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Mourne Park House Kilkeel Down + The Earls of Kilmorey

The Four Winds of Heaven

The first time we visited Mourne Park House, November 1992, the recently widowed Julie Ann Anley whisked us off on a whistlestop tour. “It’s great!” she laughed. “No one ever bothers us here because the house isn’t architecturally important.” This was no tourist attraction. The country house as time capsule may have emerged as a phenonomen in the Eighties when Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly was applicable to an extreme at MPH in the wilds of County Down. While the Treasury saved Calke, sadly no knight in shining armour would come to MPH’s rescue.

The last time we visited the house, April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public rummaging over the soon to be dispersed contents. Everything was beginning to unravel. Beige auction labels dangled like insipid baubles from Christmas past, hanging on everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard while the building itself was crumbling at the edges. The auction was the outcome of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Needham Fergus Philip Gore Anley in 1992, dragging through the courts until the opening days of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or inter sibling love, it was finally settled.

“It’s something which all our family very much care about,” Marion Scarlett Needham Russell, Julie Ann’s younger daughter with the looks of a young Liza Minnelli, told us back in 1994. “We’ve always known that this house and its land were non negotiable and it was something we would do everything to keep,” agreed her older sister Debonaire Norah Needham Horsman or ‘Bonnie’.

But by the end of the decade, the close of last century, this harmony of outlook had floundered following much brouhaha over how the estate should be run. Events reached a dramatic climax when Marion removed what she considered to be her fair share of the contents from the house in a midnight flit. Her refusal to reveal the whereabouts of these “chattels” as the courts would archaically call them resulted in Marion spending a week at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only concluded when it was finally agreed that she could keep her share and her brother and sister would auction off their two thirds of the contents.

MPH was the seat of the Earls of Kilmorey (pronounced “Kilmurray”). What is it about the upper classes and their delight in orthographic nuances? Althorp is “Althrup”; Beauchamp is “Beecham”; Beaulieu is “Bewley”; Belvoir is “Beaver”; Blakley is “Blakely”; Calke is “Cock”; Coke is “Cook”; Londonderry is “Londondry”; Monson is “Munson”; St John of Fawsley is “Sinjin of Fawsley”. One gets the idea. The Kilmorey family can trace its roots to the Elizabethan soldier, Nicholas Bagenal, founder of Newry. The 4th Earl of Kilmorey died in 1982. Before his death the family inheritance was rearranged because he had no sons, allowing his English nephew and heir, Major Patrick Needham, subsequently 5th Earl of Kilmorey, to waive his right of succession to MPH in exchange for assets of equal value. And so the title returned to England where Charles I had created the original viscountcy in 1625.

This compromise allowed the 4th Earl’s widow Lady Norah and her two daughters to continue living in the house. Patrick’s son, the 6th Earl, is better known as Richard Needham, a former Northern Ireland Office Minister. He’s now the Deputy Chairman of a vacuum cleaning company and declines to use his Anglo Irish title. However his son styles himself Viscount Newry and Mourne. Nicholas, the son of the 4th Earl’s elder daughter, married Julie Ann Wilson at the start of the Sixties and together they had moved into the stables at Mourne Park. He had inherited the estate minus the title in 1984.

Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it doesn’t boast the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or share the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House, to take two other South Down seats. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Georgian and Victorian are the norm. MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn of local granite and its lavish use of green paint (Farrow + Ball’s Folly Green?) on bargeboards and garden furniture, window frames and porches, and the endless array of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century lending the house a magical nostalgic air. And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house and stables are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130 metres above oak and beech woodlands. A Victorian visitor, William Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park. “The scene… from the front entrance is indeed very fine. Before you, in the precincts of the mansion, is a lake. Beyond this lake, the demesne stretches away with a gently rising slope, which hides the intervening land, till one can fancy that the sea waves lap the lawns of the park.”

