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Royal Victoria Patriotic Building + Le Gothique Wandsworth London

Mad For It

Wandsworth Common Pond © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Sunday afternoon cricket on Wandsworth Common makes for a bucolic tableau. It’s like a Lowry painting negative: starched white figures against a deep green, the working class city swapped for middle class suburbia. Or perhaps a Surrey village scene. Two centuries ago it would’ve been a Surrey village scene. Wandsworth only became a London Borough in more recent times. In the midst of the Common is a building locals refer to as “Dracula’s Castle” with good reason – its history is as dark as its slate roof.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Windmill Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Treaty of Paris of 1856 brought the Crimean War formally to an end. The Royal Commission of the Patriotic Fund was established to collect and distribute money donated by the public for the widows and orphans of men killed in the Crimean War. The Fund’s Executive and Finance Committee decided to build an orphanage on the then edge of London for 300 daughters of soldiers, sailors and marines killed in the recent conflict. A well timed letter from Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer and great great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales, solved the site issue:

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Windmill © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“My Dear Sir, If the Patriotic Fund Commission should select my ground to found their Institution on Wandsworth Common I should be willing, in consideration of the national object, to take on half the price Mr Lee has fixed on the value viz: £50 an acre… I do not wish to encounter any difficulty with the Copyholders, and the Commissioners, if they entertain any position of land, must take all risks of those difficulties. Yours faithfully, Spencer.” The Committee accepted the Earl’s offer and bought 65 acres (26 hectares) for £3,700. Nearby Spencer Park, where Chef Gordon Ramsay has his London pad, is a reminder of the Northamptonshire aristocratic connection.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London 1918 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The building may also look like a Victorian madhouse but that’s about the only use it hasn’t been even though it was originally called the Asylum. Now for a countdown through the decades: 1858 orphanage; 1914 hospital; 1919 orphanage once more; 1939 reception centre; 1946 training college; 1952 school; 1970 vacant; and of late, 27 apartments, 20 studios, 15 workshops, two offices, a drama school and Le Gothique bar and restaurant. Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins lives in one of the apartments. Past residents have included Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor and Charlotte Jane Bennett. The latter was an unfortunate schoolgirl who burned to death in 1901 on an upper floor – her ghost is said to prowl the interior as night falls.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London 1914 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

What on earth is a ‘reception centre’ or to use its full name the London Reception Centre? It is a somewhat euphemistic term for a refugee detention headquarters. Following the collapse of France and the Low Countries in 1940 in World War II, a flood of refugees entered Britain. Those from Germany and the Axis countries were usually interned while non enemy aliens were interviewed by immigration. MI5 decided to create a reception centre and where better than the highly adaptable Royal Patriotic School as it was known in its latest guise. Refugees from Occupied Europe had to pass through the reception centre – a sheep from the goats process. An average of 700 refugees were processed each month. Several spies were unmasked and hanged at Wandsworth Prison across the Common. It is rumoured that the Nazi Rudolf Hess was interrogated in the reception centre.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Plants © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Major Rohde Hawkins was the original architect; Giles Quarme, the restoration architect. The 17th century George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh designed by William Wallace was the inspiration for the design. Major Hawkins sought to omit some of the ornamental details “to carry out which it was found would absorb too large an amount of the surplus at the disposal of the Commissioners”. Opening the orphanage, Queen Victoria declared it to be “beautiful, roomy and airy”. Recounting the day’s events in her diary that night, Her Majesty ended the entry with an entreaty: “May this good work, which is to bear my name, prosper!”

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Building News praised the new orphanage as being “bold, picturesque and effective”. Later royal visitors would include King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria, and Queen Amelia of Belgium. Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell recognises the influence of municipal Flemish works in the architecture. “This is a secular gothic rather than ecclesiastical gothic influenced by buildings such as town halls in Florence and Bruges. There are also tones of Scottish baronial. The rhythm of a central tower with balancing towers either end of the façade was very popular during this period.” A corresponding orphanage (now Emanuel School) designed by Henry Saxon Snell was built for boys slightly to the north of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Chapel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Chapel Cross © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Balcony © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Bow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Dormers © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Pinnacle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Great Hall Pinnacle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Dormer © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Roof © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Roof Lantern © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Turret © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Statue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Stonework © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Rear Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London North Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London North Courtyard Le Gothique © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Great Hall South Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Great Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Courtyard Pond © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Urn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Chamfered Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley67

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Le Gothique © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Corridor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Survey of London Volume 49 Battersea (2013) edited by Andrew Saint records, “The lifespan of the Royal Commission of the Patriotic Fund Boys’ School (its official name) was brief. The Fund had been created in a surge of sympathy for the dead of the Crimean War, with the aim of maintaining their orphaned children. It was resolved to create a school and asylum for 300 girls, and another for 100 boys. The girls came first. With the money amply donated, the Commissioners bought the Clapham Junction site. This land’s southern portion was farmed, while at its centre arose the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum, conceived as a ‘national monument’ and built in 1858 to 1859 to ebullient gothic designs by Major Rohde Hawkins, architect to the Committee of Council on Education.”

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Entrance Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Built as a school for orphaned daughters of servicemen, 1857 to 1859, by Rhode [sic] Hawkins,” summarise Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in The Buildings of England London 2: South (1983). “A typically pompous Victorian symmetrical composition of yellow brick, with coarsely robust gothic detail. Three storeys with entrance below a central tower; lower towers at the ends, corbelled out turrets and bow windows. Statue of St George and the Dragon in a central niche. Separate chapel. Low concrete additions of the 1960s to the north.”

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Corbel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Amongst the flourish of turrets, spikes and spires is a crocketed pinnacle with what appear to be mad cows nosediving off it. “It is strange that the gargoyles are in the form of hounds or lambs in lead!” observes heritage architect John O’Connell. “The Major designed this architectural element in timber and lead when it should all be in stone.” The orphanage Commissioners noted in their 1869 report that “from the size of the building and its peculiar construction and arrangements, it is a most expensive one to manage and keep in repair”. So much for Major Rohde Hawkins’ value engineering efforts! That’s no surprise. It is a complex complex with the main block built around a north courtyard and a south courtyard separated by a dining hall which is now used by the drama school. Both courtyards are surrounded on three sides by ground floor cloister type corridors. A rear courtyard cloistered on one side extends to the east and to the northeast is a standalone chapel.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Master of the Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s preferred builder George Myers constructed the orphanage. His tender of £31,337 also happened to be the lowest. “George Myers had an enormous works along the South Bank in Lambeth,” explains Dr O’Donnell. “Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Colney Hatch, Barnet, was his largest project.” The contractor made one change to Major Hawkins’ design, replacing a clock with a statue of St George and the Dragon – which as a skilled stonemason he may have carved himself – on the top floor of the entrance tower. Innovative construction methods included off site prefabrication of iron window frames, decorative leadwork and stone dressings. This allowed construction to be completed in under two years. Mark Justin, founder of Le Gothique relates, “This was the first building in the UK to have pre stressed concrete and mesh floors.” The restoration of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building would take three times as long.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth London Tracery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“This building has a colourful history!” says Mark with more than a hint of understatement. He manages the bar and restaurant with his son Andrew. “Le Gothique is masculine not feminine because it’s named after the era not the building. I’ve been here for 35 years – I’m the longest serving landlord of a venue in London. Jean-Marie Martin was our French Head Chef for the first 25 years. Our Head Chef is now Italian Bruno Barbosa. If I’m asked for a description of our food I’d say ‘modern European’.”

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth Le Gothique Gnocchi © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Mark confirms the Rudolf Hess story is more than a rumour. “He came here in 1945. Why did he come to the UK though? On a whim he crash landed in the Duke of Hamilton’s estate in Scotland. He seemingly thought he could arrange peace talks with the Duke who was involved with the British Government’s war policy but he misunderstood pacifism here. Churchill went ballistic and he was arrested. But why did he come? He was invited by the Royals, specifically King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Hess spent three days in the reception centre. The Government papers were due to be released but have been classified again until 2035. It’s all to do with Rudolf Hess and the potential downfall of the monarchy.”

