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Ballyfin Laois + Lavender’s Blue

Haven is a Place on Earth

After Ladytown and Gingertown and before Demesne and Borris in Ossory. Past the ‘Squirrels Crossing’ sign next to Deadman’s Inn. Guided by 1,000 flickering lights, all the stars and planets aligning, we finally arrive at Ballyfin. Dawn is gone and noon is soon. Slowly, majestically, breathtakingly, theatrically, on adverb overload those black and golden gates glide back to reveal another world. To quote Elizabeth Bowen in her 1955 novel A World of Love: “a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.” A world of everything. She called these estates “house islands” in her 1942 autobiography Bowen’s Court and Seven Winters. Ballyfin’s walled demesne is more like a “house principality” with hundreds of newly planted trees, dozens of revived vistas and tens of augmented avenues. Two butlers and a manageress stand to welcoming attention on the wide steps of the house. Symmetrically. Later she will whisper “it’s because you love heritage” which is possibly the best excuse ever for a quadruple room upgrade. We’ve luxed out! Our car, keys, suitcases, worries disappear. All we are left with is our anticipatory sense of awe and a louche lust for life. And complimentary glasses of Champers.

There are no equals. Parallels don’t exist. Period. It’s Poles apart. Ballyfin loads the super into superlative. It sticks the hyper up hyperbole. Puts the eggs in ecstasy. And then there are those golf buggies lined up above the haha. Aha, pure unadulterated genius! Pray tell, channelling our outer Tamara in a Green Bugatti, how else are we to explore the 250 hectare estate? Zestfully zipping round from tower folly (lake to left) to picnic chalet (lake to right) to stable yard (lake above) to walled garden (lake below) to boathouse (oops lake straight ahead, all 11 hectares of it), Ballyfin is a deliriously glorious and indulgent playground for rich and cultured adults. This world is our oyster and nobody else’s. We’ve checked in; we’ve checked out. Naturally, on cue ducks waddle ‘cross the lawn to the fountain. A duck is the hotel motif. Ballyfin really is a haven for wild animals and Wild Geese and wild guests. On that (latter, louder) note, why does nowhere ever advertise for “noisy rooms”?

In the 1820s, Sir Charles Henry Coote commissioned multigenerational practice Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison to design a new house on his recently acquired estate. “The ubiquitous Sir Richard Morrison,” as Mark Girouard calls him in Town and Country, 1992. “The son went by the rather wonderful name Vitruvius,” Randal# McDonnell, Earl of Antrim, tells us. Absolutely everybody and we mean everybody raves about the result. Frank Keohane, author of the latest addition to The Buildings of Ireland series, Cork City and County, 2020, believes, “… the interiors are furnished to a degree of perfection and luxury that perhaps only the Morrisons could achieve at this period.” The Irish Architectural Archive (Nick Sheaff et al) published in its 1989 thesis on the Morrisons: “The grandeur and variety of the whole conception and the richness and quality of the decoration are unparalleled in Irish county house architecture.” What Francis Scott Fitzgerald calls “honeyed luxury” in his 1992 novella, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.

Esteemed architect John O’Connell advised on heritage and conservation matters relating to the restoration and rejuvenation of Ballyfin. He relates, “Vitruvius was incredibly inspired by everything he saw, although he was frail – he had weak lungs and died aged 44. Ballyfin vies with Baronscourt in County Tyrone but outstrips it. The Cootes saw Emo Court, the neighbouring estate to theirs, and wanted that. They allowed the Morrisons free rein. Ballyfin is the equivalent of the Czar’s Palace with knobs on, the Villa d’Este of Ireland!” Henry James calls the Villa d’Este one of the “operatic palaces” in The Wings of the Dove, 1902. John notes, “As does happen, the Cootes fell on hard times.” The next owners, the quadruple barrelled Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley family, sold Ballyfin to the Patrician Brothers and after a few decades as a college, a shining Knight and a Madam (to borrow the title of an Irish Knight’s spouse) came to the rescue of the fading pile: Chicago businessman Fred Krehbiel and his Irish born wife Kay. Sadly, Mr Krehbiel passed away in June 2021. They were accompanied by a crack team of specialists, all top of their game, to achieve the greatest ever revival of an Irish country house. The nine year rebuilding took several years longer than the original construction period. “Fred and Kay travelled all the time,” remembers John, “and brought to Ballyfin all of their experiences. They bought really good paintings and furniture for the house. There’s a pair of mirrors by Robert Adam in the Saloon. For them, this larger investment was about the apotheosis of the big 19th century house.”