The genesis of the current building dates back to at least 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey employed Thaddeus Gallier of County Louth to build the central block. It replaced an earlier house on the site. An architect or ‘journeyman builder’, he had already completed Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned that five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the des res of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, the middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. A glazed porch under the semicircular fanlight partially obscures the double entrance doors in the middle of the three bay breakfront. Otherwise, Thaddeus Gallagher’s façade remains untouched. Relieving arches over upstairs windows introduce a motif he was to later employ at MPH. At Anaverna he proved himself to be a designer of considerable sophistication. His was no vainglorious provincial hand. Thaddeus Gallagher’s son James, who recorded in his autobiography that his father worked at MPH for nine months in 1818, emigrated to New Orleans where he carried on the dynastic tradition of designing fine architecture. His grandson, James Gallier Junior, was a third generation architect and his 1857 New Orleans townhouse is now the Gallier House Museum.

The first of multiple incarnations of MPH, Thomas Gallagher’s design was a typical late Georgian two storey country house with Wyatt windows on either side of a doorway similar to Anaverna’s. Next a third storey was added and then some time after 1859 a new two storey front of the same height was plonked in front of the existing house, so that the rooms in the newer block have much higher ceilings that those behind. The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of the Wyatt arrangement are twin windows set in shallow recesses rising through both storeys with relieving arches over them. It is the combination of these paired windows and gentle arches, like brows over the eyes of the building, which lends the garden front such a memorable look. In the central breakfront the bottom of the shallow recess floats over the entrance door which is treated as another window, flanked on either side by a window of similar shape and size. A low parapet over a slender cornice partially conceals the hipped roof which wraps round the roof lantern over the staircase. Five attic bedrooms are tucked under the eaves with windows overlooking the roof lantern, unseen from the outside world.

Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl – the Kilmoreys had climbed a rung or two up the aristocratic ladder when his father the 12th Viscount was made an earl for his services to the development of Newry – commissioned a ‘famine wall’. This was a method used at the height of the Irish Famine by many Big House families to create work and keep locals from starving. The cheaply constructed three metre high granite walls also benefitted the estate. The 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gatelodges, at this time. Whitewater Gate Lodge was built in the 1830s and Ballymaglogh Gate Lodge in the 1850s.

But it was the alterations of the 3rd and 4th Earls which gave MPH its Edwardian air. “It’s not fit for a gentleman to live in!” raged the 3rd Earl upon his inheritance. His gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows to the garden front and continued up until 1904 when he built a single storey peninsular wing perpendicular to the back of the house. Long Room Passage leads to Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and onwards to the dual aspect Long Room (four pairs of French doors face four sash windows) with its hammerbeam roof, the latter finished in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings in the 1890s with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.

A century or more of each generation making their mark on MPH has produced a fascinating interior full of surprising variations in floor levels and ceiling heights and room sizes. The main block is arranged like three parallel slices of a square cake, each different in essence. The oldest three storey slice at the back of the house has low ceilings and small windows, some retaining their Georgian glazing bars. A row of rooms overlooking the stables is accessed off the Long Corridor on the ground floor, the Rosie Passage on the first floor, and the Servants’ Passage on the second floor. The middle slice contains the Hall, Inner Hall, Staircase Hall and Blue Room, opening off each other like first class railway carriages. The first floor bedrooms in the front and middle slice are clustered together off two lobbies except for the Best Bedroom which appropriately takes pride of place in the middle of the garden front and is the only one to be accessed directly off the landing of the Staircase Hall. The ground floor of the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Dining Room (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?), the Ante Room and the Drawing Room where Sir Malcolm Sargent had once played the piano. A low two storey kitchen and nursery wing parallel to the Long Room wing links with the stables to create a courtyard to the rear of the house. Room naming at MPH clearly follows the Ronseal approach (“It does what it says on the tin”).

All the ground and first floor rooms were open during the auction preview weekend. We began the tour that we’d gone on a decade earlier, only with a printed rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats that had followed us around the first time round. “Come on, get out now!” Julie Ann had bellowed as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two! It’s not as if the cats even catch mice; they just watch them race by.” Now people were talking in mellow hushed murmurs as if at a wake, respectfully leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office, thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.

