“I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the course of rivers towards their source…” Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938
Ickham, Littlebourne and Wickhambreaux are three exquisite Kentish villages east of Canterbury and west of Sandwich. A compact and discreet part of the countryside, the villages lie along the rolling floor of this shallow valley surrounded by fields of corn or cows grazing among wintercress. This area of southeast England is Country Life country life. Midsomer Murders on heat. Medieval patterns of development. Victorian houses still considered ‘modern’ (slight exaggeration but Elizabethan to Georgian is the norm). The Old Rectory is the most popular house name in Little Stour Valley. The meandering Little Stour River eventually feeds into the Great Stour confluence at Plucks Gutter.
At the heart of Ickham is of course an ancient church. St John the Evangelist Anglican Church is Grade I Listed. Its Listing states: “This church originally belonged to Christ Church Priory. Early English with transepts added in second quarter of 14th century. Built of flint. Cruciform building with aisles to the nave, south porch and west tower with broached shingled spire. Norman west doorway with embattled moulding billet hood and scalloped capitals. The nave, aisles and tower are late 12th century, the chancel is 13th century, the transepts are 14th century, the south porch is 19th century. The whole building was restored in 1901. The north transept belonged to the owners of Lee Priory and has a 14th century tomb of Sir Thomas de Baa. Wall monuments. Double piscina. The churchyard contains some 18th century headstones with skull, urn or cherub motifs.”
A long row of thatched roof timber hung wall converted barns lines the one edge of the open space in front of the church off The Street. Set back on the opposite side of The Street are four converted kiln oast houses. Other landmark buildings in between the cottages along The Street include The Old Rectory (a patchwork of the best bits of architecture across a few centuries) and Ickham Hall (an early 19th century country house faced with Roman cement set in a mini estate behind a high wall). There are two Grade II* Listed Buildings in the village and 22 Grade II.
Everything about Chatsworth, one of England’s most famous grand houses, is on an industrial scale. Roundly: 14,000 hectares; 62 farms; three villages; 130 rooms; 17 staircases; 1,250 works of art; 12,000 books in the Library and Ante Library; and 700 staff. And one very large farmshop (think King’s Road Partridges takes flight to the Peak District). Little wonder the current Duke and Duchess, well past retirement age, have decided to step back from overseeing the whole venture. Like his mother the late Debo (the last of the legendary Mitford sisters), Peregrine “Stoker” Cavendish along with his wife Amanda are moving from The Very Big House to The Old Vicarage in one of the estate villages, the picturesque Edensor. Debo lived in one half of the subdivided dwelling. Inskip Gee Architects are reuniting the two parts of The Old Vicarage. “It is a house with service buildings that survives from the old town and predates the alteration of Edensor by the 6th Duke and Paxton,” the architects explain. “The transformation of the house as an Italianate villa in 1838 is representative of the recasting of Edensor in various picturesque styles as a model village within Chatsworth Park, carried out in 1837 to 1840.”
The 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire haven’t been averse to some dramatic interventions during their tenure. In 2010 they held a three day ‘Attic Sale’ of 1,422 lots including 34 belonging to Debo. For example, Lot 223: “A gilt-bronze mounted Meissen porcelain timepiece Louis XVI, provenance Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (acquired in the 1960s), estimate £4,000 to £6,000.” There aren’t any actual attics at Chatsworth (it is flat and low mono-pitch roofed) but there are plenty of far flung wings and outbuildings which stored surplus trinkets and larger items. In fact enough architectural salvage to fit out the interior of a decent sized country house. “There simply wasn’t enough room,” the Duke notes. “We were never going to be moving to a bigger house!” More random was Lot 1412: “Six magnums of 1982 Dom Pérignon, estimate £1,250 to £1,800.” Lots 1419 to 1422 were vintage vehicles and parts.
