably built for Thomas Lucas in 1771 to 1772, by Richard Jupp, is an elegant five by three bay structure of brick on a rusticated stone basement, and with a stone entablature. Projecting taller three bay centre. Four column one storey porch, now glazed; a full height bow in the centre of the garden side. Inside, the original staircase was removed circa 1932, but the large staircase hall still has a screen of columns to the left, and on the landing above a smaller screen carrying groin vaults. Medallions with putti. Pretty plasterwork in other rooms, especially a ceiling of Adamish design in the ground floor room with the bow window.”

At the end of the 18th century the house and estate were sold to Francis Baring, director of the East India Company and founder of Baring’s Bank. The better known architect Sir Robert Taylor designed villas for several of the East India Company directors. “Lee Manor House is extremely well handled,” John remarks, “and exhibits a lovely, almost James Gandon, flow. Moving around, it has at least three lovely elevations. The brickwork is very accomplished but the basement rustication has been crudely handled of late. The original high execution elsewhere displays the architect’s ability to bring a design forward to fruition.”

Marcus Binney provides this summary in Sir Robert Taylor From Rococo to Neoclassicism, 1984, “Taylor’s major contribution to English architecture is his ingenious and original development of the Palladian villa. The first generation of Palladian villas in BritainChiswick, Mereworth and Stourhead are three leading examples – had all been based purposely very closely on Palladio’s designs. They were square or rectangular in plan with pedimented porticoes, and a one-three-one arrangement of windows on the principal elevations. Taylor broke with this format. First of all his villas (like his townhouses) were astylar: classical in proportion but without an order; that is, without columns or pilasters and with a simple cornice instead of a full entablature.” Lee Manor House does have Taylorian features such as the semi elliptical full height bay on the garden front but is missing others such as his trademark Venetian window. In that sense, Richard Jupp is even more conservative than Sir Robert Taylor.

Lee Manor House conforms to the House of Raphael formula: a basement carrying a piano nobile with a lower floor of bedrooms under the parapet. “This is very interesting as it sits within the gentleman’s villa format. Pray how did you find it?” enquires John. “Lee Manor House is a very fine villa. On the ground floor, I would expect the large apse or exedra to the saloon contains or contained a fireplace. It reminds me of the first floor back room of Taylor’s 4 Grafton Street in Mayfair. This large apse is of added interest, as it would be taken up by Robert Adam in the arresting hall at Osterley Park, Isleworth, and again by our hero James Wyatt for his first and most daring scheme at Abbey Leix, County Laois, and again at Portman House on Mayfair’s Portman Square. The latter is now a smart club.”

John continues, “Another villa that comes to mind is Asgill House, in Richmond, circa 1770, which is both fine and intact. This villa was restored with the advice of Donald Insall and can be seen from the railway line. One can even go back to Marble Hill House in Twickenham, and on to James Gibbs at the exquisite Petersham Lodge – a knockout villa – which is now the clubhouse for Richmond Park Golf Course. Petersham Lodge is really worth a visit too; even the ‘landscape’ and bevelled edged mirrors over the fireplace are still in position!”

“Finally, there is the equally arresting Parkstead House designed for the 2nd Earl of Bessborough by Sir William Chambers with its very heroic portico. Lord Bessborough was an Anglo Irish peer. This can be visited. Indeed there is a good publication by English Heritage on this very subject. The original wings have vanished but the garden front and saloon are intact. There is mention of the remains of a garden temple in the grounds.” Joan Alcock writes in Sir William Chambers and the Building of Parkstead House Roehampton, 1980, “The design of Parkstead is based on the Palladian villa.” John O’Connell postscripts, “Richard Jupp was chief architect to the East India Company. His successor was Henry Holland. Lee Manor House fits into a form that one can see emerge in the 1770s.”