The Hall, dressed like a long gallery with paintings hung on pale painted (Farrow + Ball’s Wimborne White?) panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, MPH’s most exciting interior moment. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight accessed through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and apertures afford tantalising glimpses of corridors filled with shadowy ghosts. MPH, a Mary Celeste in granite.

Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study has an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room tucked away in the far corner of the house. A seven metre long oak bookcase, used as a temporary display cabinet for the preview (sold for £3,000), and a chesterfield sofa (sold for £800) completed the butch mood of the good Lord’s space. On the other hand, the feminity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was enhanced by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoiserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. Outside, a life size marble garden statue of Ulysses and His Dog by Lawrence MacDonald sold for £110,000. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor. The house no longer felt private.

The main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. Shabby chic, to use another Eighties cliché, sprung to mind. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Ascendancy and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days. In the Billiard Room (or Morning Room), a corner timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declared this room to have been decorated in the early 20th century. Paint (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?) was peeling, curtains were crumbling. An air of faded grandeur pervaded the Long Room. Triumphal flags now in tatters and coloured wall lamps dulled by the passage of time poignantly hinted at past glories and forgotten parties. A suite of oak bookcases had been supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of window openings. One pair sold for £3,000. The kitchen had lost the lived in look that we remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. The rows of ceiling hooks for hanging game had gone. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.

The principal bedrooms – Avenue Bedroom, Corner Room, Caroline’s Room, Best Bedroom, His Lordship’s Bedroom, Her Ladyship’s Bedroom – contained plain sturdy furniture. A mahogany breakfront wardrobe and matching half tester or four poster bed dominated each room, accompanied by a matching desk and pair of pot cabinets. On average the wardrobes sold for £3,000; the beds, £5,000. The bedrooms looked slightly sparse. Perhaps they had been fuller in happier times. Minor bedrooms – Captain’s Room, Chinese Room, Knockcree Room, Garden Room – and servants’ rooms had brass beds (the one on the Housekeeper’s Room sold for £70), lower ceilings, less dramatic views, and were full of clutter. Not for much longer.

“People say it’s as if time stood still in the house,” Philip Anley told us on the opening day of the auction. “That’s a tribute to mum,” he added, acknowledging Julie Ann’s efforts to maintain MPH while working full time as a teacher. Sales had taken place at Mourne Park before. Shortly before his death, Nicholas had sold more than half the original 800 hectare estate to Mourne Park Golf Club (since renamed Kilkeel Golf Club), allowing it to extend from a nine hole to an 18 hole course. A decade before he had bought out the interest of his aunt, Lady Hyacinth, which allowed her family to remove various heirlooms in lieu of any stake in the house itself. The inheritance of the title and estate had already split in 1960. However this sale was different. It was “the end of an era” according to Philip.

In the words of Herbert Jackson Stops’ introduction to the 1920s sales catalogue of Stowe: “It is with a feeling of profound regret that the auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sales catalogue which may destroy for ever the glories of the house, and disperse to the four winds of heaven its wonderful collections, leaving only memories of the spacious past.” A rare level of disarming honesty compared to recent excuses for flogging the family silver. Try, “We are delighted that others will have the chance to enjoy objects which it has given him so much pleasure to discover…” Or, “In this sale which has been carefully selected so as not to damage the overall integrity of the collection…” Alternatively, “In order to allow for reinvestment which will underpin the long term future of the estate, the trustees have carefully selected a number of pieces to be sold at Christie’s this summer…”

The raven haired Sara Kenny from HOK Fine Art (she would later set up on her own launching Sara Kenny Fine Art in 2005) conducted the auction raising a total of £1.3 million. Prices were high with dealers bidding against collectors against locals. “My dad worked on the estate so we want some sort of keepsake,” we overheard. It seemed everyone wanted their piece of MPH. Auction excitement reached fever pitch on the last day when lot 1391 came up. It was the ‘Red Book of Shavington, in the County of Salop, a seat of The Right Honble [sic] Lord Viscount Kilmorey’. For those who don’t know, Red Books were the invention of Humphry Repton, a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. He created or transformed over 200 English estates. His mantra was natural beauty enhanced by art. His practice was to complete a Red Book for each client.