Of course, John led the brilliant restoration of Fota in County Cork, another Morrison house. Ballyfin is hewn from local Clonaslee sandstone. We recall Oscar Wilde in his 1882 essay The House Beautiful: “The use of the natural hues of stone is one of the real signs of proper architecture.” The reconfigured 20th century wing, part hidden from the avenue by an enormous holm oak tree, is of reconstituted stone. The entrance front of the main block is dominated by a three bay giant Ionic order portico; the rear, by a four bay pedimented breakfront. No boring white window frames here: dark stained timber window frames offer a monochromatic sharpness to the exterior as precise as an architectural print. It was Dorinda, Lady Dunleath, who first alerted us to the aesthetic superiority of dark window frames, referencing the National Trust village of Kearney a few kilometres south of Ballywalter Park on the Ards Peninsula, County Down. Five blind windows perfect the symmetry of Ballyfin’s façade.

A bookcase in the Library is jammed full of awards. Relais and Châteaux Garden Trophy 2014. Relais and Châteaux Heritage Trophy 2017. AA Hotel of the Year 2019. Travel and Leisure World’s Best Hotel Awards 2017, 2018, 2019 and… surely 2021! There have been successful Irish country house hotels before, but when it comes to Ballyfin, there have been no prequels. We idly wander through the chain of reception rooms; in The Diamond as Big as Ballyfin “the upholstery consisted of 1,000 minute and exquisite tapestries of silk, woven with jewels and embroideries, and set upon a background of cloth of gold”. Oscar Wilde again, “And now books: an old library is one of the most beautifully coloured things imaginable; the old colours are toned down and they are so well bound, for whatever is beautiful is well made.” One stack of books, a snoresville of Parliamentary Debates, isn’t what it seems: the titles are merely book spines concealing a jib door into the Conservatory. Marlfield House in Gorey, County Wexford, finally has some competition; talented architect Alfred Cochrane’s glass act being the defining country house transparent moment of the 20th century. Some visual jokes are more recent like the suit of armour sporting Vilebrequin boxer shorts on a half landing.

The vastness of the estate swallows everyone up. Deep in the Irish midlands, we’re lost below the shadowy climbs of Slieve Bloom. John observes, “Jim Reynolds designed an incredibly well prepared landscape in the context of John Sutherland’s 19th century parkland.” This includes the extraordinary cascade flowing down the hill from John’s Claudian temple to the terrace in front of the garden elevation of the main block. “Claude Lorrain was a great 17th century French painter who created huge enigmatic landscapes embracing the whole of the Greek and Roman worlds,” John reckons. “The Claudian landscape became the ideal 18th century English landscape – spare, Protestant-like.” Only at pre dinner drinks will we meet the Irish, American and French occupants of the other 19 guest rooms. Thankfully everyone has rigidly stuck to Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “People should not mar beautiful surroundings by gloomy dress…”

The hotel years. What gives? Nothing. Not us. We’re staying put. Or rather going Coote Suite tout suite. Holed up in the Sir Charles Coote State Room thank you very much, which we’re reliably informed is the only ground floor suite in the main house (the Viceroy Room is 20th century). And boy, do we only do main house. It’s taken us quite a few generations to escape the servants’ wing and we’re certainly not voluntarily returning there anytime soon. Ballyfin mostly doesn’t do modern, phew. An ancient stone sphinx guards our bedroom window (not that we’re completely averse to night time visitors). We’re in the noisy room (us, not the environs). How many doors does a suite need? There’s the jib door below the flying staircase landing pushing through the wall thickness to the main bedroom door; curved doors to the cloakroom and bathroom lobby; then a cast iron door creaking into the bathroom. “This bedroom was Sir Charles’ office and the bathroom was his gun room,” explains John. “The arrangement was very strategically planned so that he could watch over the avenue and the yard.” The ceiling is a riot of much arching, apsing, cornicing, coffering, coving, dentilling, detailing, resetting and vaulting. A handwritten card from General Manager Peter White is propped on top of the Fornasetti set of drawers. The fourposter is a plotted knotted tented oriented plateau of impossible indelicacies! Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love is relevant, “The fourposter, of a frame immense, was overdraped with more of the damask stuff…” A huge marble bath with bronze lion head taps (Drummonds naturally, a reminder of home) overlooks the lower ground floor courtyard with its ever flowing fountain. Draped over the bath are the heaviest white towels and bathrobes imaginable.