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Bibendum Oyster Bar + Restaurant South Kensington London

Le Confinement Est Fini

Go on, flick through the pages of 1990s House and Garden magazines and eventually you’ll come across a double page spread of the last and late Knight of Glin; his wife Madam FitzGerald, Min Hogg’s second best friend; and their eldest daughter Catherine, the garden designer, all tucking into fruits de mer at Bibendum Oyster Bar. Desmond has his starched linen napkin tucked right into his shirt collar. Standards, and all that. Did they gasp at the carpaccio of Scottish scallop and smoked pike roe? Or what about the black tiger prawns? Even more aptly, did they devour Irish oysters washed down with some dry and aromatic Viognier? “Our shells clacked on the plates,” wrote Seamus Heaney in his poem Oysters, “They lay on their bed of ice.”

All that was then and all this is now. Brill on the bone and crab quiche and other brilliant things are served up… and suddenly… with a showering of ado and a flowering of aplomb the Honourable Ola de la Fontaine rocks up totally on form sporting an emblazoned sports jacket. How terribly happening. Blazing blazers are a thing at Bibendum. For a moment, there’s some momentous momentary recall of a nebulous first floor restaurant lunch in May 2003 just when this place was ablaze with blazers. Ola’s now in top gear as always, revving it up, formulating plans and solving equations. She might resemble Charlotte Rampling’s younger much better looking sister, but Ola is more than a mere actress: she’s a qualified connoisseur of fabulousness with a diploma in decadence, a bachelor in brilliance and a masters in magnificence. And she just so happens to be South Ken’s top perfumier.

What Ola wants Ola gets: Gillardeau oysters. “Draycott Avenue and all around here has such a local vibe,” she shares. “Everybody knows everyone. Thank you for asking.” It helps of course that her local is double Michelin starred. Lunch is dreamy – “Laying down a perfect memory,” to quote Seamus Heaney again in his poem Oysters. Sometimes it just feels like Bibendum has been the fulcrum, the axis, the crucible of South Kensington life for at least the last two decades. Michelin building turned Michelin restaurant. Now that’s not so much a lost story arc as a full 360 degree circle. It’s all about Head Chef Claude Bosi’s 2020 French cuisine living up to building designer François Espinasse’s 1905 French architecture. “Did you know,” seeks Ola, “that the 18th century diarist Samuel Pepys fed his cat Hodge with oysters?” ­

Terence Conran who currently owns Bibendum took full control of the interiors,” completes Ola. “The Michelin man stained glass windows upstairs inspired the design of the snug chairs, the wall lights, the butter dishes, the salt and pepper pots, so much!” No fewer than 34 vibrant external tile panels depict car racing at its most glamourous early 20th century prime. This is Art Nouveau meets Art Deco meets art on a plate meets art on a date. But did Desmond FitzGerald all those years ago, tucking into his seafood, realise he was sitting in a former tyre fitting bay? Who knows. All that was then and all that will be is yet to come. Now for the new normalcy: an alfresco vernissage, the unveiling of the Koestler Awards 2020 for arts in criminal justice settings, is on standby at Southbank. Vroom vroom, time to get that car and burn some rubber!

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The Auld Bank Coffeeshop + Crossroads Gortin Tyrone

Steeped in Resonance and Nuance

It’s the most architecturally satisfying aesthetically appetising crossroads in County Tyrone. To the northeast, a coffeeshop. To the southeast, a church. To the southwest, a school, To the northwest, a country house. All oozing rural charm. Welcome to Gortin. The ‘t’ is pronounced “ch”. The main approach to the crossroads could hardly be more dramatic. An inland corniche snakes through the purple heather topped Sperrin Mountains in a downward spiral (Gortin Lakes on one side, Gortin Forest on the other) before plummeting into the valley of the Owenkillew River to arrive at the crossroads. Time to go for a wee dander. If the crossroads is considered the western end and St Patrick’s Catholic Church accessed off Chapel Lane the eastern end, that means Gortin High Street is the princely length of 585 metres long.