The Shavington Red Book was a slim volume encased in red leather containing his proposals for “Improvements” outlined in neat copperplate handwriting and illustrated with maps, plans, drawings and watercolours. Several bidders appreciated its exquisite beauty and historical importance. In the end it went under the hammer for £41,000. The 3rd Earl of Kilmorey had sold Shavington, the family seat in Shropshire, in 1881 to pay for debts his father had accrued. He crammed much of the furniture into MPH. Shavington items auctioned included two early 19th century pieces by Gillows of Lancaster which each sold for £11,000: the Corner Bedroom wardrobe and the architect’s desk from the Library.

Mourne Park estate may not have benefitted from the romantic touch of Humphry Repton but its rugged character, derived from the granite face of Knockcree, remains mostly unchanged from sepia tinted 19th century landscape photographs. The same can’t be said for the interior of the granite faced house. “I’ll always remember the day you visited Mourne Park,” Julie Ann had said, strolling up the old drive, “as the day the boathouse collapsed.” And sure enough, the gable ended half timbered boathouse, which had stood there for centuries, not so much collapsed as gently slipped into the lake like a maiden aunt taking a dip in the water. After a few ripples, it disappeared. Forever.

And so 11 years later, masterpieces and miscellany, a record of Edwardian living in its original setting, is gone, just like the boathouse. It was a sad ending for the collection that formed the soul of one of Ulster’s Big Houses. Sad for the family and for the people of Newry and Mourne whose toil allowed the family to amass a fortune in very fine things. In the middle of the (now) 57 hectare estate still stands the house itself, stripped of its contents, naked as the classical statues that once graced the lawns around the lake, awaiting its fate.

Much Ballyhoo! That was then and this is now. Following the auction, Marion placed MPH on the market. “Life is taking us in a different direction,” she said wistfully. “We’re spending more and more time abroad. So it’s made a bit of a nonsense us being here. Em, so a very difficult decision. But we’ve decided to put the estate on the market. I’m sure the moment that I leave is going to be difficult. But having made the decision, you just have to go with it, really.” Its £10 million boom time price guide soon slumped to £6.5 million then £3.5 million but there were still no takers. Marion clung on, admirably restoring the house and beginning to add suitable furniture. Impressively she uncovered and restored an extensive lost Edwardian rock garden. “It was so exciting,” she enthused, “A bit like an archaeological dig. Every day a bit more would emerge.” A happy ending of sorts, but this is MPH, forever permeated by Ibsenesque melancholy.

In June 2013, Marion and her family returned from holidays to find fire engines lining the driveway. More than 80 firefighters were tackling an inferno which had engulfed the main block. The roof, where the fire had started, had collapsed – molten history. Fire Service Area Commander John Allen said, “Our priorities were, one, to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjoining wings of the building and, two, to save as many of the artefacts in the building as we could. Not only the artefacts in terms of history and legacy, but also, this is a family home where children live. Our intent was also to save their items which were of sentimental value.”

Mourne Park House: the place with the endless postscript. The irrepressible Marion Scarlett Needham Russell has plans to transform the house into a 126 bedroom hotel and spa. Since 2000, Irish architects Mullarkey Pedersen have been working up a vision to convert and extend the house and its outbuildings. The châtelaine confirms, “Since the fire, we have done everything we can to preserve the structure of the building: removing, storing and shoring up where necessary. We’re absolutely committed to seeing the restoration of Mourne Park once again and have open minds as to how this would be achieved. The rebuild is currently on hold until the right person or group comes forward to claim the opportunity.” Is a northern Castle Leslie in the making?

