It’s funny how many Irish terraced houses are painted jolly colours (their quoins often highlighted in even brighter hues) while country houses are usually grey. Even though Birr Castle is cheek by jowl with William Street, it’s no exception, being faced in ashlar. The building appears hewn out of an escarpment like architectural topography. Perhaps that’s what happens when built form has weathered 350 years. There is more stone on display in Birr than most Irish towns, particularly on the houses lining Oxmantown Mall.
It’s a Georgian garrison town,” suggests Marguerite O’Conor Nash, châtelaine of Clonalis in County Roscommon. “Birr is really a planned town, a bit like Castlepollard in County Westmeath or Westport in County Mayo.” The Hillsborough of the south. “Birr is a very good town indeed,” offers conservation architect John O’Connell. Why is it not better known? Where are the coachloads of architectural aficionados? The answer lies in a comment uttered by the late Ivy Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duchess of Portland. She complained on a visit to Birr, “It’s not on the direct line to any other place!”
There was decorating drama when Princess Margaret and the newly titled Lord Snowdon honeymooned in the castle. The 6th Countess enthusiastically wallpapered a bedroom for their arrival. Unfortunately she chose a room above the boiler. Imagine HRH’s surprise to be woken in the dead of night by sheets of wallpaper sliding down the walls before collapsing over the four poster. “Tony…!”
Lord Rosse, the 7th Earl, may have turned 80 last year but his standards, unlike the wallpaper, haven’t slipped. Dining at Birr Castle is still a formal affair. Lord R sits at the bay window end of the long table opposite Lady R. Female VIPs sit either side of the Earl; male VIPs, either side of the Countess. Overseen by Damian the Butler, Lady Rosse is served first, then female VIPs, then male VIPs, then whoever’s stuck in the middle and finally, a hungry Lord Rosse. Presumably guests brush up on Debrett’s.
The dark room of the pioneering photographer Mary Rosse, 3rd Countess, was only discovered in the castle in 1983. Hidden in a maze of corridors and tunnels with three metre thick walls in places, it’s not that surprising the world’s oldest dark room in existence lay untouched for 100 years. Across the parkland, beyond the star shaped moat cum haha, stands the world’s largest telescope (or at least it was for a century) built by her astrologer husband. Birr Castle is full of record breakers (Ireland’s oldest cookbook; Ireland’s tallest treehouse; the British Isles’ tallest tree before it came a cropper) and it’s not even Guinness owned!
With the rhetorical daring of Mrs Merton’s interrogation of the millionaire Paul Daniel’s wife Debbie Magee, what first attracted us to the lovely Belcanto? Answer: wherever there’s a Michelin star there’s Lavender’s Blue. Make that two and we’re there with bells on ding-a-ling. Belcanto is the first restaurant in Lisbon to receive two Michelin stars. José Avillez is the first Portuguese chef to achieve this accolade. The hot to trot 36 year old has created a paradise for pescatarians with sophisticated palates. He does, after all, have over 1,000 miles of coastline to explore. Piscean provenance ain’t ever a problem. In his own words:
“My life is cooking. Because of that, many of my memories are tied to tastes. I was born and raised in Cascais, near the sea. The memory of being that close to the sea is very strong and is really a part of me – it defines me. I truly love cooking fish and seafood. Let me say I believe that in Portugal we have the best the sea has to offer in the world. I love creating dishes with the taste of the sea. At Belcanto, we use algae codium which has a very strong taste of the sea. I loved eating it on the beach at Guincho.” Such joy, joy, joy.
Belcanto is in Chiado, Lisbon’s most exhilarating neighbourhood. Chiado is a cultural mix of the old and new, the traditional and the adventurous, a distillation of the best. Easily a metaphor for José’s cooking. Outside may be sweating 30 degrees but inside a coolly slick gastronomic and sensory performance is underway. There are just 10 tables for the chef to impress with his pedigree. Table to tableau. Thank goodness for the high waiter to customer ratio as we eat more courses on the tasting menu than Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis has had film versions. The bill comes to €759.50. Say bon. Not exactly cheap as frites, but it’s a special occasion, a Lisbon treaty.
Behind an unassuming white exterior lies the understated white interior. A blank canvas. It’s the food that delivers the colour | shock | humour | art. Palette to palate. An exploding olive, “a tribute to the great chef Ferran Adrià” explains our waiter, sets the scene. José trained at elBulli, Ferran’s legendary triple Michelin starred Catalonian restaurant. Said olive is served in a 2cm diameter frying pan. Similarly, caviar topped edible stones crack open in a flow of volcanic lava. Textures and tastes and experiences and expectations are reinvented. Foraging in flowers for tuna tartar cones for starters. “You tell me!” smiles our waiter when asked what the indefinable taste is in the pudding. “How is your mushroom?” he later laughs. Rosemary ash butter tastes like fag butt ends. This is haute haute haute cuisine. And we’re loving it. All 3.5 hours.
Birthplace of fashion designer Cruz Bueno, it’s good to see the cool cool cool citizenry of Lisbon that have hung around in the sizzling heat live up to our soignée sartorial expectations. And there’s not a pickled dead sheep in sight. There’s more art in simply eating. Portugal is having a fashion moment according to Knightsbridge’s top kitchenware store Divertimenti. This Christmas’s essential stocking filler is a cabbage bowl designed by Portuguese artist Bordallo Pinheiro. Caldo Verde, cabbage soup, is a national dish. Our Divertimenti bowl is purely ornamental, unused of course. Bathos to pathos.