He continues, “These houses have all been centres of the family’s activities as builders and collectors over nearly 500 years, but at Chatsworth we now see its fullest flowering, incorporating elements of all these other family collections. Replacing Hardwick in the late 17th century, Chatsworth has been the principal family seat for the last 300 years and in the last 100 has been the repository of works of art emanating from their other houses. This has meant that over the years every nook and cranny of this ‘Palace of the Peaks’ has been filled.”
And finishes, “The past year has been spent carefully sifting through these items, retaining some of those objects which illuminate family history and selecting what has become the content of this sale. In assessing the objects, comparing them to similar items remaining in the collection, and through reference to the large number of inventories that have been kept on the various properties, it has been possible at times to identify who commissioned them and for which of the family houses, as well as finding out when they moved to Chatsworth.”
The £65 million proceeds of the sale funded cleaning the stone walls to reveal their original warm buff and regilding the glazing bars of the windows on the two principal floors of the south front (architect William Talman) and west front (architect probably Thomas Archer aided by the 1st Duke) in 25 carat gold leaf. “The house was built to show off,” affirms the Duke. The glass panes are bevelled and the internal windowsills are made of marble. There is one single pane window on the east front contrasting with the multipaned sash windows everywhere else. About one third of the house is open to the public. The private rooms are on the south and west fronts. The gardens closest to these rooms are closed to the public. This has the dual benefit of providing privacy for the Cavendish family and keeping the elevations clutter free of tourists.
One of the highlights of the tour is the Chapel. “This space is practically unchanged since the 1st Duke in 1700,” states Stoker. Except for one addition. St Bartholomew Exquisite Pain, 2008, is a life size sculpture cast in gold plated silver in an edition of three by Damien Hirst. The artist says, “I like the confusion you get between science and religion… that’s where belief lies and art as well.” St Bartholomew was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus and was meant to have been flayed alive and martyred. In this sculpture he stands shinily resplendent, holding his detached skin draped over his right arm and blades as a symbol of his sainthood in his left hand. Historical depictions of St Bartholomew showed anatomical detail combining art and science and this artwork remains true to that tradition. It is the standout piece in the current display of contemporary art at Chatsworth and is aptly placed.
There are a few subtractions to the Chapel. The 19th century furniture and fittings went in the Attic Sale. Lot 920: “The Victorian furniture for the Chapel at Chatsworth circa 1870. Comprising an oak altar rail in three sections in the form of a three bar gate with uprights surmounted by trefoil motifs, together with a larger pair of pine Prie Dieu, a further smaller confirming pair of Prie Dieu, an oak rail and an ok and upholstered kneeling stool.” Lot 921: “A Victorian patinated bronze surmount in the form of a processional cross. Late 19th century. £300 to £500.”
The Duke and Duchess are avid art collectors, favouring 21st century pieces. Amanda explains, “We recently collaborated with Michael Craig-Martin on a new dinner service. We love music, and Michael was also inspired by the violin door in the State Music Room. The dinner service was made together with Royal Crown Derby. Around the table are chairs made by Joseph Walsh. He makes furniture full of curves – they are sculptures as well as seats.”
“The Duke and I commissioned Joseph Walsh to also make the Enignum Bed in 2014,” continues the Duchess. “It is usually in one of our guest bedrooms, but we have moved the bed into the Sabine Room so that everyone can see it. The bed is made of thin layers of ash wood, which are twisted into shape using steam. The spiralling forms are six metres tall and soar upwards in this space that was painted by James Thornhill in 1701.” There are also rather a lot of artworks in the interiors by Edward de Waal.
Mark Girouard included Chatsworth in his 1979 book Historic Houses of Britain. Like all his published work, it is beautifully written combining art, architectural, political and social history with insightful anecdotes. On Chatsworth, “By the time of the 1st Duke, the towers and huge windows that his ancestress Bess had built at Hardwick had gone completely out of fashion. Pediments, pillars and rich carving derived from the palaces of Italy and France had replaced them as the sign of greatness. Symmetry was still the rule of the day and had been carried to its furthest limits. It was now expected that inside a great house all the doors would be aligned, and outside the grandeur of the house itself was extended by avenues and sheets of water stretching into the far distance.”