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth Le Gothique Pear Tart © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The restoration and conversion were featured in a 24 page spread in Architects’ Journal. Architect Eva Jiricna did the apartment interiors. She replaced the wooden beams with high tension steel wire and added glass staircases to mezzanine bedrooms.” Mark finishes, “Businessman Paul Tutton bought the 3,700 square metre derelict listed building from the Greater London Corporation for a pound. It was pigeon central! He restored and converted the building incrementally. Geoff Adams bought flat number one in 1985 for £24,000. Geoff died last year.” Gnocchi with butternut squash velouté followed by tart aux poires with vanilla ice cream, modern and European and delicious, are served alfresco in the north courtyard. Upstairs, a figure darts across one of the windows. Could it be Charlotte Jane?

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building Wandsworth Le Gothique Tarte Poire © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Antrim + Down Coasts

Dockers and Carters

Whitehead County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Once a place to leave, not to live, never mind visit, least of all for a luxury travel experience, how times have changed. The east coast of Northern Ireland (Counties Antrim and Down with Belfast sitting over their boundary) not only has Game of Thrones backdrops like the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbour – it now offers thriving upmarket hospitality for the discerning visitor. County Antrim’s coastline is rugged; County Down’s is greener. There are plenty of scenic moments from the candy coloured Victorian villas of Whitehead to the crashing waves of Whitepark Bay.

Giant's Causeway County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

As old as the island itself, Northern Ireland’s original God given tourist attraction has received a manmade upgrade. The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is a spear’s throw from Ballintoy Harbour. It’s a geological wonder of around 40,000 polygonal basalt columns rising from the splashed edge of the Atlantic. A visitor centre designed by award winning architects Heneghan Peng is formed of rectangular basalt columns propping up a grass roof. Architecture as land art. Nearby, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a popular walk (not for the fainthearted) over a 30 metre deep oceanic chasm.

AB @ Giant's Causeway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Welcome to the Emerald Isle!” beams Hammy Lowe, founder of Spectrum Cars, a family owned executive chauffeur service based in the historic walled town of Carrickfergus north of Belfast. “Spectrum Cars was formed in 1997 to meet demand from visiting business executives for reliable and security conscious transfers for corporate clients,” explains Hammy, “including big hitters like the Bank of England. We swiftly adapted to the burgeoning tourism market and added driver guided tours of the 50 kilometre long Causeway Coast. Recently we added Game of Thrones tours. The jewel in our crown is that we are the approved transport provider for the five star Merchant Hotel in Belfast.”

Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

County Antrim Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Country Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Hotel Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Resort Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Bay Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Castle Hotel Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

AB © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

SS Nomadic Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

White Star Line Tableware Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Interior Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Bedroom Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belfast City Hall View from Grand Central Hotel Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Anne's Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Spectrum Cars’ new collaboration is the Toast The Coast tour led by World Host Food Ambassador Portia Woods stopping off for culinary delicacies in County Antrim seaside resorts. It starts with brunch in The Bank House, Whitehead. All the brunch courses are local produce from traditional soda bread (given a sharp twist with chili and pepper) to Irish black butter (darkened with brandy and liquorice). Tapas and gin tasting follow at Ballygally Castle Hotel, a haunted building dating back to 1625. Several of the world’s biggest music and film stars have travelled in Spectrum Cars but Hammy is the soul of discretion. When pushed, he confides, “A clue to our most famous client is she is the female lead role in the movie Mamma Mia!”

Belfast Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hammy notes, “The development of the Titanic Museum in Belfast at a cost of almost £100 million has been a tremendous boost to the Northern Ireland tourist economy.” Next to the museum, the shipyard drawing office, the birthplace of many a ‘floating hotel’, is now a hotel itself. Belfast boasts three restaurants with a Michelin star – no mean feat for a smallish city with a rocky past. It’s become something of a foodie destination. Local chef Michael Deane has no fewer than six eateries including the Michelin starred Eipic, named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus who rated pleasure highly. True to form, the hef declares, “Fish, to taste right, must swim three times: in water, in olive oil and in Champagne!”

Grand Central Hotel Cocktail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

CNN Travel Reporter Maureen O’Hare who hails from Northern Ireland reckons “the food scene is really good in Belfast”. Michelin starred Ox overlooks the River Lagan. “Ox is my favourite restaurant,” Maureen shares. “It’s pure quality and class on every level.” The interior has a reclaimed industrial aesthetic. Art is reserved for the plates, not the walls. Oscar + Oscar designed the interior of Ox as well as Ox Cave, the bar next door. Architect Orla Maguire says, “We’re very proud of both – we have been lucky to work with some extremely talented clients. Ox Cave is one my favourite places to go in the city… its Comté with honey truffle is amazing.” Oscar + Oscar were also responsible for the interior of Il Pirata, a rustic Italian restaurant in east Belfast’s most fashionable urban village, Ballyhackamore.

The Merchant Hotel Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The best view of Belfast can be captured from the Observatory, a lounge and bar on the 23rd floor of Grand Central Hotel. St Anne’s Cathedral (which has been gradually constructed over the last 100 years) and City Hall (an Edwardian architectural masterpiece) are two of the landmarks visible far below. The owners of the luxurious Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort in Ballymena, County Antrim, have opened Café Parisien opposite the City Hall. History buffs will recognise the name: Café Parisien on the Titanic was its inspiration. Oranmore House is an elegant country house with just 10 guest bedrooms on the outskirts of Ballymena. Montalto House is one of the grandest country houses in County Down set in 160 hectares of rolling parkland. Distinguished Irish architect John O’Connell and his team have restored the 18th century mansion and designed new neoclassical buildings. The gardens are open to the public and Montalto House is available for parties and weddings.

Cafe Parisien Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Northern Ireland may be the least populated of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, but that hasn’t hindered the rise of some 100 golf courses. Hammy believes, “Northern Ireland is like paradise for golfers. Many of them are keen to visit Holywood Golf Club where US Open champion Rory McIlroy honed his skills.Royal Portrush is a must for a round on a links course and was the 2019 venue for the British Open. Equally attractive is Royal County Down with a most unique setting between sea and mountains. Try it on a windy day! A lesser known but recommended course is Royal Belfast with its 19th century clubhouse.” From golf to gastrotourism, urban culture to country estates, Northern Ireland’s east coast is finally a luxury travel destination.

Royal Belfast Golf Club Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Ranger’s House + Park Blackheath London

Sloane

Blackheath Houses © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pirouettes and marionettes and silhouettes. A silent metronome ticks to the galliards and sarabands of our lives. And so we arrive at a large villa or small mansion. Ranger’s House in, at, on, and opposite Blackheath. It was built around 1700 by Captain Francis Hosier, Vice Admiral of the Blue. Our destination, our desirous subject of the day, is a red brick two storey over raised basement block with later brown brick single storey over raised basement bow fronted wings. The southern wing is bowed at both extremities lending symmetry to the front elevation; the northern wing is missing a bow robbing the garden elevation of symmetry. 

The striking marrying of a house and a collection occurred at the beginning of the 21st century. Ranger’s House was missing artwork and furnishings. The Wernher Collection was homeless. English Heritage acted as matchmaker. The collection of Sir Julius Wernher once graced the interiors of Luton Hoo (his Bedfordshire country house) and Bath House (his London townhouse). The former is now a glitzy hotel; the latter, long demolished. Sir Julius (1850 to 1912) and his business partner Sir Alfred Beit (1853 to 1906) made their fortunes from gold and diamond mining in South Africa. The Beit Collection is housed in Sir Alfred’s former country house, Russborough in County Wicklow, and the National Gallery of Ireland.

Sir Julius’ will was the largest ever recorded at the time by the Inland Revenue. Sir Alfred was reckoned to be the richest man in the world of his time. The tycoons’ busts flank the entrance to the Geology Department of the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington, founded in 1907 with a donation from Werner Beit + Co. There is another Irish connection. The late 5th Duchess of Abercorn, “Sasha” Alexandra Phillips, was the great granddaughter of Sir Julius Werner. Her sister Natalia is the Dowager Duchess of Westminster. Luton Hoo was sold in 1997 following the death of their brother Nicholas. Their mother Georgina Lady Kennard (née Wernher) was a close friend of the Queen.