In conversation with Arthur Edward Rory Guinness, the 4th Earl of Iveagh, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the original Arthur Guinness of the 1759 Black Stuff fame, and his wife, the 4th Countess of Iveagh. Or Ned and Clare as they are informally known. Over the last number of years Lord Iveagh has turned round the 22,486 acre estate in Suffolk he inherited aged 21 into the largest working farm in Britain. Over 10,000 acres are given over to producing great quantities of grain, onions and potatoes. Around 4,000 acres are forest – conservation is taken seriously. The Elveden Estate as it’s called is a world of its own, complete with a smart inn and even smarter farm shop. They might be billionaires, but even the Iveagh family have found the 30 bay 70 bedroom Grade II* balustraded, niched, columned, rusticated, quoined and pilastered Elveden Hall a little on the large side. After his father sold the contents in 1984, this palatial barracks of a place was barely lived in again. But plans, they are afoot.
“Sikhs from around the world visit the graves,” Ned comments. “It was in my great great grandfather’s day that it became two churches. The Maharajah’s successors were disinherited so us Guinnesses, we bought Elveden.” A simple plaque reads: “This church was restored and the north aisle and chancel added by Edward Cecil, 1st Earl of Iveagh, in the years 1904-6. He died on October 7th 1927 aged 80 years and is buried in the north east corner of the churchyard.” Ned explains, “The 1916 bell tower and colonnade were added in memory of Adelaide, his wife, the 1st Countess. It’s a beautiful working church and school. Between 1895 and 1910 my great great grandparents built the estate model village using red brick from our brickworks.”
“Two houses with something special in the middle,” is how Ned succinctly describes Elveden Hall. The Guinnesses spruced up the exterior of the Maharajah’s house and duplicated it on the other side of a porte cochère behind which lies that something special: the Marble Hall. “The decoration of the Indian style room at Queen Victoria’s Osborne House is actually made of plaster. Ours is Carrera marble. The handiwork of 700 craftspeople working on site. We were immune at that stage to financial restrictions,” he smiles. “Although my great great grandfather was still very careful with money too. He recorded what he spent on newspapers.” This architectural aggrandisement isn’t entirely unlike the transformation of Straffan House into the K Club, only several notches up again. “Clare and I were married in the Marble Hall. It makes for a great party! It’s got a sprung dance floor but is a terrible room for echo!” The spectacular galleried domed space, all four storeys of it, is cathedral meets mosque. “It expresses my great great grandparents’ desire for exoticism and plays tribute to Elveden’s history.”
The design of the Marble Hall was inspired by the rooms of the Maharajah’s house. “He wanted to be reminded of the Court of Lahore. The walls and ceilings are ornately decorated between mirrors. His Drawing Room is divided by slender Indian style columns into conversation areas. The cantilevered staircase cost £30,000. The Maharajah was furious as this took up a large portion of his annual allowance. We whitewashed everything, us Guinnesses,” observes Ned, “it does get dark in winter in Suffolk!” Upstairs an enfilade overlooks the driveway: the King’s Bedroom, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Ladies-in-Waiting’s Bedroom. They retain remnants of Edwardian plasterwork and stencilled paint effects. “George V, George VI and Edward VII were frequent guests,” he explains. Mrs Keppel came too. The Royal Family last visited here for a shooting party in 1931.
On the other side of the Marble Hall, the rooms in the west wing reflect “the neoclassicism of my great great grandparents” confirms Ned. “The Boudoir opposite the Dining Room is where ladies congregated while men retired to the Smoking Room. It once held a collection of ecclesiastical themed tapestries. They must have faded as it’s south facing. More recently the Boudoir was the setting of my 30th birthday complete with oyster bar!” The Guinnesses’ architect was William Young. He’d proved his capability by designing the ballroom of Iveagh House, their Dublin City townhouse on St Stephen’s Green, and making alterations to Farmleigh, their County Dublin country house in The Phoenix Park. Practical design at Elveden includes double glazing on the north facing entrance front: sashes placed behind external casements. The 1st Earl asked Caspar Purdon Clarke, director of the V&A and an expert in Indian decoration, to design the Marble Hall to link the new and the old.
“I’ve managed the estate for 23 years. It pays for itself now.” The current Earl and Countess live with their young sons Arthur and Rupert in a rectory on The Elveden Estate. “But Elveden Hall is an enormous work in progress, an unfinished canvas. Our policy is to use the estate team for all restoration work where possible. I love the house but it’s a big challenge. You can’t see the fruits of our work so far. I’m very proud though we’ve reroofed the whole building, quite an engineering feat. The roof is now tilted to allow rainwater to run off. We’ve secured the shell of the building and it’s watertight now. What’s next? I want to use the house, to safeguard its future. Tens of millions of pounds of restoration you’re talking about. One step at a time. That’s my plan. I’ve furniture in storage too,” ends Lord Iveagh. Over to Lady Iveagh, “I’m not moving in until there is at least heating and hot water!”