It’s the only village in Ireland where the Main Street is in County Donegal (Ireland’s most northwesterly county) and the High Street is in County Fermanagh (the United Kingdom’s most westerly county). The 1925 Boundary Commission carelessly used the three metre wide River Termon as the border, forever splitting the village between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland or at least up until today. The River Termon, all 16 kilometres of it, rises from Scraghy near Omagh and flows into Lough Erne at The Waterfoot, a demesne three kilometres southwest of Pettigo. Its water meadows are home to brown trout, dippers, grey wagtails, heron, mallard, mink, otters and white clawed crayfish. In ancient times the river formed the boundary, or “Terminus”, of the Monastic Lands of Lough Derg.
Elevated and isolated, Pettigo has a long and distinguished history. In Celtic times it was known as the Place of the Blacksmith. By the medieval period, it had emerged to become the gateway to St Patrick’s Purgatory on nearby Lough Derg. “The church at St Patrick’s Purgatory is a wonderful basilica, like something from Ravenna,” observes heritage architect John O’Connell. Pettigo prospered as a market place in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the oldest reminders of this notable heritage is Termon Castle, southwest of the village and close to Lough Erne. Its ruins are located in the Republic, just 256 metres from the border. Built by the Gaelic Clan McGrath in the late 16th century, an indelible mark on the landscape, it bears all the scars of Cromwellian bombardment. Some architectural elements such as gun loops and window mullions are still intact.
The Church of Ireland, Templecarne Parish Church, and the former courthouse cum market house (a common combination in Ireland – see Kinsale), set at perpendicular angles to one another, form the focal point of the village centre along with the group of three storey houses opposite. The church dates from 1836 and is typical William Farrell: austere elegance. John O’Connell says, “Farrell was a very solid architect.” The building has a timeless quality – like Mr F’s Colebrooke Park and Ashbrooke House, both in County Fermanagh – derived from his restrained application of decoration. The tall gothic arched windows contain an unusual detail. Mr O’C explains, “The angled glazed inset is, in fact, a device for ventilation. Thus from the inside the hinged flap could be opened, usually with the assistance of a cord.” Samuel Lewis wrote in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, “The church, situated at Pettigoe, is a small, old, and dilapidated structure, towards the rebuilding of which Mrs Leslie (the proprietor of the estate), the Rector, and the Protestant parishioners have contributed a large subscription.”
The Reverend Charles Eames is the current Rector. “My vision for this church,” he states, “is to make an impact for God, here in Pettigo, by helping people understand the enriching messages of eternal hope given to us by Jesus Christ.” Sadly the grand Templecarne Rectory lies in ruins in fields next to Termon Castle. This long low two storey house is asymmetrically arranged with a single storey porch tucked between blocks set at right angles to one another. The original roughcast rendered finish, where not covered in ivy, has mostly given way to reveal the red brick construction material. Samuel Lewis notes, “The living is a rectory and vicarage, in the diocese of Clogher, and in the patronage of the Bishop: the tithes amount to £300. The glebe-house was built in 1813, at an expense of £978.9.2¾ of which £623.1.6½ was a loan from the late Board of First Fruits, and the remainder was defrayed by the then incumbent: the glebe comprises 141 acres of good land, valued at £176.16.8 per annum.”
The Barton Family Memorial is located to the west of the church. Their estate is The Waterfoot. Samuel Lewis records, “Waterfoot, the residence of Lieutenant Colonel Barton, is pleasantly situated.” A quirky triple jelly mould headstone has an equally quirky inscription, “The Victory. 1 Corinthians XV, 54 to 57. A White Stone. Amen. Rev I 18. ‘Tell his disciples he is risen from the dead.’ Matt XXVIII 7. Barton Family Vault.” Andrew Barton Patterson (1864 to 1941), Australian poet and journalist grandson of Robert Barton, wrote Waltzing Matilda. In January, snowdrops grow over the vault.