Our tour of Ranger’s House with John O’Connell, who designed the interiors of the Wallace Collection, begins. “A portico can be expressed or suppressed, nothing else. The ultimate expression is a porte cochère. Here, it is suppressed as a temple front. We love the expressed aprons and rubbed brickwork!” Moving indoors, “The timber staircase would probably have been painted to resemble stone. Three balusters per thread is very noble. The panelled stairs below denote a basement of consequence.”

There are 700 items spread over two floors. “It is one of the best English Heritage collections with some knockout pieces,” John explains. “The Pink Drawing Room has most emphatic Inigo Jones Whitehall Palace style ceiling plasterwork. The interconnecting door to the Entrance Hall is missing its enrichments on top. The Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait, disposed to one side of a wall composition, should be moved and placed centrally. There would have been pier mirrors and tables between the three windows.”

The Grade I Conservation Practice Architect points to a desk: “This is a Jean-François Oeben wow piece! Mr Oeben was a great craftsman. He would have made the woodwork but the guild system wouldn’t have allowed him to make the metalwork. That would have been executed by another craftsman.” Pointing to an earlier more modest piece of furniture: “This work table illustrates the development of specific pieces of furniture for rooms, the search for comfort.”

“The Adriaen van Ostade is a typically allegorical 17th century Dutch painting. The gentleman playing cards suggests profligacy. The lady gazing out the window is showing disloyalty. And the 1617 Gabriël Metsu is wonderful, an absolute beauty, a very important painting. The broom is symbolic of spiritual cleansing. The lapdog represents loyalty.” Our tour continues through the reception rooms. “Such ravishing marble matching mantlepieces and hearthstones. That’s what you get at a certain moment,” admires John. Completing the tour upstairs: “The corridors remind us of Castle Howard.”

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Hidden Ireland + Clonalis Roscommon

The Portrait of a Lady and Gentleman and Artists as Young Men

Dia dhaoibh ar maidin. There really aren’t many left. A study of the 39 (what an odd number, why not 40?) country houses featured in the book Irish Houses and Castles with its strangely coloured plates, published in 1974, reveals just 13 remain in the hands of the same families. So which ones have been so lucky? Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath | Bantry House, County Cork | Beaulieu, County Louth | Birr Castle, County Offaly | Dunsany Castle, County Meath | Glin Castle, County Limerick | Kilshannig, County Cork | Lismore Castle, County Waterford | Lough Cutra Castle, County Galway | Mount Ievers, County Cork | Leixlip Castle, County Dublin | Slane Castle, County Meath | Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath. Like Hen’s teeth.

Not so much “Where are they now?” as “What are they now?” They’re not all sob stories. Some have never looked better. Sir David Davies has brought a new lease of life to Abbey Leix. Crazy but true. The London launch of a book by William Laffan celebrating the estate’s rebirth was held with great pomp and happenstance at Lindy Guinness’s Holland Park villa mansion. Nancy Mitford’s cousin Clementine Beit’s old house Russborough looks in pretty good nick, even if restoration comes at the price of paintings disappearing. And nobody’s blaming terrorists this time… John O’Connell has worked his magic at Fota Island, the first residential restoration of the Irish Heritage Trust. And there are high hopes that the Hughes brothers, the new owners of Westport House, despite contending, conflicting lights, will preserve one of the last Richard Castle designed houses for the nation. It’s hard to keep up with Bellamont Forest: it’s seriously serially for sale. Luttrellstown Castle might be corporately owned but Eileen Plunket’s ballroom would still give Nancy Lancaster’s Yella Room a run for its money. Christie’s recently told us Stackallen, which appears in later versions of the book, has been “enriched” since it was bought by the billionaire Naughtons in 1993.

Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.

Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!

His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.

Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.

“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.

Donough Cahill, Executive Director of the Irish Georgian Society, reminded the London Chapter of the recent fire at the 18th century villa Vernon Mount in Cork City. “’A study in curves’ is how the Knight of Glin described this classic gem,” lamented Donough. “A great loss. The community are heartbroken and we too are heartbroken.” It’s a reflection on the rarity and fragility of Irish country houses and makes the flourishing survival of Clonalis all the more remarkable. A former billiard room is now a museum of letters and papers from family archives, one of the best collections in private ownership in Ireland. Correspondence from the likes of William Gladstone, Samuel Johnson and Anthony Trollope is displayed in mahogany bookcases next to the harp of Turlough Carolan, a renowned 17th century blind musician. Oh, and a pedigree of 25 generations of The House of O’Conor Don hangs on the wall, starting with Turlough Mor O’Conor, High King of Ireland, who died in 1150. One ancestor brought a certain captive named Patrick to Ireland. And the rest, as they say, is history. Our patron saint. A Catholic chapel is discreetly located to the rear of the house. “There are only three such private chapels in Ireland,” remarks Marguerite. “The other two are at the Carrolls’ house in Dundalk and DerrynaneDaniel O’Connell’s house . Tread carefully. Thin places. “There is really too much to say.” Henry James again. Tráthnóna maith daoibh.

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Danson House + Danson Stables + Danson Park London

Danson Abbey

This Palladian style villa may have originated as a bolthole from London but there’s nothing provincial about it. While suburbia has crept round Danson Park over the last two and a half centuries, miraculously the house, stables and park have survived virtually intact. Now owned by Bexley Council, a registry office makes for a decent unobtrusive use for the historic building. And lunch in the courtyard of Danson Stables is a winning combination of good food and architecture.

Serendipity – and a £4.5 million restoration by Historic England – has saved Danson for the next two and a half centuries. In 1995 the house was falling to pieces. Jump a decade and the Queen is cutting the ribbon. “It’s smaller than I thought,” Her Majesty observes upon her arrival. Understandable – there are optical illusions at play. Two fenestration tricks make the building appear larger than it is: (internally) not expressing the architraves and (externally) shrinking window sizes on the upper floor.

“Very Miss Jane Austen!” declares John O’Connell, climbing the serene sweep of steps to the entrance door. Unusually there are two large panes of glass in the beautifully aged mahogany door. Good for catching northern light but also an 18th century display of wealth. The walls are equally blessed by the patina of age. Portland stone given a lime wash has a mellowed texture and, set high up on a ridge, the house turns golden yellow in the sun. If you’ve got it flaunt it. And Sir John Boyd had it. Before he lost it.

Freshly beknighted with a 19 year old bride to serenade, the 40 something client commissioned Sir Robert Taylor to design him a home worthy of his station in life. The 1st Baronet Boyd owned Caribbean sugar plantations and was Vice Chairman of the British East India Company. “It really is a most skilful plan,” observes John O’Connell, and as Ireland’s leading conservation architect, he should know. “With the summer sun Danson House could be a villa along the Brenta Canal!” A double blow of the American and French Revolutions wrecked Sir John’s businesses. He died in debt in 1800. His son chopped off the wings, reclaiming the building materials for stables designed by George Dance. Five years later, the house was sold.

The entrance hall, in Palladian terms, is really a closed loggia so relatively simple with a plain marble floor. Opulence follows. Why employ one starchitect when you can get two? Sir John Boyd got Sir William Chambers to jazz up Sir Robert Taylor’s design, adding fireplaces and doors and other decorative touches. A rare cycle of Georgian allegorical wall paintings by the French artist Charles Pavillon stimulate after dinner conversation in the dining room.

A Victorian daughter of the manor, Sarah Johnston, helpfully painted watercolours of the interiors. Historic England used her paintings as inspiration for the carpets. A painting by George Barret hanging in the Chinoserie wallpapered octagonal Ladies’ Sitting Room illustrates the house with its wings. Incidentally, an exhibition of this Irish born artist is planned for the newly reopened National Gallery of Ireland.

The plaster roundels in the Gentlemen’s Music Room cum Library were found in cupboards. Imprints on the walls for the surrounding swags allowed them to be accurately reinstalled. That ingenious layout – interlocking rectangles and polygons around a dream of an oval stairwell – adapts well. Modern services are tucked into servants’ corridors wedged between the reception room shapes. The butler’s pantry contains a lift.