Candlelit dinner is served in the Dining Room. Wow! Weyhey! Yeah! Suddenly, unexpectedly, the cascade beyond our window erupts and alights in a flow of waves and an impossibly surreal pyrotechnic display of Jamesian Catherine wheels. The John O’Connell Claudian Temple is ablaze! Nymphs and dervishes, thankfully no banshees or hobgoblins, flitter across the shadowy striped perfected lawn. A custom designed pescatarian tasting menu, sealed with fresh (mind your own) bees’ wax from the far side of the Kitchen Garden wall, guides us along the gastronomic voyage of a lifetime. There will be no sequels. In something akin to our 55 a day, breathe in: Chilled Apple Gazpacho (garden mint, apple compressed in lime); Lightly Cured Trout (garden turnips, lemon, hazelnut); Salad of Ballyfin Seasons; Cod Cooked in Rapeseed Oil (black olive, saffron, fennel); Roast Garden Swede (lentils, herb purée, black garlic); Cashel Blue (onion and sesame sable, Ballyfin honeycomb); Vanilla and Mascarpone Parfait (toasted macadamia, honey truffle). Breathe out.

Wild Geese Wine is a speciality of the Dining Room. Ballyfin abounds with informative historical snippets and the Wine List is no exception.  “Many émigrés achieved fame and distinction fighting in the armies of France and Spain, others as scholars in Irish colleges from Rome to Prague to Seville. Others, still, entered the wine trade in Bordeaux and established great châteaux many of which still bear their names.” John Gebbie summarises the Flight of the Earls, as the enforced emigration is called, in his 1968 Historical Survey of a Parish of Omagh, “The O’Neill lands of this and other parts had become forfeit to the English king, James I, by the flight of the O’Neill leader, Hugh, to Italy, 1607, with consequent abandonment of his estates. These lands, together with O’Donnell’s, were a matter of 800,000 acres. (The six escheated counties thus involved were: Donegal, Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Armagh).” Louie Cullen writes in The Irish Brandy Houses of 18th Century France, 2000, “Irishmen were prominent in the trade of Spain and France in the 18th century; Irish names still survive in streets, trading houses and châteaux… wine châteaux carry the names Lynch, Kirwan, MacCarthy and Boyd.”

The tune “What a Wonderful World” floats through the light air. A bowler hatted musician is in his element showing off his talent on the ivories in the adjoining Saloon. “Hallelujah” follows our favourite “Moon River” then comes the Downton Abbey theme. A “rococo harmony” straight from The Diamond as Big as the Ritz delights. “Music, plangent and unobtrusive…” To recycle Henry James’ character Densher’s phrase in The Wings of the Dove, how “delightfully rococo”. Each piece is imbued with novel meaning and nuanced memory. We’re up for him playing the Victorian hymn “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop” although we’d like him to skip the line “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below”. Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, once shared she was fascinated by properties “from palaces to pigsties”. We’ll settle for the former. Min did tell us Irish country houses held a special place in her heart; she was a member of the Irish Georgian Society. Long after our stay at Ballyfin, like Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s character John, we “remembered that first night as a daze of many colours, of quick sensory impressions, of music soft as a voice in love, and of the beauty of things, lights and shadows, and motions and faces”.

Head Chef Sam Moody runs the kitchen at Ballyfin; he cuts the mustard and knows his scallions: “The best meals start with the best ingredients and breakfast is no different. For 150 years or more the apple trees in our orchard have provided their fruit for the house. Apples are collected and pressed each autumn for you to drink throughout the year as Ballyfin’s famous apple juice. Some chickens are lucky enough to call Ballyfin Demesne home; you can stroll up to the top walled garden and collect a few eggs for breakfast and we will happily cook them. Honey is produced by our busy bees in the quiet northwest corner of the estate. Bernd Schuh looks after our bees and extracts the honey for you to enjoy.”