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Architecture Country Houses

Benburb Manor + Benburb Priory Tyrone

Macha’s Twins

Benburb Manor Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Benburb Manor in County Tyrone – red brick, chamfered bay windows, high gables – is like a suburban Belfast villa on steroids. It was built in 1887 to the design of the prolific architect William Henry Lynn when he was in his late 50s. The house is a more restrained version of Castle Leslie and that County Monaghan mansion isn’t exactly externally ostentatious. Perhaps breaking away from his professional partner Sir Charles Lanyon allowed Wills to rationalise his style. Or maybe it was just tight purse strings of his client James Bruce, a Belfast businessman. Stone bands are the only tiny flash of exuberance. James had bought the estate from Viscount Powerscourt 11 years earlier.

Benburb Servite Priory Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Benburb is now a wonderful asset to the community, a hidden highlight of this far flung edge of Ulster. In 1949 the house was bought by the Servite Fathers as a priory. This has broadened into the Benburb Centre, a “house of healing and reconciliation”. Over the years poets (Seamus Heaney) have taught and artists (John Vallely) have wrought works and theatre directors (Tyrone Guthrie) have sought solitude here.

Benburb Servite Priory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The village – all one street of it or maybe two at a push – is lined with delightfully quaint estate cottages. On a balmy Sunday morning in Benburb, there’s the clink of coffee cups in the stables courtyard café; the singing of hymns from the open door of St Patrick’s; the prayerful footsteps of visitors on retreat treading through the forest; the rush of water far below; and the sound of silence at the Hermitage.

Benburb Servite Priory Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Benburb Manorial Estate. Descriptive Particulars of Sale, with Plans and Conditions of Sale, of an Exceedingly valuable and highly important Freehold Manorial Domain containing altogether about 9,290 A. 1 R. 25 P. A splendid Investment in rich Agricultural Land, of which it may be said hardly one Acre is uncultivated. It is also exceedingly well adapted to Residential Purposes, and many Sites for the construction of a Mansion as a central and appropriate Residence for so important an Estate. Benburb is, with the exception of a few Acres, all within a Ring Fence, and is situate between the Towns of Armagh on the South, Dungannon on the North, Moy on the East, Auchnacloy and Caledon on the West, within 40 miles of Belfast, well served by lines of Railway, so as to render it accessible from the parts. The lands are chiefly in arable and grass, well watered and undulating, and the Property as a whole does not differ materially from a well circumstanced Estate in the English Midlands, excepting that the cultivation of Flax here receives primary attention. It is intersected by good hard Roads, and divided into convenient Farms with excellent buildings and cottages.

Benburb Servite Priory Gatelodge © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Village of Benburb is a neat and clean dependency, and is quite of a model character. The ancient Castle and the Manor of Benburb are included, and the whole Property produces more than £9,000 per annum, which magnificent Rent Roll, lately adjusted under a friendly arbitration (where it will remain until another increase is required), offers a specially well secured Income. The Sporting is excellent, and is reserved to the Landlord. Hunting can be obtained within a short distance. The Blackwater bounds a considerable portion of the Estate, and is a capital Salmon River; and as a whole it is confidently offered as a splendid Investment in Land, adapted to the large Capitalist who seeks such an outlet for his money to produce a higher return than can be found in the soil of England.

Benburb Servite Priory Hermitage © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

To be sold by Auction, by Messrs E and H Lumley at the Mart, Tokenhouse Yard, Lothbury, London, on Tuesday, the 22nd day of August, 1876, at two o’clock precisely – in One Lot, unless an acceptable offer be previously made by Private Contract. John Sloan, at the Village of Benburb, will show the Property. Printed Particulars of Sale, with Conditions and Plan, may be obtained of Robert Dixon, Esq, Solicitor, No.5, Finsbury Square, London; Messrs S S and E Reeves and Sons, Solicitors, No.17, Merrion Square East, Dublin; George Posnett, Esq, Enniskerry, County Wicklow; at the Imperial and the Royal Hotels, Belfast; the Gresham and the Shelburne [sic] Hotels, Dublin; the Charlemont Arms Hotel, Armagh; Morris’s Hotel, Dungannon; the Imperial Hotel, Cork; at the Auction Mart, London; and of Messrs Edward and Henry Lumley, Land Agents and Auctioneers, 31 and 32, St James’s Street, Piccadilly, London.”

St Patrick's Church Benburb © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Categories
Architecture Country Houses

Lavender’s Blue + Castle ffrench Galway

Fortissimo

Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?

Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole, Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.

Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.

The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?

Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.

Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.

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Architecture Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

Sammy Leslie + Castle Leslie Glaslough Monaghan

The Rear View 

Castle Leslie Rear View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney, W B Yeats and Lavender’s Blue have all been. The great and the good, in other words. In recent years thanks to Sammy Leslie and her uncle the 4th Baronet, Sir John (forever known as ‘Sir Jack’), Castle Leslie has flung open its heavy doors to the hoi polloi (albeit the well heeled variety) too, rebuilding its rep as a byword for sybaritic hospitality. Visitors from Northern Ireland could be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu – it’s the doppelgänger of Belfast Castle. Both were designed in the 1870s by the same architects: Sir Charles Lanyon and William Lynn.

Castle Leslie Porte Cochere © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Together these architects captured the spirit of the age. Lynn produced a majestic baronial pile with chamfered bay windows perfectly angled for views of the garden and lake simultaneously. Lanyon crammed the house of Italian Renaissance interiors and designed a matching loggia to boot. Fully signed up members of the MTV Cribs generation will find it hard not to go into unexpected sensory overload at this veritable treasure trove of historic delights. Castle Leslie is all about faded charm; it’s the antithesis of footballer’s pad bling. But still, the place is an explosion of rarity, of dazzling individuality. Sir Jack’s brother Desmond Leslie wrote in 1950:

Castle Leslie Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The trees are enormous, 120 feet being average for conifers; the woods tangled and impenetrable; gigantic Arthur Rackham roots straddle quivering bog, and in the dark lake huge old fish lie or else bask in the amber ponds where branches sweep down to kiss the water.”

Castle Leslie Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

We caught up with Sammy in the cookery school in one of the castle’s wings. “Although I’m the fifth of six children, I always wanted to run the estate, even if I didn’t know how. After working abroad, I returned in 1991. The estate was at its lowest point ever. My father Desmond was thinking of selling up to a Japanese consortium. There was no income… crippling insurance to pay… The Troubles were in full swing. People forget how near we are to the border here.”

Castle Leslie Monaghan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Nevertheless Sammy took it on. “I sold dad’s car for five grand and got a five grand grant from the County Enterprise Board to start the ‘leaky tearooms’ in the conservatory. They were great as long as it didn’t rain! And I sold some green oak that went to Windsor for their restoration. Sealing the roof was the first priority. Five years later we started to take people to stay and bit by bit we got the rest of the house done. So we finished the castle in 2006 after – what? Nearly 15 years of slow restoration. “The Castle Leslie and Caledon Regeneration Partnership part funded by the EU provided finance of €1.2 million. Bravo! The house and estate were saved from the jaws of imminent destruction.

Castle Leslie Urn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Leslies are renowned for their sense of fun. An introductory letter sent to guests mentions Sir Jack (an octogenarian) will lead tours on Sunday mornings but only if he recovers in time from clubbing. In the gents (or ‘Lords’ as it’s grandly labelled) off the entrance hall beyond a boot room, individual urinals on either side of a fireplace are labelled ‘large’, ‘medium’, ‘tiny’ and ‘liar’. Take your pick. A plethora of placards between taxidermy proclaim such witticisms as ‘On this site in 1897 nothing happened’ and ‘Please go slowly round the bend’.

Castle Leslie Lake Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

Bathrooms are a bit of a Leslie obsession ever since the thrones and thunderboxes were introduced upstairs. “The sanitary ware in the new bathrooms off the long gallery is by Thomas Crapper. Who else?” she smiles. “We’ve even got a double loo in the ladies so that you can carry on conversations uninterrupted!” Exposed stone walls above tongue and groove panelling elevate these spaces above mere public conveniences.

