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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!”

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Architecture Art Country Houses

Ambrose Congreve + Mount Congreve Waterford

What a Fad

Mount Congreve Entrance © Stuart Blakley

First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.Mount Congreve Facade © Stuart BlakleyIt took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.

 

 

Mount Congreve Garden Front © Stuart Blakley

Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”

Mount Congreve Driveway © Stuart Blakley

Ambrose was in London rather aptly for the Chelsea Flower Show when he died in 2011, aged 104. He had no children so eight generations of his family’s enhancement of Waterford came to a close. Geraldine Critchley, his partner, survives him. The son of Major John Congreve and Lady Irène Congreve, daughter of the 8th Earl of Bessborough, Ambrose inherited Mount Congreve in 1968 and restored and redecorated and replanted it to within an inch of its being. The good life took off, on a whole new level. Ambrose divided his time between Mount Congreve and his London townhouse near Belgrave Square. He employed a succession of fine chefs de cuisine including Albert Roux who went on to co-found Le Gavroche restaurant.

Mount Congreve Garden © Stuart Blakley

Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.

Mount Congreve Garden Dutch Steps © Stuart Blakley