The Auld Bank Coffeeshop is a single storey dropping to two storeys to the rear three bay building facing the high street. “Auld” meaning “old” is pronounced “owl”. Its rough cut stone and brick quoined exterior is more associated with east of the River Bann villages such as Hillsborough and Moira. Ulster Bank closed its branch in 2015 and the building owner, Blakiston Houston Estates Company, converted it into a coffeeshop. A very popular one at that, serving the best panini west of the Bann. The bank was built in 1845 with a gabled porch added in 1980. In true late 20th century style, the fanlight and sidelights surrounding the entrance door have a post modern feel to them. The interior has been opened up; simple ceiling mouldings provide an unpretentious backdrop to the café.

Alastair Rowan sums up St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Parish of Lower Badoney, in his 1979 Buildings of North West Ulster (sponsored by Lord Dunleath’s Charitable Trust), “1856 by Joseph Welland, replaced the first Lower Badoney church of 1730. A standard stone built hall with short sanctuary, end porch, and bellcote. Short paired lancets, seven down each side, with quarry glass, and a nice braced truss roof inside, high and a little richer than usual.” A sprawling underdeveloped graveyard drapes a green apron around the entrance front.

Dr Rowan goes on to explain the church architect’s credentials, “The Church of Ireland had from 1843 one architect, Joseph Welland, who catered for all its needs. His qualifications were impeccable. Welland, a relative of the Bishop of Down, had trained in Dublin in the office of John Bowden, through whom in 1826 he obtained the appointment of architect to the Board of First Fruits in the Tuam Division. In 1839, when the Irish Ecclesiastical Commission replaced the old Board of First Fruits, Welland was appointed one of its four architects (although the older William Farrell seems to have retained responsibility for the North), and in 1843 on the reorganisation of the Commission he became the sole architect.”

Beltrim National School is a long single storey white rendered with slate roof building looking across the road to the cemetery. A juxtaposed case of early life meets everlasting life. To either extremity of the façade is an entrance (one for boys, one for girls) separated by six tall windows. Both entrance doors are painted farm shed red with a school name plus date plaque (1899). Completely symmetrical, the former school turned youth club portrays provincial architectural perfection. So contained, so uncontrived.

There’s nothing castellated about Beltrim Castle. Alright, remnants of an early 17th century bawn are integrated in the garden wall. Tyrone people call country houses “castles”. Locals refer to nearby Baronscourt (firmly in the country house category) as “the castle”. Alastair Rowan believes the current appearance of Beltrim Castle dates from the 1820s and notes its overhanging eaves. The house is incredibly attractive in an understated Ulster way. The five bay entrance front has a fanlight over its entrance door as big and grand as one on any Dublin townhouse. To the rear, Beltrim Castle’s return wing is nearly as long as Gortin High Street or at least a terrace lining it. The estate is privately owned by the Blakiston Houstons but the gardens are occasionally open to the public.

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Chilston Park Hotel + Lenham Kent

Palace in Wonderland

Lenham Village Kent © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The black and white half timbering of the medieval house jettying over the graveyard is matched by the monochromatic wooden porch gable attached to the Early and Very Early English St Mary’s Church. Coordinating domestic and ecclesiastical architecture separated by the dead. Lenham Village betwixt Ashford and Maidstone in a stretch of Kent that never feels entirely rural lives up to its Medieval Village brown sign. A discreet distance away on the far side of the M20 lies Chilston Park Hotel, full of the living and the alive.

St Mary's Church Lenham © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Alice in Wonderland scale chess board and pieces on the lawn are enough to make Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson burst into song. And the weather would force Belinda Carlisle to belt out her hit Summer Rain. Safely and elegantly ensconced in the great indoors, what’s not to love though? Lunch in The Marble Lounge is a sheer delight. Presumably named after its gargantuan pedimented fire surround, a piece of architecture in its own right, the entrance hall as it really is could also be called The Flagstone Hall or The Hall of Mirrors.