The former courthouse cum market house, restored and converted into a family home in 2006, is more provincial in character. It dates from circa 1850. The terrace of three houses opposite, restored in 2016, is of a surprisingly grand scale for such a remote location. The houses rise a storey higher than most of the village buildings and display distinguishing delineated window surrounds and half columned doorcases. Called The Palisades, their grandeur is less surprising when it transpires they once formed the village home of the landowning Leslie family. Sir Winston Churchill, a relative of the Leslies, was a frequent visitor. The most famous recent scion, Sir Jack Leslie 4th Baronet of Glaslough and Pettigo, died at Castle Leslie in Glaslough, County Monaghan, in 2016.
He continues, “From the 1840s, the Leslies had become related through marriage to some of the most influential landed families in Ireland and Britain. Sir John II (1857 to 1914) married Leonie Jerome, the daughter of a wealthy American newspaper tycoon, in 1884. This marriage meant that the Leslies became related through marriage to the Dukes of Marlborough as Leonie’s sister was Lady Jennie Churchill, wife of Sir Randolph and mother of Sir Winston. Both marriages were frowned upon in landed circles.”
High Street is named not after its retail offer but rather its steep gradient. Pettigo may be the sort of place which novelist Edna O’Brien would describe as, “You have to get a bus to get a bus”, but it has community spirit(s). Ever since Brennan’s Lounge overlooking the River Termon on the Northern Irish closed last century, both sets of Pettigonian nationalities frequent the pubs on the southern side.
John Elliott has lived all his life in Pettigo: “In my young days I remember 20,000 to 30,000 people coming to Lough Derg each summer. It was a lovely sight to see the smoke of the trains from each side of the platform which was roofed for the pilgrims. In the 1960s there were a lot more shops on the High Street in Pettigo like George McCreagh’s grocery and hardware shop. In my young days it was a good business centre. Fair Day was the 20th of every month, and cattle and sheep would be sold then. The old market yard is beside the former railway station. Magee Donegal Tweed would buy woven tweed for their big pullovers. The Burtons who own The Waterfoot had a forge in front of the Methodist Church.”
Across from the Methodist church at the top of High Street stands a significant looking tree. A sign on the railings surrounding it reads, “The Crimean War Tree was planted by W F Barton Esq and J P Clonelly, Pettigo, in commemoration of the taking of Sebastopol in 1856. Edward Barton and many others from the Pettigo area served in the Crimean War. After the capture of Sebastopol the Crimean War was virtually at an end. On 21 September the little town of Pettigo presented a sense of unusual animation and excitement, that evening having been set apart for rejoicing in honour of the capture of Sebastopol. The preparations were on an extensive scale, as F W Barton Esq of Clonelly had procured a large supply of fireworks from Dublin.”
John Elliott continues, “I remember going on a Sunday School trip on the train to Bundoran. The railway station in Pettigo was closed in the 1950s. Pettigo used to be packed on Sunday nights. People drove from Omagh and as long as you could hold onto the steering wheel you got here and home again. This applied all round the border – lots of music and great craic like that. The empty three storey house backing onto the river was Brennan’s Guesthouse. I remember Sir Jack Leslie – he wore a hat and a white coat. The Leslies lived in The Palisades, the white house opposite the Church of Ireland.”
Dorinda loved discussing the many Irish country houses she knew well. “I could write a book about my experiences in country houses. Maybe you should for me!” One of her earliest memories was visiting her uncle and aunt, Major Charlie and Sylvia Alexander, at the now demolished Pomeroy House in County Tyrone. Dorinda also enjoyed visiting Springhill in County Londonderry (now owned by The National Trust) – she was married from there in 1959. There was a painting of Springhill in the sitting room of Killyvolgan House. It was her Great Aunt Mina’s home. Mina Lenox-Conyngham was the last owner of Springhill. “Staying at her house was always enormous fun.”