Castle Leslie Long Gallery Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

In the top lit gallery which runs parallel with the loggia, the 1st Sir John Leslie painted murals in the 1890s of his family straight onto the walls and framed them to look like hanging portraits. Always one to carry on a family tradition with a sense of pun, this time visual tricks, Sammy has created a thumping big doll’s house containing an en suite bathroom within a bedroom which was once a nursery. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Irvine Welsh’s play Babylon Heights.

Castle Leslie Glaslough Lake © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A sense of history prevails within these walls, from the amusing to the macabre. The blood drenched shroud which received the head of James, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, the last English earl to be beheaded for being a Catholic, is mounted on the staircase wall. “It’s a prized possession of Uncle Jack’s,” Sammy confides.

Castle Leslie Entrance Hall 2 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Our conversation moves on to her latest enterprise: the Castle Leslie Village. “An 1850s map records a village on the site,” she says. “Tenant strips belonging to old mud houses used to stretch down to the lake. Our development is designed as a natural extension to the present village of Glaslough.” In contrast to the ornate articulation of its country houses, Ulster’s vernacular vocabulary is one of restraint. Dublin based architect John Cully produced initial drawings; Consarc provided further designs and project managed the scheme. Consarc architect Dawson Stelfox has adhered to classical proportions rather than applied decoration to achieve harmony. Unpretentiousness is the key. At Castle Leslie Village there are no superfluous posts or pillars or piers or peers or pediments or porticos or porte cochères. Self builders of Ulster take note!

Castle Leslie Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-2

That said, enough variety has been introduced into the detail of the terraces to banish monotony. Organic growth is suggested through the use of Georgian 12 pane, Victorian four pane and Edwardian two pane windows. There are more sashes than a 12th of July Orange Day parade. Rectangular, elliptical and semicircular fanlights are over the doorways, some sporting spider’s web glazing bars, others Piscean patterns. “We’ve used proper limestone and salvaged brick,” notes Sammy. “And timber window frames and slate.”

Castle Leslie Grand Piano © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We question Sammy how she would respond to accusations of pastiche. “They’re original designs, not copies,” she retorts. “For example although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age.” It’s hard to disagree. “There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.”

Castle Leslie Paintings © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Later we spoke to Dawson. “Pastiche is copying without understanding. We’re keeping alive tradition, not window dressing. For example we paid careful attention to solid-to-void ratios. Good quality traditional architecture is not time linked. We’re simply preserving a way of building. McGurran Construction did a good job. I think Castle Leslie Village is quite similar to our work at Strangford.”

Castle Leslie Miniatures © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The houses are clustered around two eligible spaces: a square and a green. Dwelling sizes range from 80 to 230 square metres. “We offered the first two phases to locals at the best price possible and they were all snapped up,” says Sammy. “This has resulted in a readymade sense of community because everyone knows each other already. A few of the houses are available for holiday letting.”

Castle Leslie Conservatory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We’re concentrating on construction first,” she explains. “The hunting lodge being restored by Dawson will have 25 bedrooms, a spa and 60 stables. It’ll be great craic! Between the various development sites we must be employing at least 120 builders at the moment. Estate management is next on the agenda. Food production and so on.” Just when we think we’ve heard about all of the building taking place at Castle Leslie, Sammy mentions the old stables. “They date from 1780 and have never been touched. Two sides of the courtyard are missing. We’re going to rebuild them. The old stables will then house 12 holiday cottages.”

Castle Leslie Tearoom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We ask her if she ever feels daunted by the mammoth scale of the task. “I do have my wobbly days but our family motto is ‘Grip Fast’! I think that when you grow up in a place like this you always have a sense of scale so working on a big scale is normal. I mean it’s 400 hectares, there’s seven kilometres of estate wall, six gatelodges – all different, and 7,300 square metres of historic buildings.” Sammy continues, “The back wall from the cookery school entrance to the end of the billiard room is a quarter of a kilometre.”