The landscape has erroneously been attributed to Capability Brown. Where hasn’t? It’s like every church carving must be Grinling Gibbons. Capability may have visited Danson, but the setting is the work of his associate, Nathaniel Richmond. Danson House (tour) and Danson Stables (lunch) and Danson Park (stroll). “It really is a place apart and invokes the Veneto,” John O’Connell lyrically waxes. Danson with the stars. The day is so singular, a true joy.

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Tyrella House + Tyrella Beach Newcastle Down

Demands of the Temple of The Sun at Baalbec | Let the Heavens Open 

Tyrella House Sham Fort © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It was always going to be a raucous affair: dinner with Westbourne and Lavender’s Blue intern Annabel P at Il Pirata in Shepherd Market. Boom. Torrential rain merely exhilarated bacchanalian spirits while devouring tapas alfresco. So did an octopusfest of salpicón de marisco and pulpo a la gallega. Shepherd Market is round the block from the Queen’s birthplace in Mayfair. Like Her Maj, it’s close to the madding crowd yet discretely detached. Capital royal discretion continued when the divine Princess Alexandra popped by Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt. Oh, yes. Of course it’s rude to namedrop but the Westminster Property Association lunch with Lord Adonis at the Grosvenor House Hotel was rather fun too. Next, town and country came together in the bumptious dining room of the Garrick Club, recently spruced up by Christopher Vane Percy, over supper with the great Irish philanthropists Martin and Carmel Naughton. Finally, acoustic levels are a little lower dining like lords (bands of ermine at the ready) inside Tyrella House which hugs the south coast of County Down. After the turbulent intensity of autumnal London living and Spanish travelling, a late blossoming of Ulster quietude ensues. Long table à deux please. Calling it the Sandringham of Northern Ireland may stretch the royal metaphor a trifle far. Plus it’s much prettier.

Tyrella House Grounds © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Surprisingly Tyrella House isn’t covered by Burke or Brett. Lavender’s Blue gladly fill the gap, plug the hole, step ointo the breach. Surprising, that is, considering it’s a roomy building of historical, architectural and social significance, twice as deep as it’s wide, lumber rooms uncounted, holding court amidst low lying greenery. First glimpse (through a verdurous vista) from the sweeping driveway past the hillside sham fort (every entrance should have one) is of a squarish main block five bays side on, four bays frontal. A neoclassical beauty; architecture’s acme: Augustus’s vision and Maecenas’s taste and Dostoevsky’s nuances set in stone. The house’s character changes when viewed from the garden. The far side, which will be moonlit later, is elongated by a long lower less imposing wing. This arrangement has adapted well to Tyrella’s 21st century modus operandi. The main block is open to paying guests under the gilded parasol of The Hidden Ireland while the owner, David Corbett, lives to the rear. Another of the group’s seaside properties, almost dipping its toes in the water of Woodstown Bay, is the supremely suave Gaultier Lodge, where the owners live most of the year below the guest rooms in a lower ground floor. “Houses in The Hidden Ireland,” explains David, “must be owner occupied.”

Tyrella House Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Princess Diana famously quipped “three’s a crowd” but clearly squires of 18th century Ulster disagreed. Tripartite windows were all the rage. Their legacy is a series of glazed triptychs framing views of the countryside. And draughts – ménage à froid. The entrance front of Tyrella has pearly twin sets. Fellow Mournes mansion Ballywillwill House likewise has four. Clady House Dunadry has five; Glenganagh House Ballyholme, six; Drumnabreeze House and Grace Hall Magheralin neighbours, eight; Craigmore House Aghagallon, 10; Crevenagh House Omagh, numberless. Tyrella’s windows are even more special, stretching head to toe, and like Montalto’s, skirt the driveway. Standing in the regal dining room is like “Hardwick Hall more windows than wall”. Soon, silverware will sparkle in the candlelight. Pictures and conversations will merge. Sitting in the princely drawing room is like being immersed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of her home, “The few large living rooms at Bowen’s Court are, thus, a curious paradox – a great part of their walls being window glass, they are charged with the light, smell and colour of the prevailing weather; at the same time they are very indoors, urbane, hypnotic, not easily left.” Lying on the queen size bed as the internal pale transitory colours of the hour fade, dreams past and future are present. Outside, framed by the curved sashes of the half oriel window, across silent lawns, the tamed headland lies submerged in shadow, the ridge of the Mournes melting into silver drifts of cloud alight with gold, lilac, mauve and pink lining.

Tyrella House Entrance View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The original architect isn’t known but whoever he was, the outcome is a meeting of métier and form, augmented and mellowed through the ages. According to illustrious architect John O’Connell, “This is a very accomplished Georgian box, as they used to say.” Architectural aficionado Nick Sheaff reckons it is “an incredibly elegant country house, and in some ways it reminds me of James Gandon’s Abbeville”. Better known as Charlie Haughey’s old gaf. Charles Plante, the celebrated director of Charles Plante Fine Arts, says, “I love the front dripping with ivy and the chic Regency bow window.” Three arched openings – a window on either side of the entrance door, are framed by a slim Doric portico celebrating the triglyph’s verticality, the architrave’s horizontality and the proportional totality of the order. Not dissimilar really to the central arrangement of Clandeboye’s garden front. “It’s Tuscan Doric,” confirms Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell. “Tuscan is rural, countrified, perfectly correct for this type of house. The window proportions are dictated by the portico. That’s particularly attractive.” A stained glass window of the Craig family crest in the study is a leftover from previous owners. Notable family members included the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James “Not an Inch” Craig (1st Viscount Craigavon) and his architect and yacht designer brother Vincent who combined both his skills at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club Ballyholme. The 3rd and last Viscount, Janric Craig, born in 1944, sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. A retired accountant, he has a handy flat on Little Smith Street, Westminster.

Tyrella House Garden View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Vincent clearly employed his skills closer to home as well. At home. Tyrella features his signature idiosyncratic fenestration. No fewer than four oeils de boeuf grace the garden front. Charles Plante reckons, “The garden front is charming. The bull’s eye window in the gable is really special.” Most extraordinary of all, amidst the blaze of Arts and Crafts stained glass, is the first floor upper casement window which projects at an acute angle to appear permanently ajar. Zany stuff. “Vincent more than likely introduced the ceiling beams and light fitting to the hall,” suggests David. “And he designed the hall fireplace. It’s very Malone Roadsy!” This airy space is painted a deep ochre which Charles Plante calls “John Fowler orange”. Upstairs Free Style panelling looks suspiciously Vincentian. A bit of Cadogan Park here, a bit of Deramore Park there. So does the recently reinstated conservatory. “The conservatory is actually almost entirely new except for the brickwork. It took three years to recreate. The pale green paint inside is the original colour.” Maybe Tyrella House isn’t quite the chunk of Georgiana it first appears to be. “The middle bit behind the new Regency addition,” he explains, “is William and Mary.” The house used to be even bigger. “My father demolished about a third of the house – the cream room, jam room, butler’s pantry, the dark kitchen and so on.”

Tyrella House Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella was the seat of Reverend George Hamilton and his wife Ann Matilda (daughter of the 5th Earl of Macclesfield) at the close of the 18th century. Rural legend has it that the Reverend used the stones from the old local church to rebuild the house in 1800. Arthur Hill Montgomery bought the estate in 1831 aged 36. Six years later, Samuel Lewis records in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, “Tyrella House, the handsome residence of A H Montgomery Esq, is beautifully situated in a richly planted demesne of 300 acres, commanding extensive views over the bay, with the noble range of the Mourne Mountains in the background, and containing within its limits the size and cemetery of the ancient parish church.” Arthur was the fourth son of Hugh Montgomery of Greyabbey House down the road. Bill Montgomery, a great-great-something-great-grandson of Hugh, still resides at Greyabbey with his wife Daphne. Their daughter is the actress Flora Montgomery who’s married to the owner of 1 Lombard Street restaurant. “I hate to disappoint you,” David says on the subject of ghosts. “All the people have sold the house and went on to do something else. Spent money on it, changed hands. I don’t miss ghosts, wouldn’t want one.”