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Topiary © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Chessboard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Seats © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Mews © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Marble Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Oriential Case © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Bust © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Portrait © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Staircase Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s like lunching in a National Trust property. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Chilston Park was converted into a hotel by Martin and Judith Miller, authors of Miller’s Antiques. Judith is also a presenter on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. “I just feel a connection with historical buildings,” she shares. “My interest in antiques comes from discovering them through the pursuit of history.” Almost four decades later, and despite changing hands several times, a current inventory of the furnishings and art in the rooms would read like a supplement to Miller’s Antiques. The last private owner was the extravagantly monikered Aretas Akers-Douglas, 1st Baron Douglas of Baads and Viscount Chilston of Boughton Malherbe. The peer was a Conservative Home Secretary. It is currently owned by Hand Picked Hotels whose portfolio includes historic properties across Great Britain and the Channel Islands.

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Landing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The architectural history of the house is almost as complicated as the Really Early English St Mary’s Church Lenham. The first building was a turn of the 16th century courtyard house. In the opening decades of the 18th century, an earlier central tower was replaced with a three bay pedimented projection and the house was generally revamped. The resultant balanced elevations – two storey red brick sash windowed hipped roof – present a convincingly coherent Georgian pile. Subtle asymmetries and eccentric quirks of the floor plan reveal otherwise. A neo Jacobean staircase hall, ancillary stairs and corridors all lit by roof lanterns gobble up the courtyard. There are 53 bedrooms in total spaced across the main house, mews houses and converted stables. On the first floor of the main house, the northeast facing Queen Anne Room, Hogarth Room, Guilt Room and Oriental Room overlook the lake. The east and southwest facing Regency, Victoria, Byron and Evelyn Rooms have views of nine hectares of parkland. Tulip and Rowlandson Rooms overlook the mews houses to the west. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “There were doors all round the hall.”

Chilston Park Hotel Kent Corridor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Belair House + Park Dulwich London

Season of The Unexpected

Belair House West Dulwich London Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A little along Gallery Road, opposite Lovers’ Lane, stands a distinguished villa. Belair, whether two words, hyphenated or a portmanteau is a class signifier from Los Angeles to Wicklow to Dulwich. Pure class. Belair House in the picturesque perfect postcard pretty prestigiously pristine village of Dulwich in southeast London was built in 1785. That’s a fact. Or at least it’s the date proudly painted on the pediment over the entrance door. But all is not how it seems. What is rather more certain is the original name of house was College Place and the client, John Willes. A wealthy corn trader from Whitechapel, he first leased 20 hectares known as Home Farm from Dulwich College some 14 years earlier. The house would be renamed Belair by a later owner, solicitor Charles Rankin, in 1829.

Belair House West Dulwich London Ducks © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Local shopkeeper and historian Brian Green records in his 2002 book Dulwich: A History, “Belair is a fine example of an Adam style Georgian house. For many years it had a model farm in its 48 acres of grounds… In the lodge, still standing at the front entrance, lived the under-gardener who was responsible for looking after the grapevine hothouse, the cactus hothouse and three other large greenhouses. The coachman lived next door in the coach house… After the death of Sir Evan Spencer, the last occupant, in 1937, the contents were auctioned and the house fell into some decay. During World War II it was first used by the Royal Army Service Corps as a depot and later by the Free French forces. The grounds were used by the local platoon of the Home Guard for grenade practice.”

Belair House West Dulwich London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Over to Ian McInnes, Chair of the Dulwich Society, “No one knows who the original architect was for Belair. Despite many articles suggesting it was the Adam brothers, there is no information in the Dulwich Estate archives to support that. We have quite detailed background on the owners in the 19th century but nothing on the original architect(s) – what you see today is of course an early 1960s ‘impression’ of what a late 18th century house in a park ought to look like.” So it is “Adam style” as Brian Green points out but probably not Robert, James or William Adam. And what an impression!

Belair House West Dulwich London Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley