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Luton Hoo Bedfordshire + Katie Ice

The Franco Files

Hoo’s Who. Seriously. It’s that good. The revivification of Countess Markievicz. Luton is the new Paris. Katie Ice swapped a (not so plain) runway for the (plane) runway. The revolution has begun. Game on. As for that legendary niche leap…. the model as ballerina! The hotel’s all it’s cracked up to be and more. Postcard home material. Luton Hoo is to Luton what Versailles is to Paris. Luton Hoo. The country house that looks like a French hotel and is now a Frenchified hotel. Just when things couldn’t get more glamorous, they do. Katie pulls up in a chauffeur escorted Bentley. She looks, as ever, as if she has just stepped off a Parisian photoshoot. Turns out she has. Lady in red and fuchsia pink. Louis Roederer Brut Premier filled volutes in hand, with a lust for living and a gusto of giving it our all, we breeze through the French doors and begin dancing like dervishes across the lawn, spinning in wonder at the infinite beauty of the place and life itself. Is it a lawn? No, it’s a dancefloor this evening. Is that a path? No, a catwalk. A niche? Podium. Pleasure Gardens? Pleasure Gardens. Luton Hoo is a playground for the beautiful and restless.

The estate is some 400 hectares (the same size as Castle Leslie in County Monaghan) with boundary belts of woodland cushioning the impact of the M1 and Luton Airport a couple of kilometres away. It’s amazingly tranquil with lots of wildlife – muntjac deer graze in the grasslands in full view of our bedroom balcony. The River Lea runs along the whole length of the estate and widens in two places to form lakes. We make a variety of photogenic horticultural discoveries from the elevated formal terrace to the sunken rock garden. The 1760s Robert Adam designed stable yard lies south of the house set back from the avenue amongst woodland. A monsoon erupts as we ensconce ourselves in Adam’s Brasserie in the converted stable block. Knickerbockers-returned-to-their-former glory. The walls are hung with stills of actors from the many films set at Luton Hoo: Stephen Fry in Wilde; Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral; Julianne Moore in Surviving Picasso; Sophie Morceau in The World is Not Enough; Jonathan Rees Myers in Vanity Fair.

In 1767 John Stuart the 3rd Earl of Bute, who’d been Prime Minister for barely a year, employed architect Robert Adam to design a country house for his newly acquired estate. Robert Adam (1728 to 1792) was the Robert Adam (1948 to still going strong) of his day. The following century, it was Smirked (Sir Robert Smirke gave it a Greek revival makeover) under the direction of the 3rd Earl’s grandson, burnt, and then re-Smirked (new owner businessman John Leigh rebuilt it much the same as before). At this time, the Ionic portico dominated entrance front resembled that of Mount Stewart in County Down. South African diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher and his wife Lady Birdie bought Luton Hoo at the turn of last century. The pair really went to ville, appointing The Ritz Paris refurb architects Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis (who’d met at the École des Beaux Arts) to transform the house into a Louis the Hooey château with more oeils de boeuf than a cattle mart. It became a country Haussmann.

Elite Hotels acquired Luton Hoo in 1999 and following a restoration and rejuvenation of the house and estate, opened it nine years later to paying guests. The greatest change to the main house was raising the roof from single pitches to mansards – how terribly French! This allowed the insertion of dormer windowed guest rooms on the second floor. In addition to the 38 bedroom suites in the main house, architect Andrew Clague designed a standalone neo Georgian block hidden in the woodlands to provide another 38 suites. Further guest accommodation was created in the converted stables. The Aurora Group bought the hotel and estate in 2021.

Robert Adam architecture; Capability Brown parkland; Fabergé eggs; Gobelin tapestries; Grinling Gibbons woodwork; John Sargent portraits… all the class signifiers are ticked and present. If it was good enough for Queen Mary… There’s even a sapphic staircase. The bulk of the Wernher Collection, more than 650 works of art, is how housed at Ranger’s House in Blackheath. Over Buffalo mozzarella with avocado, Giant Israeli cous cous and mint, and Chocolate orange tart with fresh macerated strawberries served in the drawing room, Katie exclaims, “I love Paris!” In England she models for Mary Martin London. “Mary is like Vivienne Westwood. She is creating fashion for everyone. Mary and Vivienne are both wildly talented – and eccentric! I love hats like my mum. I love when people wear heels, when they dress up. I’m originally from Kielce – it’s such a huge leafy city. I miss Poland but I love England.  I’m very sentimental.” It’s all a bit like The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen’s novel published in 1972, “Gratifying how one’s intimate world contracted itself, how one’s friends always wove themselves in! Society was fascinating, so like a jigsaw puzzle!”

Architecture Country Houses Design People

The Summer House Hampshire + Capability Brown


The Summer House Hampstead View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

One man’s folly is another man’s fort. It’s something of a Tardis, a Marino Casino for the South Downs. The Summer House is really a compact three storey villa disguised as a gothic folly. A delightful conceit. The garden front in particular, when viewed from afar, is dressed up as a toy fort. Only the side elevations display the full extent of the building: the attic hidden behind the quatrefoil punctured parapet and the lower ground floor concealed behind the grass mound.

The Summer House Hampstead Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

There are two entrances on the façade. One is up a triumphal flight of steps; the other is through a grotto arched under the steps. Where’s a hermit when you need one? Indeed, a hermit was found for an especially authentic party a while back. From a distance, at least with an unhealthy dose of Impressionistic myopia, the flint walls appear to be made of pebbles and shells.

The Summer House Hampstead River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House sits in the centre of a landscaped park. Just as carvings aren’t carvings unless they’re Grinling Gibbons and carpets aren’t carpets unless they’re Aubusson, so parkland isn’t parkland unless it’s Capability Brown. Fortunately not only did young Lancelot design this park (and lake) but he might even have had a hand in the house itself.

The Summer House Hampstead Walk © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Parkland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Terrace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Topiary © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Hedgerow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Pedestal © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Statuary © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Avenue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Steps © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Approach © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Chinoserie Bridge © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Vista © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Urn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Summer Housem © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Summer House Hampstead Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It was built in the late 18th century as a bath house for the Norman Irish 11th Earl of Clanricarde. Running beneath the building is a canal, a tributary of the River Meon, which originally fed the windowless lower ground floor bathing pool. The octagonal pool room is now, with great aptness, a bathroom. The octagonal Chinese wallpapered dining room above benefits from a canted bay window. Stalking light, drawing with light, the dining room overlooks a 200 metre long terrace which overlooks That Park which overlooks the Meon Valley which overlooks Old Winchester Hill. This weekend it’s Narnia.

The Summer House Hampstead Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The internal arrangement lends more than a certain sense of country house grandeur. Meals are carried on trays up a double height staircase hall (with a little detour via the drawing room) connecting the lower ground floor kitchen to the dining room. The enfilade of piano nobile reception rooms separates the lower ground floor master bedroom from the top floor guest rooms. Positive negative space.

The Summer House Hampstead Library © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Bath House | The Dower House | The Gardener’s House | The Summer House. A perennial eyecatcher. It’s not summer this weekend but rather very late winter: spring solstice. Snowfall has brought monochromatic elegance, a binary gamut. White noise, white mischief, white magic. Perfect for capturing indecisive moments, framing representations. Everything is more defined, more sculptural: a temporary white phantasmagoria. “I hope you enjoy working in the art world,” beamed Julia Korner, Fine Art Consultant and Agent, Maritime Specialist and Lecturer at the BADA vernissage a few days previously. One man’s folly is another man’s forte.

The Summer House Hampstead Joseph © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture People Restaurants

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.