Tyrella House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s time for that dinner in the spirit free dining room. Plat du jour du nuit. Such joy. A love song to Northern Irish cuisine. Spinach and ricotta tartlet | stuffed sea bream | mascarpone, raspberry and lemon tart. Fitzrovia’s Pescatoria relocated. Best seafood since the roast fillet of curried cod with oyster mushrooms and herb butter sauce at the O+C. Or the sous vide salmon cooked by Paolo Pettenuzzo at the C P Hart party. The diver scallop crudo, cucumber, black radish, jalapeño and lime ice at the London Edition Berners Tavern springs to mind. Or even the creamed cheese and smoked salmon Westbourne breakfast with Natalie Elphicke OBE. Chatting about Conservative housing policy, Chief Exec of the Housing Finance Institute Natalie summed it up as, “Something old, something new, something borrowed – Lord Adonis, who’s turned blue.” Stop! Tangent alert! What’s the story? Oh, Renideo Pinot Grigio 2009 and St Jean Pays D’Oc 2012 over dinner at Tyrella House. The dining experience isn’t always this peaceful according to David. When Country Life visited in 1996, dinner was interrupted by ebullient bovine neighbours nosily emerging from between the rhododendrons. Country Life published “during dinner a herd escaped and raped the garden like a Mongol horde”. David smiles, “Overweight marauding rogue cattle licking the dining room windows wasn’t the look we were going for at all!” At least Country Life did also mention the flourishing polo school at Tyrella.

Tyrella House Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Conservatory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Nursery Wing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Entrance Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Twin Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Double Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Tea Set © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Strand © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach Mournes © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach Newcastle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Descendants of the last owners, the Robert Neill and Sons Ltd dynasty, recall early 20th century life at Tyrella, in a Lavender’s Blue exclusive. Coline Grover says, “I lived in the house with my grandparents, and relatives various, from 1940 until they sold it in 1949, and moved with them to Old Forge House in Malone, south Belfast. Tyrella House was wonderful with a swing house underneath the nursery wing. It was incorporated into the property and had two marks on the ceiling where if you went high enough your feet touched the ceiling! And there was a rock garden with a two storey playhouse called Spider House.” Coline’s cousin-in-law Ian Elliott adds, “The Georgian house had a boudoir and some lovely Arts and Crafts additions – and that fabulous view to the Mournes. It was bought by the Neill family – brothers Jack, Samuel and William – as part of their businesses (coal, construction, farming etc) in the 1920s after the 1st World War. They already owned East Downshire Fuels in Dundrum as well as Neill’s Coal in Bangor, Kingsberry Coal and Bloomfield Farm (where the shopping centre is now). The family circle elected Billy Neill to live and farm there with his wife Vera. She was formerly Phelps from Kent, a direct descendant of Jane Lane who helped Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester in the 1640s. They raised their three children (including Berry) there. The Corbetts (whiskey distillers from Banbridge) have owned it since 1949.” Coline’s brother Guthrie Barrett concurs that “Billy Neill sold Tyrella in 1949”.

Tyrella Beach Sunset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I haven’t been back to Tyrella House since 1949,” says nonagenarian Beresford Neill, otherwise known as Uncle Berry. He lives in Malone now. “A most wonderful childhood. Absolutely beautiful. Tyrella was completely and utterly the back of beyond. For goodness sake, it was completely feudal. There were no neighbours. We had our own entrance into the church next door and our own pew.” Berry’s on a roll: “My father got married in February 1917. He bought the estate: 300 acres; a 3.5 acre walled garden; 48 rooms.” Althorp has 90 rooms. Although what constitutes a room is a moot point. Lumber rooms, anyone? “There was no electricity. In 1906 a gas heating machine was installed. It had huge pipes and a great big cage in the kitchen. There was no telephone until 1933. How mama coped I don’t know. We’d a cook, housemaid and three gardeners. There were three bathrooms – one for staff, two for the family. We always had dogs – mostly Labradors. There was a large wood to the side of the house and a rock garden. The rocks were transported in 1890 from Scrabo to Tullymurry by train, then by horse and cart. It was a tremendous effort!”

Mountains of Mourne Sunset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Berry reminisces, “In 1944 I enlisted as a private soldier in the Rifle Brigade. It’s now called the Rifles. It was a very swish regiment. After the War I got transferred to Ballykinler Camp. I spent the whole of 1946 there. I’d a marvellous time! I could walk over the fields from Tyrella to Ballykinler in 10 minutes.” Life wasn’t uneventful, even at isolated Tyrella. “We had the most enormous beech tree but a storm split it down the middle. It was sawn up by a gardener of course but a stump remained. One quiet Sunday afternoon I decided to blow up the remains of the tree. I thought I was the last word in explosives! I got seven anti-tank mines, made a fuse, and set them off. Bang! The birds stopped singing. Silence. Then… tinkle tinkle. The windows shattered. Sheer bloody stupidity! I should’ve opened the windows first!”

Tyrella House View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We don’t usually open to paying guests in November,” signs David, due to ignorant comments about temperature levels inside the house midwinter. Some people really don’t get it, do they? First of all, welcome to Northern Ireland. The clue is in the first part of the Province’s name. Mind you, Huntington Castle in the south of Ireland suffers from the same issue. Secondly, if you want over-insulated overheated rooms check into a hotel. Don’t stay in an Irish country house. They don’t do double glazing or underfloor heating. But they do have lashings of character, history and art; uncompromised aesthetics; and endlessly entertaining hosts. What about open fires in marble surrounds? De rigeur. Like those other majestic Hidden Ireland gems, Hilton Park and Temple House, heavy curtains and concertina shutters in Tyrella’s guest bedrooms put to sleep any worries of chilly discomfort. A newly installed biomass boiler also helps. “I’ve still kept the 1906 boiler with its original instruction manual. It’s beautiful – like a beast of a furnace on the Titanic.”

Tyrella House Spider House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And bags at dawn. Peering over the bedroom landing, the oval staircase resembles a gargantuan pencil sharpening, a bannister bordered carpeted curlicue, a variation on the Fibonacci spiral. Downstairs, breakfast is laid out country house style – buffet on the sideboard. “I do recommend Lindy Dufferin’s Greek Style Yoghurt,” says David. Distinguished historian Dr Frances Sands announced recently at 20 St James’s Square: “Breakfast was the only meal of the day you served yourself. That’s why there is side furniture in the breakfast room. If there is no separate breakfast room, really then the dining room should be referred to as the eating room. There was a huge fear of odour in Georgian times. The eating room would’ve had no curtains, carpet or silk wall hangings. Seating would’ve been leather.” The dining room or should it be eating room was once the billiard room according to the host of Tyrella House.

Tyrella House Sea Bream © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It is impossible to leave Tyrella without mentioning the beach. The Mountains of Mourne thrillingly tower over miles of unspoiled golden strand between Clough and Killough (interchangeable townlets after a G+T). “It is no secret that Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s greatest writers,” brags the local tourist board, “Lavender’s Blue, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Louis MacNeice and of course, C S Lewis.” This part of County Down was C S Lewis’s childhood holiday destination and provided literary fodder for Narnia: “I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards, which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.” Coline Grover concludes, “Tyrella Beach never changes of course.”

Tyrella House Dinner © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Credits Guthrie Barrett, David Corbett, Ian Elliott, Coline Grover, Berry Neill

Tyrella House Pudding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architecture Country Houses Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

Sweeneys + Castle Grove Ramelton Donegal

Weathering Well 

Castle Grove Ramelton © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Maidin mhaith. Tiree, Stornoway, Lerwick, Wick Automatic, Aberdeen, Leuchars, Boulmer, Bridlington, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, St Catherine’s Point Automatic, Jersey, Channel Light Vessel Automatic, Scilly Automatic, Milford Haven, Aberporth, Valley, Liverpool Crosby, Valentia, Ronaldsway, Malin Head, Machrihanish Automatic. For the uninitiated that’s the pure poetry of Radio 4’s shipping forecast, a rhapsodic melodic episodic late night cruise circumnavigating the coastlines of the British Isles. Gotcha. The penultimate location, Malin Head, is the exposed most northerly point of Ireland teetering on the tip of the Innishowen Peninsula in view of the Aurora Borealis. The ultimate location in this neck of the island is Castle Grove. Unlike windswept Malin Head, next stop Iceland, this timid estate lies huddled off the Wild Atlantic Way in the sheltered mid southwest wiggle of Lough Swilly, the waterspace separating the peninsula from the mainland.

