She lived in the 7th Arrondisement on the Left Bank. “A very charming flat between the courtyard and the garden,” was how she described her French home. “The days go by and I have no desire to move from my house and garden.” Her sister Diana Mosley said, “As soon as possible, in 1945, she got a flat in Paris, where she lived for 20 happy years.” She never lived in England again. Nancy wrote to her mother, “I am so completely happy here… I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coalmine into daylight… Oh my passion for the French!”
It was a charmed existence. “The houses she visited ‘glittered like miniature Wallace Collections’ and the women were generally ‘glittering with jewels’,” records Harold Action in his 1975 biography of Nancy Mitford. He offers tantalising glimpses into her Parisian life: “Highly diverted by the difference of French and English social conventions, full of admiration for General de Gaulle, enchanted by the details and incidental episodes of the Parisian scene, she became ardently Francophile, yet she remained English to the core.”
“For the next 20 years, the happiest of her life, Nancy settled in Paris. Even before settling there she had put these words into the mouth of her hero Fabrice: ‘One’s emotions are intensified in Paris – one can be more happy and also more unhappy here than in any other place. But it is always a positive source of joy to live here, and there is nobody so miserable as a Parisian in exile from his town. The rest of the world seems unbearably cold and bleak to us, hardly worth living in…”
“Always a strenuous walker, Nancy was able to familiarise herself with the intimate old Paris behind the boulevards and the Hôtel de Ville, the quays and narrower streets with high roofed buildings, with the venerable Place des Vosges and the classical mansions on the left bank of the Seine so long inhabited by French nobility whose names had inspired Balzac and Proust. Balzac’s Madame de Sauve might even have suggested Nancy’s Sauveterre. The British Embassy was full of her friends. Our Ambassador Duff Cooper and the glamorous Lady Diana made it sparkle as never before with poets, painters and musicians.”
“Before the end of 1947 she had the good fortune to discover an ideal apartment, the ground floor of an old mansion between courtyard and garden in the Rue Monsieur, which she referred to henceforth as ‘Mr Street’. ‘I’ve got a perfectly blissful and more or less permanent flat,’ she informed in December 1947, ‘Untouched I should think for 60 years. I spent my first evening removing the 25 lace mats with objects on them mostly from Far Japan (dainty). The furniture is qualité de musée – such wonderful pieces, now you can see them.” Her character Cedric sounds positively autobiographic in Love in a Cold Climate: “In Paris I have an apartment of all beauty. One’s idea of heaven.”
Little wonder Nancy was a Francophile and honorary Parisian. Aren’t we all? Rue Monsieur is the Lad Lane of Paris. A tranquil oasis surrounded by all the action. Where Rue Monsieur tips the louche sounding Rue de Babylone to the north of Nancy’s pied-à-terre is the intriguing looking La Pagode. Under wraps for now, this oriental building was built as a community hall in 1896 to the design of architect Alexander Marcel before improbably becoming a cinema in the 1930s. Presumably our favourite female English novelist caught the odd matinée at La Pagode.
“It’s sort of feeble really,” says Min Hogg. “Open the property section of any newspaper and you’ll see page after page of boring beige interiors. I blame technology. People just want to switch on this and that but can’t be bothered to look at things like furniture and paintings.” Her own flat is neither boring nor beige. Quite the opposite. It’s brimming with antiques and art and personality. And magazines. “The red bound copies on my shelves are from when I was Editor. The loose copies in boxes are all the subsequent issues.” Min was, of course, founding Editor of the highly influential magazine The World of Interiors.
“My mum would have made a brilliant Editor but she was awfully lazy,” confides Min. “She always made our houses really nice without any training, none of that, she just did it. She was a great decorator. You bet! So was my grandmother.” Min’s first plum role was as Fashion Editor of Harpers and Queen. Anna Wintour, who would later famously edit American Vogue, was her assistant. “We hated each other!” Min recalls, her sapphire blue eyes twinkling mischievously. “I was taken on by Harpers and Queen over her. She really knew I wasn’t as utterly dedicated to fashion as she was. By no means!” Nevertheless, Anna was the first to leave.