“I remember aged six being taken against my will to dancing lessons at Lissan House. It was absolutely freezing! I lay on the ground screaming and kicking my feet in the air. Such a dull house, don’t you think?” She was great pals with Diana Pollock of Mountainstown House in County Meath and recalled good times there with Diana and her sisters. “I could never love Mount Stewart. Dundarave has an interesting vast hall but the reception rooms are plain. I remember the auction of Mount Panther’s contents. Everyone was standing in the entrance hall and up the stairs when the staircase started coming away from the wall! Cousin Captain Bush lived in Drumhalla House near Rathmullan in Donegal. He’d a parrot and wore a wig. I remember my cousin threw his wig off when he went swimming in the cove end of the garden. I was absolutely terrified to jump in after him!”
One of Dorinda’s most memorable stories combines several of her loves: country houses, fashion and parties. “It was the Sixties and I had just bought a rather fashionable tin foil dress from a catalogue. I thought it would be perfect for Lady Mairi Bury’s party at Mount Stewart. It was so tight and I was scared of ripping it so I lay down on our bedroom floor, arms stretched out in front of me, and Henry slid me into it.” She gave a demonstration, laughing. “Unfortunately I stood too near one of the open fires and my dress got hotter and hotter. So that was the first and last time I wore it!” Dorinda always managed to look stylish, whether casual or formal. Her suits were the envy of fellow Trustees of the Board of Historic Buildings Trust. Her ‘off duty’ uniform of polo neck, sports jacket, jeans and boyish shoes was effortlessly chic.
When it came to finding her own country house after her tenure at Ballywalter Park ended, things proved challenging. “I searched for two years for a suitable property. There’s a country house for sale in Keady. Nobody lives there! I’d be driving up and down to Belfast non stop!” Eventually Dorinda would build her own house on a site just beyond the walled estate of Ballywalter Park. At first, she wanted to rebuild the double pile gable ended two storey three bay house occupying the site called McKee’s Farm but when the structure proved unstable, a new house was conceived. Despite being known as a modernist, Belfast architect Joe Fitzgerald was selected to design a replacement house of similar massing to McKee’s Farm, adding single storey wings in Palladian style. Like its owner, Killyvolgan House is understated, elegant and charming. She was pleased when the council planners described Killyvolgan as the ideal new house in the countryside. It displays a distinguished handling of proportion and lightness of touch.
“I bought the Georgian grandfather clock in the entrance hall from Dublin. I’m always slightly concerned at how fragile my papier mâché chairs are for ‘larger guests’ in the drawing room. I guess the chairs were really meant for a bedroom? I’ve painted all the walls in the house white as the shadows on them help me see around.” And then there was the urn in the courtyard. “The Coade stone urn I found in the 19th century barn was much too grand. So instead I bought this cast iron urn on the King’s Road in Belfast. Fine, I will leave the Marston and Langinger pot you have brought me in the urn so that I remember that colour. Oh, Farrow and Ball are very smart! They’re very clever at their marketing.” In the end, the much debated urn would remain unpainted. “Henry wouldn’t deal with snobs. That’s why I liked him. Henry took everything he got involved in very seriously. Henry was the only Alliance Party member in the House of Lords. He strongly promoted the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1974 which provided greater parity across the sectarian divide.” Later, “Oh how exciting, is it full of good restaurants and bars? Great! I’ll be an authority now on Ballyhackamore.”
She recalled an early drama at The Park. It was a tranquil Sunday morning in 1973 and unusually Dorinda was at home rather than at Holy Trinity Church Ballywalter. “Henry was singing the 23rd Psalm at Eucharist when he heard six fire brigades go by. Poor people, he pitied. I’d warned our butler not to interfere with the gas cylinders of the boiler, but he did, and the whole thing exploded, lifting off the dome of the staircase hall like a pressure cooker. The billiard room disappeared under a billow of smoke and flames. I rang the fire brigade and said, ‘Come quickly! There’s a fire at Ballywalter Park!’ The operator replied, ‘Yes, madam, but what number in Ballywalter Park?’” The estate of course doesn’t have a number – although it does have its own postcode.