A breakfast menu snippet reads, “The popularity of blue and white china across the globe in the 1700s could not be ignored. America and Europe were flooded with imports from China that were incredibly popular. It was in 1784 that Josiah Spode I perfected the process of under glaze printing on earthenware with tissue paper transfers made from land engraved golden plates. Initially the designs were sympathetic reproductions of the Chinese porcelain that had been incredibly popular during the 1700s but soon Josiah launched original designs such as Willow, circa 1790, and Blue Tower, 1814. Our breakfast china has been selected for Ballyfin as a china typical of the period when the Cootes first welcomed guests to the house.”

The back stairs that once threaded together the service and polite rooms of the house now provide access to the basement bar and swimming pool in the rejigged 20th century wing. “The Ballroom above the swimming pool was the old refectory of the college,” relates John. “It is wide and long with a low ceiling so to foreshorten the space I have advised painting murals in the ceiling roses.” As Oscar Wilde taught, “About the ceiling: the ceiling is a great problem always – what to do with that great expanse of white plaster.” A snippet in a glass cabinet along one of the later wing corridors informs us, “This is part of the large collection of silver assembled by the Coote family over two centuries. The earliest piece here is a London coffee pot dated 1704 with the crest of the Earl of Mountrath. The latest is a cigarette box of 1907. The silver along with all the contents of the house left Ballyfin when the family departed in 1923. Since then much of the silver has been dispersed. Happily contents of this cabinet returned to Ballyfin in April 2014 when it was disposed of by Sir Christopher Coote. The oak iron bound silver chest in which the silver was stored is now in the Library.”

Another corridor snippet reads, “This piece of Bog Oak was found buried in a peat bog in County Offaly. Preserved from decay by the acidic and anaerobic bog conditions, it could be around 5,000 to 8,000 years old.” These remnants of history along the corridors are counterbalanced by more than a generous helping of modern art cool. Vying for attention are Irish and international paintings: ‘The Divination of Ugber’ by John Boyd (born 1957); ‘Lewis Mumford Says’ by American artist Blaise Drummond (born 1967); ‘Abstract Composition’ by Mainie Jellet (1897 to 1944); ‘Patient’ by Brian Maguire (born 1951); ‘Burning Building’ by Stephen McKenna (born 1939); ‘Bellacorick’ by British artist Hughie O’Donoghue (born 1953); and ‘Untitled’ by Ross Wilson (born 1957). We raise our filled flutes to Oscar Wilde’s observation that there is “nothing in life that art cannot raise and sanctify”.

And now for a vignette of Ballyfin style service. Barely have we gingerly opened our bedroom jib door than the butler comes running. It’s 7am on a Sunday morning. “Coffee?” Now that’s called mindreading. Especially when it means a full pot with plain and lemon shortbread served next to the specially lit fire in the Saloon. What Princess Michael wants, Princess Michael gets. We’re reminded of the composer Samuel Barber’s 1952 experience of Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal: “Joy of joys, peat fires are burning in every room… they call it turf… and burning it has an ineffable perfume, at least for me.” Forget spoons and mouths, we were born with silver trays on our knees. It does result in us being more stuffed that the Entrance Hall taxidermy for our 8am full omelette (salmon and whatsoever things are lovely) breakfast served once again in the Dining Room.

“Even the bill is beautiful at Ballyfin!” smiles the receptionist waving us off and it really is gorgeously presented and amplified by an embarrassment of party favours for the road. Let’s hope our bank manager concurs. The only peccadillo is this: every hotel from henceforth will be an anti-climax. For haven’s sake there absolutely are no equals. There were no prequels; there will never be any sequels. Right down to the three enigmatic cherry tomatoes. Ballyfin isn’t cheap but shrouds have no pockets. The 2020s are the new 1820s and Ballyfin is the only place to sizzle this season. It’s not just the fires that are roaring in these hallowed rooms.

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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