Castle Grove Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A mile long drive sweeps through 350 acres of bucolic parkland as composed as a Derek Hill landscape; a wave of anticipation rises, then behold, a house kinda four square, an abiding place of great and unsearchable things. Like two faced Clandeboye, the principal elevations stand proud at right angles to one another. Face to avenue, face to sea. Castle Grove isn’t like Edward Lovett Pearce’s poppet of Palladian perfection Bellamont Forest, Ireland’s Mereworth (currently on the market for less than £1 million, 1,000 acres included, the price of a two bed flat in Battersea), designed to be seen from every angle including a drone. Nope, it’s country house front, farmhouse back. The four bay façade with central Tuscan porch qualifies Castle Grove as an older rural cousin of Belvedere House, Drumbo, a “middling sized house” splash in Charlie Brett’s Buildings of North Down. Precious cornerstones, sure foundations.

Castle Grove Lough Swilly © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Subsumed within its solid footprint dwells an older house dating back to 1730 and 1695. A radical makeover brought Castle Grove bang up to date for the swinging 1820s. As the Groves went up in the world, onward marching in the direction of the neoclassical vanguard, so did the height of their windows and ceilings. The resultant idiosyncrasies only add to the house’s charm. Four of the windows on the south facing entrance front are higher outside than in, highlighted when the shutters are pulled and a dark gap appears above them. A shuttered cupboard in the Samuel Beckett Room was once a window on the original east elevation. The shutters are set at a cute acute angle on one side of the dressing room (now en suite) windows of the replacement 1820s east elevation, maintaining symmetry. As do the two blind windows An antique porch astutely fills the vacancy of the central axis on the entrance front. A conservatory, the 19th century equivalent of today’s cinema room, was added to the side. Castle Grove now looks like “a beautiful Regency house” says leading heritage architect John O’Connell. It is a country house repurposed, just, as an airy hotel and restaurant. The eponymous erstwhile owners the Groves are long gone. The hospitable able hosts the Sweeneys are here to stay. Breezily braving the elements alone with nature – and paying guests.

Castle Grove Gate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tráthnóna maith. The eclipse has come and gone; spring equinox is here. Snowdrops have disappeared, daffodils are in full bloom, primroses on their way. It’s time to talk to Mary Sweeney, châtelaine of Castle Grove since 1989. She and her husband Raymond bought the house and estate from Commander Peter Colin Drummond Campbell and his wife Lady Moyra Kathleen Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn’s sister. Commander C inherited it on the death of Major James Grove. Incidentally (there are always lots of incidents in life) Lady M was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s five Maids of Honour at her Coronation. “The land steward and housekeeper kept Castle Grove in good shape. For the first year we lived in the house and opened it as a B and B. We wanted to develop it but not spoil it. The house, it was a real challenge. We wanted to keep the characteristics, the symmetries. We again looked and looked at it. In the end we pushed the entire house back into part of the rear courtyard. The stable wing was already lofted so we retained its front and added a corridor behind linking it to the main house. We didn’t want guests having to go out in the rain. The bedrooms in this wing are just as big as those in the main house. We reroofed the conservatory. We never demolished a wall in the original house. Instead we adapted windows as doors or indoor mirrors. I feel a great obligation to maintain Castle Grove.” This is not Grand Designs or Changing Rooms. This is heritage. This is history. This is Hibernia.

Castle Grove Ramelton Pets Bruce and Dusty © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“When we applied for a dining room addition the planning officers wanted it to be a conservatory. But that part of the house faces northeast and rarely gets direct sunlight! It took a year to resolve, to get our sympathetically designed extension approved. We didn’t want the corner sticking out in views from the driveway so it’s chamfered. We turned the original sideboard recess into double doors under a fanlight. A local carpenter built the doors to match the 1820s double doors between the two main reception rooms. The fanlight is based on the one between the entrance and staircase halls. The original dining room is now the Red Drawing Room and next door is the Yellow Drawing Room. The marble fireplace in the new dining room is a replica from my old home. I jokingly asked Portadown Fireplaces if they could remake it based on a photo and sure enough they did!” The house is filled with modern Irish paintings. Appropriately there are seascapes and mountainscapes aplenty. “Buying paintings from young artists exhibiting their work on the railings of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in summer stemmed our interest. Artists like Maurice Wilks, Liam Jones, Brendan Timmons. Derek Hill gave us his oil painting Donegal Late Harvest. Derek brought many guests here. Really such a humble man and so friendly.” The house is filled with antiques. “We have some stories to tell about auctions! Newark Antiques Fair is good. So is the Mill at Ballinderry. The bed in the George B Shaw Room came from Seventh Heaven outside Chester. The beds are unbelievable there! That bed was made for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. When we bought the four poster in the Jonathan Swift Room we used saddle soap and toothbrushes to carefully clean it before using French polish. Beds and food – they’re so important!” As for the chandeliers, Sia would swing from them.

Castle Grove Ramelton @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Saol maith. It’s time to talk to Mary’s daughter Irene who is managing reception (the former flower room). “The weather is unpredictable in Donegal or perhaps that should be predictable – it rains a fair bit! Donegal may be right off the Atlantic but we’re very inland here. The house has a warm, loving presence. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. Whether this is us as a family, or the building, I’m not sure. The Groves were extremely good landlords, especially during the famine when they fed and educated local children in the long barn. Perhaps this generosity and goodwill has over the centuries seeped into the walls. There’s houses before you know the history, they’re chilling…”

Castle Grove Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Donegal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Entrance Hall Cornice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Yellow Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Yellow Drawing Room Cornice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Chandelier © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Red Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Bed © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Castle Grove Stool © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Fenja, No. 69 Cadogan Gardens (not to be confused with No.11 Cadogan Gardens and not especially chilling) was a flouncy 1980s London hotel. Its 14 chintzy bedrooms were named after English artists and writers like JMW Turner, JS Sargent, Rossetti, Jane Austen. “Our main bedrooms are named after Irish writers including WB Yeats, James Joyce, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde. There are 15 in total, eight in the main house. The exception is the Daniel O’Connell Room. He actually stayed in the house. Daniel wrote back to the Groves after his visit, referring to his ‘answer to the Irish problem’. Mr Grove introduced him to the House of Lords. General Montgomery also stayed here. Mrs Grove invited him from Dublin to stay. We can accommodate 120 guests for a wedding in our Michelin recommended restaurant. Or 150 if the adjoining Red Drawing Room is used too. The bar was once a breakfast room and the TV room a library cum office. We still use the original kitchen. We grow organic vegetables, fruit and herbs in our four acre walled garden.” Here are some incidental stats. The George B Shaw Room measures 14 feet wide by 18 feet deep by 10 feet tall. The wall between the entrance hall and Yellow Drawing Room is 2.5 feet deep. The Yellow Drawing Room mantelpiece projects by a foot. The George B Shaw Room bed is seven feet wide (double queen size?). Then there’s the Yellow Drawing Room cornice. Why have one cornice when you can have five? Reeding, ribbons and garlands, egg and dart, Greek key, squiggle. Not so incidentally, Castle Grove is three miles from Ramelton, Ireland’s most beautiful Georgian town.

Castle Grove Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Irish economy has sailed through pretty choppy waters of late but at Castle Grove the outlook’s bright. Now for a Grove family tree, or perhaps that should be sapling. William Grove, High Sheriff of Donegal, built the 1730 house. His son Thomas was also High Sheriff but died heirless. William’s second son James married Rose Brook. William’s sister Dorothy Grove married John Wood of the 9th Light Dragoons in 1802. They lived in Castle Grove. Their son James Grove Wood was born a year after they married. He became High Sheriff and a barrister. James married Frances Montgomery of Convoy House which is 20 miles south of Castle Grove, close neighbours in gentry terms. The 1806 building accounts of Convoy House record estate leafage of 300 Alders, 200 Scotch Firs, 200 Beech, 300 Larch and 200 Ashes. Their daughter Dorothea Alice married Rev Charles Boyton of Derry in 1871. Dorothea Alice’s brother John Montgomery Charles was born in 1847. Yet another High Sheriff, he was land agent of Convoy House for three years starting in 1890. John married the daughter of Major General William Gabbett, East India Company’s Artillery. John and Lucy’s children included Lucy Dorothea and her older brother James Robert Wood Grove. He was born in 1888, joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1908 and served in the First World War. James married Eileen Edmonstone Kirk of Thornfield House, County Antrim. They were the last of the line to live at Castle Grove. Finally, some mouth watering early 19th century recipes from the Grove family archives. Lots of sic. Strangely, none of them are served anymore. Oíche mhaith. 

Castle Grove Ramelton Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

‘”Marrow Bones

If too long to serve undivided saw them in too; cover the open ends with a lump of paste and a cloth floured and tied close. The paste must be removed before being sent to table. Boil 1½ and 2 hours according to size. Put a ruffle of papar round each & serve in a napkin, with very hot toast. The marrow is spread on very hot toast & seasoned with pepper & salt.”

Castle Grove Lady @ Donegal County Council Archives Office

‘”Raisins Chutnee

Raisins cleaned & minced 2 lbs. Sugar 3½ lbs. Salt 8 ozs, green ginger 8 ozs red pepper 2 ozs garlic ½ ozs. These with the exception of raisins & sugar to be separately well pounded then mixed. Add to them the raisins & sugar & lastly 1 bottle of vinegar. This quantity will make nearly 4 bottles. Fill & leave them in the sun in India but at home cook for about an hour.”

Dorothea Alice Wood Grove October 1861 @ Donegal County Council Archives Office

“White Milk Soup

1 onion. 1 carrot. 1 turnip. 3 cloves stuck in the onion. A little stock made of rabbit vial, fowl or mutton (best of the three first). Put the vegetables in the stock & boil for an hour and a half to two hours. Strain salt through a verry fine hair seive. Then warm 1 pint of new milk and add all these together. Season with pepper and salt. This soup must be made just before using as it will not keep – the vegetables turn the milk sour.”

Convoy House Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“To Prevent Bed Sores

10 grains of the nitrate of silver, to 1 oz of water, to be applied by means of a camel hair brush over every part exhibiting the highest appearance of inflammation, 2 or 3 times a day, until the skins has become blackened, afterwards only occassionally [sic].”

Ramelton Donegal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architects Architecture Art Design Luxury People Town Houses

Architect John O’Connell + The Wallace Collection London

The Great and the Good

The Wallace Collection Perspective by John O'Connell @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Lavender’s Blue on a tour of The Wallace Collection with John O’Connell founder and director of John J O’Connell Architects. Sssh! This Dublin based international practice is responsible for the restoration, rejuvenation and reinvigoration of the galleries which together form central London’s best kept cultural secret. Despite being a Sevres urn’s throw from Oxford Street, The Wallace Collection at Hertford House radiates an air of calm and civility. Perhaps it’s the sylvan setting of Manchester Square. Or maybe the muted acoustics of the glazed courtyard restaurant. There’s nothing subdued though about the interiors of Hertford House. A blaze of historically correct colour awaits. Quiet! The latest room to sparkle once more is the Great Gallery. Mr JJ O’Connell speaketh:

The Wallace Collection Drawing by John O'Connell @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“In principle, each room is enhanced to stress the domestic or private mansion aspect of the main house. For example interconnecting doors between rooms have been reinstated and indeed in the Study we have introduced an entirely new false door to visually balance the existing doorway on the other side of the fireplace. Our main purpose is to provide an augmented setting for the Collection. It is not about re-creating rooms as they were, no, but rather re-presenting them for today’s visitors and scholars. The colour of the Dining Garden Hall is a quieter silver grey. You can’t have hectic colours all the time!” Listen up! Chief sparkler takes a breath:

“This is the size of a city block, the Great Gallery, so it’s an extraordinary beautiful room and what we’ve done is gone and looked at the archived photograph of the room as it was with this lovely laylight which had to be abolished at a certain moment and now with modern technology we can again have this great laylight. This is where you have studio glazing at the top of the roof and it in turn lets light down onto this magnificent laylight so in other words it has a huge amount of natural light falling into the room.

It’s not wallpaper on the walls. It’s the most wonderful possible fabric, silk, and it’s not just damask, it’s a brocatelle, so it’s got even more silk in it! I think that to, as it were, bring the gallery forward into the modern age, you need to get the best possible conditions: lighting, climate control, security, fire safety compliance, decorative effects, so you can bring all of that into this great space. You could only do that if you go right back and lift the roof off because that’s what happened here. You see, the entire roof was taken off and what we have here is a whole new room within the gallery space because this has the technology almost of a railway terminal, when you see the supporting structure, and yet inside it is so beautiful.

Architectural features must do at least three jobs. The oculi in the latticed cast plasterwork punch through the cove: vertical stop, start, stop, start, all the way round the room. They also let more light into the room and act as the return path for the air conditioning. Reinstating wainscoting has curatorial importance. The paintings come to life against coloured fabric above the dado rail and the light coloured wainscot is appropriate as a backdrop to furniture. The gilt fillet of the wainscot is more pronounced than in the preceding galleries. If it was too small it would look titchy; if it was too over the top it would look bonkers. The wainscot must flow along. The Great Gallery enshrines everything we have learned during our 19 years working at The Collection. Everything bar the floor is new.

“I think first of all The Wallace Collection is so multifaceted, the armour, then of course furniture, particularly Boulle, as an architect we love Boulle furniture, this is what we really want! The great thing is here the parameters are set. You can move everything but you cannot acquire and you cannot dispose which is marvellous, so it’s like a game of chess all the time. Everything is of equal importance. The placement of objects is just so important.” Quite so.

 

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Architecture Art Country Houses Design Luxury People

John O’Connell + Montalto House Ballynahinch Down

A Treatise on Georgian Architecture

In Five Paragraphs 

L. V. B. R. T. P. I.

1 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

The Ghosts

“Riddled!” shrieked the 5th Countess of Clanwilliam, after years were already gone since irony, when faced with the prospect of sharing her matrimonial home Gill Hall with more ghouls than an episode of Rent-a-Ghost. “Simply one damned ghost after another!” A card game later, or so the rural myth portends, the lucky Earl won neighbouring Montalto House from a gentleman surnamed Ker. “Phew!” she exclaimed, sinking into a sofa in the first floor Lady’s Sitting Room with its Robert West stuccowork of scallop shells and a brush and comb and a cockerel and fox. The only spirits ever at Montalto are the Jameson bottles rattling on drinks trolleys. Over a wee dram, it’s worth catching sight of the resident albino hare in the 10 hectare gardens on the 160 hectare estate. His son the 6th Earl, in between sewing tapestries, demolished the ballroom and a chunk of the servants’ quarters, shrinking the size of the house by a half. Under the ownership of JP Corry, a famed timber merchant, the east wing and rear apartments also had to be chopped following a calamitous fire in 1985.

2 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

The Arts

Country houses form distinctive works of architecture, with appropriately furnished interiors, and considered as part of a demesne, conceived in all its complexity as a picturesque ensemble of gardens, woods and buildings, they represent what is justly described by John Harris in The Destruction of the Country House as ‘the supreme example of a collective work of art’. But whatever else a country house may symbolically constitute, it was always conceived to be decorated and furnished quite simply as a habitation, and it is that incomparable sense of home that the restitution, restoration and refurnishing of Montalto has sought to preserve for today and tomorrow. The Earl of Moira commenced construction in 1752 by which time a prosperous Irishman could have confidence that his home would remain his castle without having to look like one.

3 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

4 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

5 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

The Orders

Ballyfin is the Montalto of the South, beloved by the KanyeKardashian kouple and all known cosmopolitan denizens. It is no coincidence both houses have benefitted from the hand of heritage architect John O’Connell, plucked from a slim pantheon of heroes. Nor does he spin. Ballyfin is the Morrisons’ masterpiece. John also led the restoration of Fota, another Morrison great. Both Fota and Montalto have Doric porches. He designed a Doric temple for Ballyfin. Order, order! First there were the three orders of Vitruvius’ treatises: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Architect George Saumarez Smith, himself author of a treatise, calls Doric “solid and muscular; Ionic “graceful and light”; Corinthian “grand”. Then Renaissance men Alberti, Filarete, Palladio, Serlio and Vignola added Tuscan (a plainer Doric) and Composite (a hybrid Ionic and Corinthian). The five orders became the established canon, a sacred alphabet related to the laws of nature. Now that’s a tall order. Return to Montalto. Tall round headed windows and niches cavalierly skim the carriageway like crinoline skirts. The central shallow porch is set in a canted bay. In 1837 unlucky owner David Ker excavated the rock under the house promoting the basement to ground floor. Not without precedent, Hilton Park and Tullylagan Manor are other examples of the elevation of an elevation. Tripartite windows and more canted bays on the sides of the house overlook nature tamed as topiary taking the form of spherical shrubs and conical box hedges. The rear elevation with its generous wall to window ratio is a 20th century repair following fire and demolition. Its sparseness, bearing the greyness and eternity of a cliff, recalls Clough Williams-Ellis at Nantclwyd Hall.

6 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

The Interior

A sense of order framing majestic comfort prevails indoors with eight pairs of Doric columns guarding the entrance hall, sentinels in stone. It’s flanked by the dining room and library. Straight ahead the staircase leads to the long gallery, of more than average beauty, an axis in ormolu, a spine of gilt. Trompe l’oeil and oeil de boeuf and toile de jouy abound. The interior, like beauty, is born anew every hundred years. Montalto is a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it – then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, cherishing all beauty and all illusion.

The End

7 Montalto House Spa Ballynahinch © Stuart Blakley

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Country Houses Hotels

The Carriage Rooms + Montalto Ballynahinch Down

Building It Up

1 Carriage Rooms Montalto copyright lvbmag.com

Developed by an early whim of nature, Montalto is imagined to mean ‘high hill’. A sloping driveway rises past brick huts, a hazily remembered transition of the estate’s occupation by American soldiers during the Second World War. A breath of golden haze hovers idly above the sweep of lawns and lake and gardens. Here and there clusters of oaks form delicate groves of shade.

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Ahead, beyond a car park sensitively planted with semi-mature trees, are The Carriage Rooms, a complete, quite perfect thing of beauty, flowing in an even line. This new-born riot of dreams evolved from the keen minds of the clients, Gordon and June Wilson, and the confident logical voice of the architect, John O’Connell. It all began with the 1850s mill, special in a building of special events. Three of the Wilsons’ offspring held their weddings in its unconverted splendour. An idea was born.

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Once it was a one stop shop serving the 11,000 hectare Montalto estate and adjacent town of Ballynahinch. A saw workshop occupied the undercroft with a threshing mill overhead. Now it is a one stop shop for wedding ceremonies, suppers and dancing. The beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces, provide quick sensory impressions against the tapestry of charcoal grey cut stone and burnt red brick walls.

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Like Montalto House itself, the semi-basement level of the mill was excavated during conversion to increase penetration of natural light into the interior. As a result, the front arched window overlooks the chiselled wonder of rocks. “That view acts as a reminder to bridal parties that marriage should be built upon rock solid foundations!” jests David Anderson MVO OBE, manager of Montalto House. A wall has been constructed behind the outcrop to prevent glimmering parallels of light from vehicles in the car park roaring across the room.

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Brick piers and beams conceal air vents in the main space. To one side, a vaulted passageway leads to the crisp darkness of the plant room. The air vent above this streaked artery is exposed to create a more contemporary look. On the other side, a little vaulted bar is lit by a trio of lunette windows. The gradual gradient of a disabled access ramp doubles as a standing area. Candle niches are carved out of the walls.

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“Everything is right, purposeful and has a practical use,” remarks David. “It’s all about delivery of the product. Storage is cleverly incorporated throughout to allow events to flow unhindered.” He confirms The Carriage Rooms are not just for weddings but are also aimed at the conference and performing and visual arts markets. “It’s all about creating an elegant lifestyle,” David adds. “We’re offering a very high end pre-finished product, right down to carefully chosen silver and glassware.”

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He continues, “Quality at every angle is what sets us apart. We have a tried, tested and trusted relationship with our recommended catering partner Yellow Door.” Guests can stay over in the gorgeous quarters of Montalto House, the former residence of the Wilsons. Their market research included jaunts to other top notch locations like Ballywalter Park, Belle Isle and Crom Castle. Grandson of Fred, the great FG Wilson, managing director David Wilson’s accountancy skills and venue manager Keith Reilly’s organisational acumen add to the equation equalling success. The Carriage Rooms have become a race apart. There are no plurals.

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Attached to the former mill is a smart new two storey rendered block portraying a pleasing preponderance of wall over window. A glazed door opens noiselessly into the magnificence of the entrance hall. Fresh and vigorous, this hall derives its resonance from its very articulateness. The yellow glow and blue shadows of an open fire flicker across its symmetrical features.

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The conference room links the entrance hall to the 1850s building. It is a radiantly imagined intervening parlour of politeness. The ceiling is formed of rows of brick and tile vaults. “You won’t find wall to wall Colefax and Fowler here!” jokes David. Instead is a robustly rural neoclassicism – brick cornices, carriage lamps, steel capped beams and granite fireplaces surrounding chamfered cast iron insets – perfecting a brilliant, permeating symbolism.

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The double height staircase hall adjoins the entrance hall. Cantilevered granite flights of stairs climb in radiance, overlooked by the translucent feminine languor of upper level Juliet balconies. Accessed off the staircase hall is a discretely placed lift lobby.

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The threshing mill is now the banqueting hall: somewhere to lunch on trout, avocado and a pint of Californian wine. “It has a great view from every window,” observes David. Several of the brick arches were reopened, the barn doors downgraded to shutters. The difference in levels becomes apparent in this room which is first floor to the front but opens onto the stable yard at ground level to the side. An arrangement of interior lights at the top makes a sort of floating fairyland. Under the high ceilings the situation seems so dignified.

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Lunching together en masses, warmed with liquor as the afternoon begins, floats airy, inconsequential chatter and high-pitched laughter, above all the banqueting hall is another reminder of John’s love of the symmetric. Short hallways on either side of the ground level elevation lead to neat single bay single storey singular pavilions of projecting perpendicularity. One links to the kitchens; the other to the bride’s bathroom.

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Symmetry, harmony and balance reach an apex on a central axis in the brick faced orangery where indoors meets outdoors. Below the parapet, pairs of French doors surmounted by fanlights fragmented by umbrella spike glazing bars open gracefully onto a terrace. The wealthy, happy sun glitters in transient gold through the thick windows of this magical, breathless room. A curious lightness permeates the rarefied air. This is a room where the solid, soft gold of the walls yields to the greenery of the exterior. It dazzles the eyes. “This is The Carriage Rooms’ architecture at its most formal,” notes David.

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Beyond lies the walled garden, fragrant with a host of flowers, a place for promenaders on a protracted circuit to digest sandwiches and sundaes eaten for lunch. The troubles of the day can arrange themselves in trim formation in this civilised setting. Annexed off it, crowded with planets and nebulance of cigarettes, is the smoking area, half enclosed by a symmetrical sweep of fencing. A narrow path that winds like a garter round the building descends towards the entrance front for a few more gorgeous moments.

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Subtle and intricate, The Carriage Rooms exude a confident charm. A white radiance is kindled that glows upon the air like a fragment of the morning star. It is a place for débutantes, rakes and filles de joie to accept the wealth of high finance and high extravagance. The Carriage Rooms are a venue to deliver extreme happiness in the awakening of flowing souls.

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