Thank goodness then for an ad in The Times for “Editor of an international arts magazine” which Min retrieved from her bin. She applied and the rest is publishing history. The World of Interiors was a roaring success from day one, year 1981. “I submitted a three line CV,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to bore Kevin Kelly the publisher with A Levels and so on!” It didn’t stop her being selected out of 70 candidates. “I sort of knew I’d got the job. I ended up having dinner with his wife and him that night. I think probably of all the people who applied, I was already such friends with millions of decorators. Just friends, not that I was doing them any good or anything, I just knew them because we were likeminded.”
“Come and have a look at the view from the kitchen, it’s really good,” says Min stopping momentarily. “It’s like living opposite the Vatican,” pointing to the plump dome of Brompton Oratory. Back in her sitting room, the view is of treetops over a garden square, a plumped up cushion’s throw from Harrods. As for choosing an interior to publish, “If I liked it, I’d do it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t! I came to the job with this huge backlog of interior ideas. We never finished using them all. I’m blessed with a jolly broad spectrum of vision, and as you can see, although I’m not a modernist I can appreciate modernism when it’s good. I don’t like Art Nouveau either but I can get the point of a really good example of anything.”
Appropriately Min’s top floor which she bought in 1975 looks like a spread from The World of Interiors. “I don’t decorate, I just put things together. I’m a collector,” she confesses. Eclectically elegant, somehow everything fits together just so. “John Fowler was an innovator. He was frightfully clever.” So is Min. She laments the disappearance of antique shops. And junk shops. “London used to be stuffed with junk shops. Now it’s seaside towns like Bridport and Margate that have all the antique shops. There’s nothing left in London. Just the few grand ones.” Interiors may be her “addiction” but Min is interested in all art forms. She’s been an active member of the Irish Georgian Society ever since it was founded by her friends Desmond and Mariga Guinness. “I love the plasterwork of Irish country houses,” she relates, “Castletown’s a favourite.”
“Mike Tighe, the former Art Director of The World of Interiors, joined me,” she explains. “For me it was a physical thing, cutting out paper patterns by hand. Mike did all the computer work. I learnt to do a repeat and everything else. It’s funny how you can learn something if you’re interested. By pure luck the finished result looks like hand blocked wallpaper. If someone gives us a colour we can match it. I like changing the scale too from teeny to enormous.” It’s a versatile collection, printed on the finest papers, cottons, linens and velvets. Prominent American interior designers like Stephen Sills love it. The collection may be found in a world of interiors from a Hawaiian villa to a St Petersburg palace. But not in any boring beige homes.
Deane Swift generously described Francis (they were friends) as “the greatest painter and architect of his time in these Kingdoms”. His designs tend to group the windows together towards the centre of the façade, leaving a mass of masonry on the corners. This occurs on the façade of Coopershill and at the country house he designed in County Kilkenny, Woodstock. It lends a certain monumentality to the architecture. Coopershill is designed to be seen from all angles: it’s a standalone cubic block devoid of wings, every elevation symmetrical, the house with no back.
There are another two blind windows on the narrower west, or side, elevation. Unlike the entrance, or north, front, they don’t have wooden frames and glazing so are less convincing. “We repainted them to retain the symmetry of the architecture,” he records. But it is the similarity between the two principal elevations, the north (entrance) and south (river facing) which is most striking. They’re virtually identical. It’s a game of spot the difference: the end bays of the south elevation are closer to the corners giving more regular spacing to the window sequence. This even distribution lendsit a more conventional Palladian appearance; the grouping of bays on the north front make it look a little idiosyncratic, somehow more Irish.
The doorcase of the north elevation is replicated on the south except for glazing replacing the door itself. Under this central window, the wall looks unfinished. Could steps have once been there? Or was this elevation originally intended to be the entrance front? “The house took so long to complete,” Simon reckons, “that changes were made during the course of construction. It’s strange how the landing cuts across the Venetian window on the south front. A flying staircase would solve that design flaw!” Indeed a flying staircase like that at Woodbrook, County Wexford, wouldn’t interrupt the landing window. It’s a quirk and a charming one at that. The slope of the land from north to south would reveal the full extent of the basement save for the rubble wall. Below the wall is a kitchen garden which is put to good use for the Monsieur Michelin worthy top notch top nosh dinner:
Candlelit dinner is served in the dining room which looks out towards Kesh Mountain. Owner and Chef Christina O’Hara reminds us that “all the vegetables are from the kitchen garden” and “everything is cooked on the Aga”. At some stage an Irish rhubarb appears with a hint of curry. Nasturtiums add a dash of colour to the pale monkfish. Silverware, glassware, Wedgwood and Mrs Delaney coasters and placemats perfect the table arrangement.
Before dinner, Simon leads a tour of the top and bottom floors. “We’re slowly recolonising the whole house.” His parents spent £100,000 replacing the roof which is cleverly designed to capture rainwater between the two valleys and funnel it down to ground level. The second floor contains family as well as guest accommodation. The first floor – the Venetian Room, the Pink Room, the Blue Room and so on – is all given over to guest accommodation. Simon knows his stuff: he’s President of Ireland’s Blue Book which promotes the country’s finest historic hotels, manor houses and restaurants. Vintage travel luggage labelled “ABC” is piled high in a hallway. “Arthur Brooke Cooper”.
“Look at the architectural detail,” he observes, pointing to the swirl marking the juncture of the doorcases and skirting boards in the staircase hall. A pair of niches (a Francis Bindon motif) add more finesse. The basement is more or less still used for its original purpose. Although perhaps the servants wouldn’t have had a billiard room… A state of the art washing machine stands next to its cast iron Victorian forerunner. The wine cellar has historic earthenware pots from Hargadon Bros on O’Connell Street, Sligo. That pub is still going strong.
“Perhaps Bindon’s very last mansion is Coopershill, County Sligo, although like most of these houses, no documentary evidence exists for it. Tower-like and stark, of similar proportions to Raford, it is made up of two equivalent fronts composed with a central rusticated Venetian window and door, and a third floor three-light window. The fenestration is reminiscent of Castle’s demolished Smyth mansion in Kildare Place, Dublin. Coopershill is sited particularly well and stands high above a river reminding one of the feudal strength of the 17th century towerhouse. As at Raford, the roof is overlapping and 19th century.
The history of the building of Coopershill is an interesting and typically Irish phenomenon for the house was finished in 1774 though started in about 1755 for Arthur Brooke Cooper ‘before engaging in the undertaking, had provided for the cost a tub of gold guineas, but the last guinea was paid away before the building showed above the surface of the ground’. Cooper had to sell property, and it took eight years to quarry the stone. This 20 years of planning and building explains the extraordinary retardé quality of the house considering its recorded date.”
The Knight isn’t gushing in his summation of Francis’ architectural talent: “With the major exceptions of the Curraghmore court and Castle Morres, the Bessborough quadrants and Newhall, his ventures into the architectural field are not particularly distinguished. As he was a gentleman amateur, moving in the best circles in Dublin, he obtained commissions from his friends and relations. He made the most of his connection with the professional Richard Castle and was quite happy to borrow many ideas from him. His houses are mostly in the south and west of Ireland, an area in which Castle had no connections, so theirs was probably a dovetailed and friendly relationship.”
His critical tone continues, “On looking at the photographs of his buildings… one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naïve and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.” He considers there’s one exception: “If it is his, the forecourt at Curraghmore is certainly his masterpiece.”
Coopershill survives amazingly intact. “It was a secondary house for most of the 19th century,” explains Simon. “Annaghmore was the principal O’Hara seat.” So while Annaghmore was much altered, Coopershill remained untouched by Victorian aesthetic enthusiasm. To cut and paste William Butler Yeats’ poetry: Coopershill is an ancestral house surrounded by planted hills and flowering lawns, levelled lawns and gravelled ways; escutcheoned doors opening into great chambers and long galleries. Perfection.
Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.
Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!
His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.
Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.
Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.
The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”
Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.
Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert, Edmonde and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.
Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.
Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.
The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?
Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.
It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”
Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:
Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.
And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Ned Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?
It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.