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Ireland’s Blue Book + Bishop’s Gate Hotel Derry Londonderry

Merry Girls

“The sun always shines on the righteous!” claims hotelier Astrid Bray and sure enough the clouds fade to reveal an unblemished cobalt blue sky over the Capital City of Northwest Ulster. For once it’s not “foundering” as the locals would say. Depending on your persuasion, the name of this place is a four syllable binational portmanteau (Londonderry), a three syllable aristocratic surname (Londond’ry) or a rationalist nationalist two syllables (Derry). The city is one of two in Northern Ireland to share its name with its host county; Armagh does as well (Antrim doesn’t count as it is a mere town and county).

We’re here for Sunday morning sunny side up (eggs benedict with halloumi) breakfast at Bishop’s Gate Hotel next to one of the arched entrances to the Walled City. This much praised hotel is a member of Ireland’s Blue Book. We’re no strangers to the collection. Recent jaunts have included Belleek Castle, Ballina, County Mayo; Astrid’s favourite Bushmills Inn Hotel, County Antrim; Castle Grove, Ramelton, County Donegal; Coopershill House, Riverstown, County Sligo; Castle Leslie, Glaslough, County Monaghan; Dunbrody House, Arthurstown, County Wexford; The Merrion Hotel, Dublin; and the truly majestic Marlfield House, Gorey, County Wexford.

Sisters Margaret and Laura Bowe are joint châtelaines of Marlfield. Laura is Chairperson of Ireland’s Blue Book. “Now entering its 47th year,” she explains, “our collection of properties and restaurants continue to offer luxurious, memorable and unique experiences across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland… We are very proud of our chefs and patron chefs, with many of our restaurants boasting one and two Michelin stars.”

Guests at Bishop’s Gate Hotel are greeted by a framed picture of a quote by the sage Madame Lily Bollinger, clearly not the abstemious sort: “I drink when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” Equally educational are a series of framed architects’ drawings illustrating the genesis of the architecture of the hotel and other significant buildings in Derry.

Originally two townhouses dating from the 1800s, the site was purchased by the Northern Counties Club at the end of that century. International architect Alfred Forman transformed the private residences into the members’ club. The new owners have retained a clubby feel to the hotel with well stocked bookshelves displaying photos of Northern Counties Club visitors such as Winston Churchill, William Butler Yeats and Derek Hill. And they serve great grub.

Like all cultural tourists to the city, we ask our waitress for directions to the Derry Girls mural. “Not a bother!” she enthuses. “Just like a lollypop lady I’ll direct you!” Her shortcut is through the rear of the hotel. “This room used to be a garden and that’s a covered up well in the corner. The house where the hotel is now was used to hold prisoners during the Siege of Derry. They were able to travel underground from here to a well on Shipquay Street and from there across to boats on the River Foyle to escape.”

Before the very much larger than life mural, we’re off for alfresco mid morning coffee in the Hidden City Café. Outside seating is in the adjacent Garden of Reflection decorated with Tim Ward’s glass artwork. The west bank enclave surrounding Bishop’s Gate Hotel has a real Georgian Dublin meets bohemian Galway vibe. So much history. But the question on everyone’s lips is when is the third television series of Derry Girls coming?

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Rathmullan House + The Tap Room Donegal

Aalto Pitch | Lucid Camera | A Play on Words | Studium et Punctum

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“The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both,” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

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“Ireland is a staging point beyond Europe and the New World,” Professor Finola O’Kane of University College Dublin told us. Nowhere does it feel more so than in Donegal. A place of wild geese: the constant iterative of land carries a long shadow. A depth of field. Like its distant neighbour Castle Grove, Rathmullan House has been a hotel for more than half a century now. The house was originally built in the 1760s by the Anglo Irish Knox family (really Scots Irish as they hailed from Scotland but the term Anglo Irish is liberally applied to Plantation settlers). Anglo Irish: aristocrats | no portmanteau | universally accented | no translations. Rathmullan House later became the country retreat of a Belfast merchant family. The Batts doubled the size of the house in 1870.

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Its long Victorian stuccoed façade is anchored by a central canted bay window and one at either extremity. This proliferation of projections is rivalled only in the Province by Benvarden House in Ballymoney with its two bows and two canted bays. At Rathmullan House they act as framing devices, freezing the corrugated surface of Lough Swilly below the tattered theatre of a thundery sky mid afternoon. Honeycomb punctured vertical bargeboards peek out from the side elevation dormers, silhouetted against a sky turned powder blue. All changes again with the descent of a crimson tinged sunset: bloody inland.

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“Every photograph is a certificate of presence.” Roland Barthes

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An enfilade of five antique filled commodious yet intimate rooms stretches across the façade. “Almost all the furniture was auctioned when the Batts sold the house. There are just two original items. My grandmother bought the tub chair and the painting of Charlotte Sarah Batt was bought by a lady who discovered it was too big for her home so returned it to Rathmullan House!” says Mark Wheeler who runs the hotel with his wife Mary. “Henry McIlHenny bought much of the furniture for Glenveagh Castle.” Luscious plasterwork, some polychromatic, adds richness to the rooms.

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In 1966 the first generation of the current hotel owners, Mark’s parents, employed the architect Liam McCormick to add a dining room extension with tented ceilings. “Liam was a great sailor,” explains Mark, “and the ceilings are hung with the silk used for yacht sails. Their shape was inspired by the Indian arches in the Rajah Room.” The dining room is formed of interlocking octagons, pagoda-like structures taking the Victorian chamfered bays to their logical geometric conclusion. “The hotel is a popular wedding venue for architecture students,” smiles Mark, “ever since Liam McCormick’s Burt Church won building of the year!” He also designed a smattering of cuboid holiday pavilions in the wooded grounds.

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Such is the Photograph: it cannot say what it lets us see.” Roland Barthes

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Rathmullan House was a departure from his oeuvre. Before his death in 1992, Liam would complete 27 churches in Ireland. Each is recognisably by his hand: with one sweep he felled the cluttered gothic norm with a spare modernist form. Abstraction wasn’t Dr McCormick’s primary goal, “I wouldn’t say it’s studied. My resolution of problems tends to have a sculptural end. I grew up in a physically dramatic countryside; this sort of background inevitably comes into play when I design, and the churches have nearly all been in a rural setting.” The stark white shapes are as integrated into the Donegal vernacular as whitewashed cottages, their outlines as distinctive as Muckish Mountain. The closest of Liam’s seven Donegal churches to Rathmullan are Donoughmore Presbyterian to the south and St Peter’s Milford Catholic to the west.

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Enough waxing lyrical taxing diction. Pizza awaits us in the vaults of Rathmullan House. A stone oven baked base piled high with wild and exotic mushrooms, fior di latte mozzarella, marinated friarielli, garlic, parsley and aged Pecorino to be precise. And then a moonlit walk along the two mile beach at the end of the garden. A rare curlew’s forlorn and faintly human sound assumes an eerie resonance across the still sand. The freedom of the country, far away from the London vertigo.

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“Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” Roland Barthes.

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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