Castle Leslie Long Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

“A place like this evolves,” Sammy ruminates. “There’s no point in thinking about the good ol’ days of the past. The castle was cold and damp, y’know, and crumbling. And it’s just – it’s a joy to see it all coming back to life. The whole reason we’re here is to protect and preserve the castle and because the house was built to entertain, that’s what we’re doing. We’re just entertaining on a grand scale. People are coming and having huge amounts of fun here. Castle Leslie hasn’t changed as much as the outside world. Ha!” This year there’s plenty to celebrate including the completion of Castle Leslie Village, the Leslie family’s 1,000th anniversary, Sammy’s 40th birthday, and Sir Jack’s 90th and the publication of his memoirs.

Castle Leslie Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

That was six years ago. This summer we returned to Castle Leslie. Our seventh visit, we first visited the house umpteen years ago. Back then Sammy served us delicious sweetcorn sandwiches and French onion soup in the ‘leaky tearooms’, looking over the gardens of knee high grass. The shadows were heightening and lengthening ‘cross the estate. Her late father Desmond showed us round the fragile rooms lost in a time warp. Ireland’s Calke Abbey without the National Trust saviour. He would later write on 11 May 1993, waxing lyrical to transform an acknowledgement letter into a piece of allegorical and existential prose:

Castle Leslie Cartoons © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I am glad you enjoyed your personally conducted tour. We try to make them interesting and amusing. Thanks also for St John – the only disciple who really understood. His opening verses contain more advanced cosmic science than all the modern theorists bundled together. I also love Chapter 17 ‘that ye may be one’. But now, at least, scientists state it all began with the sudden appearance of light from nowhere, filling the whole of space in a billionth part of a second – The Big Bang. Or more simply – ‘Let there be Light. And there was Light.’ As our old friend Ecclesiastes says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ I hope you will come again when you have nothing better to do on a nice weekend.”

Castle Leslie Library © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

On another occasion, Sammy’s sister, the vivacious Camilla Leslie, came striding up the driveway, returning home from London to get ready for her wedding the following week. “Nothing’s ready! I’ve to get the cake organised, my dress, at least we’ve got the church!” she exclaimed, pointing to the estate church. This time round we stay in Wee Joey Farm Hand’s Cottage in Castle Leslie Village, enjoy a lively dinner in Snaffles restaurant in the hunting lodge, and once again, afternoon tea, now served in the drawing room. Meanwhile, Sir Jack is taking a disco nap in the new spa to prepare for his regular Saturday night clubbing in Carrickmacross.

Castle Leslie Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

That was four years ago. Visit number eight and counting. More to celebrate as Sammy, still living in the West Wing, turns 50. Sir Jack would have turned 100 on 6th December but sadly died just weeks before our visit. This time, we’re here for afternoon tea in the rebuilt conservatory or ‘sunny tearooms’ as they turn out to be today. The assault of a rare Irish heatwave, 26 degrees for days on end, won’t interrupt tradition. A turf fire is still lit in the drawing room. ‘Apologies for the mismatching crockery as so many of our plates have been smashed during lively dinner debates’ warned a sign on our first visit. The crockery all matches now but the food is of the same high standard:

Castle Leslie Execution Cloth © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Sir Jack Leslie Castle Leslie @ Lavender's Blue

Miraculously, Castle Leslie still has no modern extensions. It hasn’t been ‘Carton’d’ (in conservation-speak that means more extensions than an Essex girl in a hairdressers). Instead, the hotel has grown organically, stretching further into Lanyon and Lynn’s building. An upstairs corridor lined with servants’ bells – Sir J Leslie’s Dressing Room, Lady Leslie’s Dressing Room, Dining Room, Office – leads to a cinema carved out of old attics. Castle Leslie has had its ups and downs but Sammy Leslie is determined to ‘Grip Fast’! And in response to Ms Leslie’s late father’s letter to us, we will come again when there is nothing better to do on a nice weekend.

Castle Leslie Afternoon Tea © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley