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Dorinda The Honourable Lady Dunleath Baroness Mulholland + Killyvolgan House Ballywalter Down

Life and Times

Dorinda loved discussing the many Irish country houses she knew well. “I could write a book about my experiences in country houses. Maybe you should for me!” One of her earliest memories was visiting her uncle and aunt, Major Charlie and Sylvia Alexander, at the now demolished Pomeroy House in County Tyrone. Dorinda also enjoyed visiting Springhill in County Londonderry (now owned by The National Trust) – she was married from there in 1959. There was a painting of Springhill in the sitting room of Killyvolgan House. It was her Great Aunt Mina’s home. Mina Lenox-Conyngham was the last owner of Springhill. “Staying at her house was always enormous fun.”

“I remember aged six being taken against my will to dancing lessons at Lissan House. It was absolutely freezing! I lay on the ground screaming and kicking my feet in the air. Such a dull house, don’t you think?” She was great pals with Diana Pollock of Mountainstown House in County Meath and recalled good times there with Diana and her sisters. “I could never love Mount Stewart. Dundarave has an interesting vast hall but the reception rooms are plain. I remember the auction of Mount Panther’s contents. Everyone was standing in the entrance hall and up the stairs when the staircase started coming away from the wall! Cousin Captain Bush lived in Drumhalla House near Rathmullan in Donegal. He’d a parrot and wore a wig. I remember my cousin threw his wig off when he went swimming in the cove end of the garden. I was absolutely terrified to jump in after him!”

One of Dorinda’s most memorable stories combines several of her loves: country houses, fashion and parties. “It was the Sixties and I had just bought a rather fashionable tin foil dress from a catalogue. I thought it would be perfect for Lady Mairi Bury’s party at Mount Stewart. It was so tight and I was scared of ripping it so I lay down on our bedroom floor, arms stretched out in front of me, and Henry slid me into it.” She gave a demonstration, laughing. “Unfortunately I stood too near one of the open fires and my dress got hotter and hotter. So that was the first and last time I wore it!” Dorinda always managed to look stylish, whether casual or formal. Her suits were the envy of fellow Trustees of the Board of Historic Buildings Trust. Her ‘off duty’ uniform of polo neck, sports jacket, jeans and boyish shoes was effortlessly chic.

When it came to finding her own country house after her tenure at Ballywalter Park ended, things proved challenging. “I searched for two years for a suitable property. There’s a country house for sale in Keady. Nobody lives there! I’d be driving up and down to Belfast non stop!” Eventually Dorinda would build her own house on a site just beyond the walled estate of Ballywalter Park. At first, she wanted to rebuild the double pile gable ended two storey three bay house occupying the site called McKee’s Farm but when the structure proved unstable, a new house was conceived. Despite being known as a modernist, Belfast architect Joe Fitzgerald was selected to design a replacement house of similar massing to McKee’s Farm, adding single storey wings in Palladian style. Like its owner, Killyvolgan House is understated, elegant and charming. She was pleased when the council planners described Killyvolgan as the ideal new house in the countryside. It displays a distinguished handling of proportion and lightness of touch.

“I bought the Georgian grandfather clock in the entrance hall from Dublin. I’m always slightly concerned at how fragile my papier mâché chairs are for ‘larger guests’ in the drawing room. I guess the chairs were really meant for a bedroom? I’ve painted all the walls in the house white as the shadows on them help me see around.” And then there was the urn in the courtyard. “The Coade stone urn I found in the 19th century barn was much too grand. So instead I bought this cast iron urn on the King’s Road in Belfast. Fine, I will leave the Marston and Langinger pot you have brought me in the urn so that I remember that colour. Oh, Farrow and Ball are very smart! They’re very clever at their marketing.” In the end, the much debated urn would remain unpainted. “Henry wouldn’t deal with snobs. That’s why I liked him. Henry took everything he got involved in very seriously. Henry was the only Alliance Party member in the House of Lords. He strongly promoted the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1974 which provided greater parity across the sectarian divide.” Later, “Oh how exciting, is it full of good restaurants and bars? Great! I’ll be an authority now on Ballyhackamore.”

She recalled an early drama at The Park. It was a tranquil Sunday morning in 1973 and unusually Dorinda was at home rather than at Holy Trinity Church Ballywalter. “Henry was singing the 23rd Psalm at Eucharist when he heard six fire brigades go by. Poor people, he pitied. I’d warned our butler not to interfere with the gas cylinders of the boiler, but he did, and the whole thing exploded, lifting off the dome of the staircase hall like a pressure cooker. The billiard room disappeared under a billow of smoke and flames. I rang the fire brigade and said, ‘Come quickly! There’s a fire at Ballywalter Park!’ The operator replied, ‘Yes, madam, but what number in Ballywalter Park?’” The estate of course doesn’t have a number – although it does have its own postcode.

“A spare room full of china collections fell through the roof. Well, I guess I’d always wanted to do an archaeological dig! It was so sad, really. As well as the six fire brigades, 300 people gathered from the village and around to help lift furniture onto the lawn. Fortunately the dome didn’t crack. Isn’t life stranger than fiction? The Powerscourt fire happened just one year later. Henry was philosophical and said we can build a replacement house in the walled garden.” In the end the couple would be responsible for restoring the house to its lasting glory. Ballywalter Park is a mid 19th century architectural marvel designed by Sir Charles Lanyon.

“I arrived over from London as a young wife and suddenly had to manage 12 servants. I used to tiptoe around so as not to disturb them. There was a crazy crew in the kitchen. Mrs Clarke was the cook. Billy Clarke, the scatty elderly butler, mostly sat smoking. Mrs Clarke couldn’t cook unless he was there. I was too shy to say anything!” Dorinda once briefly dated Tony Armstrong-Jones who would become the society photographer Lord Snowdon. “We met at pony club. He got me to model sitting next to a pond at our house in Widford, Hertfordshire.” One book described Dorinda as being “very pretty”. When questioned, she replied, “Well, quite pretty!” She was more interested in her time bookbinding for The Red Cross. In those days The Bunch of Grapes in Knightsbridge was Dorinda’s local. “Browns Hotel and The Goring were ‘safe’ for debutantes. After we got married we went to the State Opening of Parliament. We stayed in Henry’s club and I haled a taxi wearing a tiara and evening dress. Harrods was once full of people one would know. We would know people there. ‘Do you live near Harrods?’ people would ask. I’ve heard everyone now lives southwest down the river, near the boat races. You need some luck and then you’ve just got to make your own way having fun in London.”

As ever with Dorinda there were always more great stories to relate. “I bought the two paintings from the School of Van Dyke in my dining room for £40. I knew they are rather good landscapes so I decided to talk to Anthony Blunt about them. We arranged to meet in The Courtauld for lunch. Halfway though our meal he disappeared for a phone call. He was probably waiting for a message, ‘Go to the second tree on the left!’ He never reappeared. Next thing I heard he was a spy and had gone missing! I think he turned up in Moscow. I’ll remember other interesting things when you’re gone.” Occasionally colloquialisms would slip into her polite conversation. “The funeral was bunged! That was completely mustard!” One of Dorinda’s catchphrases, always expressed with glee, was, “That’s rather wild!”

“I called up to The Park. It was so funny: for the first time in history there were three Lady Dunleaths including me all sitting chatting on a sofa! One lives in The Park; the other, King’s Road and I don’t mean Belfast!” Dorinda made steeple chasing sound so exciting. A dedicated rider and breeder, she was Chairman of the Half Bred Horse Breeders Society. The Baroness’s contribution to Northern Irish culture and society is unsurpassed. She was Patron of the Northern Ireland Chest Stroke and Heart Association and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, as well as being a Committee Member of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society. Dorinda was a Director of the Ulster Orchestra and a founding member of The National Trust in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. Along with Sir Charles Brett she laboriously carried out and published early ‘Listings’ of buildings in places such as Downpatrick, Dungannon and Lisburn. The Baroness’s legacy lives on in the Dorinda Lady Dunleath Charitable Trust. This charity was started by her late husband but after he died it was changed into Dorinda’s name and she added to it every year thereafter. It supports education; healthcare and medical research; the arts, culture, heritage and science; the environment; alleviating poverty; and advancement of the Christian faith. The Dorinda Lady Dunleath Charitable Trust continues to donate to charities that she would have liked, with a focus on Northern Ireland.

One of the last heritage projects Dorinda supported was the restoration and rejuvenation of Portaferry Presbyterian Church, not far from Ballywalter. It’s one of the best Greek Revival buildings in the United Kingdom. “Prince Charles came to the reopening. I curtsied so low I could barely stand up again! Afterwards, a few of us had a very grand supper at Ikea to celebrate!” She voiced concern about the future of the organ at Down Cathedral. Music in May at Ballywalter Park was an annual festival of organ music started by the newlyweds. The Dunleath Organ Scholarship Trust was set up by her late husband and she continued to support it for the rest of her life, attending its concerts each year.

“It’s so exciting… I can’t say how exciting it is you’re here! Tell me, who is this David Bowie everyone’s talking about? I feel like I’m about 100! It’s like when my father asked me, ‘Who is this Bing Crosby?’ The House of Lords used to be full of country specialists like experts in bees or men who loved linen. They used to give the most marvellous speeches. Each generation must do something. It would be great to write this down.” Later, “Gardens should have vistas, don’t you think? They need focal points; you need to walk for an hour to a place of discovery. Capability Brown and Repton knew how to do it.”

In latter years, there were memorable times to be had at The Wildfowler Inn, Greyabbey. Those long, languid lunches. “Portavogie scampi? I’ll have the same as you. And a glass of white wine please. We can have sticky toffee pudding after.” Dorinda would don her yellow high viz jacket, pulling the look off with considerable aplomb. Her eyesight failing, she would claim, “It helps people see me in Tesco in Newtownards!” Much later, balmy summer afternoons in the sheltered courtyard of Killyvolgan House would stretch long into the evening. There was Darjeeling and more laughter. Those were the days. Halcyon days by the shore. Days that will linger forever. On that last evening at Killyvolgan, Dorinda pondered, “Who’s left who cares about architectural heritage?”

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Architecture Country Houses Design Hotels Luxury Restaurants

The Garden House + The Big House Beaverbrook Surrey

Journeying Mercies

We’re off to Beaverbrook. Come hail (a lot) or shine (a little) an A Class Mercedes spinning through Surrey on the stormiest day of the year is just what the doctor ordered although possibly not the meteorologist. The gated sprawling estate – legendary hectares of rollingness – is divided into The Haves (see you at The Garden House) and The Haves Even More (we’ll be calling up to see you at The Big House). Ever versatile, we’ll do both. Especially since our guests have travelled 12 hours to make if for lunch.

So what’s the hotel really like? Well, take the terrace of Castle Leslie (County Monaghan), the parterre of Luton Hoo (Bedfordshire), the grotto of Curraghmore (County Waterford), the glasshouse of Walmer Castle (Kent), The Carriage Rooms of Montalto (County Down), the glamour of Corniche John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Marseille) and throw in a larger than life Kensington Palace Gardens villa (London) and you’ll get the picture.

The Garden House staff, led by the stylish restaurant manager from Battersea, are so gregarious that by the dill and beetroot amuse bouches we’re swapping film tips (Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is very watchable but what is Dame Judy’s mangled accent all about?). It’s easy to get into the tongue and groove of rural life. There are more pictures of prize cows on the Farrow and Ball’d walls than a mar’t auction catalogue. Outside the storm is brewing again but we’re in the old fashioned sitting room propped up by Christian Lundsteen cushions and Old Fashioned cocktails. All hatches are battened down… except for The Drinking Hole.

Can life get any better? Yes it can: lunch is being served in the dining room next door. Before long we’re devouring farmers’ helpings of crispy polenta squid with smoked garlic, basil and lime, followed by Dorset halloumi and heritage beetroot with radicchio, date and parsley. Everything, and we mean everything, is freshly wild and wildly fresh. Our well informed waiter tells us about the hotel’s Sir Winston Churchill connection and the Spitfire emblem and the eponymous Lord Beaverbrook but ever so distractingly the restaurant manager arrives with salted chocolate and blood orange petit fours masquerading as “posh Jaffa cakes”.

Forbes, the only other publication to join us a few years ago in Montenegro at the behest of the Government of the former Yugoslavian state, has beaten us to today’s destination. Its verdict? “Beaverbrook is arguably England’s most beautiful new hotel.” Last week’s Sunday Times is almost as glowing, “One of the UK’s top country house hotels.” Scrawled on a blackboard in the glasshouse is a flower recipe, “Wax flower, statis, limonium, gypsophila, spag. moss.” It’s a metaphor for Beaverbrook: classy, quirky and drawing on the best that nature has to offer.

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Architecture Country Houses Luxury

The Hidden Ireland + Temple House Sligo

 Temple of Room 

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‘Exhausted by sunshine, the backs of the crimson chairs were a thin light orange; a smell of camphor and animals drawn from skins on the floor by the glare of morning still hung like dust on the evening chill.’Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September2 Temple House Sligo copyright lvbmag.com

Annaghmore, Lissadell and Temple House. Three great neoclassical country houses resting at the foothills of the rugged mountains which trace the west coast of Ireland in an area forever associated with the poetry of W B Yeats. Built of stone which darkens from gunpowder to charcoal grey in the persistent rain, each house has a deep Doric porch or porte-cochère for shelter from the prevailing wind. Austere elevations cloak rich interiors of unbridled indulgence. One house is private; one is open for guided tours; but only one accepts overnight guests. Enter Temple House (more of the other two later).

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A longstanding member of the Hidden Ireland group of private country houses which offer bed and breakfast accommodation, Temple House is owned by the Perceval family. They’ve lived on the 1,000 acre estate for the last 340 years or so. The twelfth generation, the blonde dynamic duo of Roderick and his wife Helena, act as hosts and together with their suave French chef, cater for the every whim of guests.

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The remains of the Percevals’ original home now form a picturesque crumbling ruin nestled between the current Temple House  and the lake. It was a castle built in 1216 by the Knights Templar who were later to be immortalised in Dan Brown’s pot boiler The Da Vinci Code.

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Most people have difficulty finding enough space in their homes to store all their belongings. Not so the Percevals. With dozens of rooms and miles of corridors lit by hundreds of windows, they never have the excuse that there’s no room for visitors. So they’ve turned this potential problem into an asset. Now guests can recline in splendid isolation in one of six first floor bedrooms. “We enjoy sharing this gem,” confides Roderick.

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Not all guests pay for their accommodation. “The most persistent ghost is Nora,” relates Helena. Nora, otherwise known as Eleanora Margaret Perceval, was the châtelaine of Temple House in the Roaring Twenties (although this being windswept rural Sligo the era was more about fires than flappers). A favourite haunt of hers is the Blue Bedroom. Her best friend was Lady Gaga, wife of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, who lived at nearby Lissadell. Another ghost, this time a male, has been glimpsed at twilight sitting at the writing desk in the guest bedroom corridor, scribbling long forgotten letters to long forgotten lovers under the purple patchwork of reflected light from the etched windows.

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Helena continues, “The part of the house we use as family accommodation was derelict when we moved in. It used to have a very distinct atmosphere… a little unnerving… but this has mellowed in recent times.” A visiting American psychic found the house to be riddled with ghosts. “She even spotted a few knights loitering in the castle ruins,” smiles Helena.

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Temple House wasn’t always as massive. In 1825 Colonel Perceval commissioned John Lynn to design and build a relatively modest two storey five bay wide house. Its porch is clearly discernible in the current side elevation. The family moved into this house while the servants continued to live in the castle. But just 33 years later financial difficulties forced the Percevals to sell up.

Not for long. A knight in shining armour soon came riding back to save the day. The third son of the Colonel, Alexander Perceval, bought back the estate in 1863. “Not large enough!” Alexander declared when he first set eyes on the new aggrandisement plans for the house. He’d made a fortune trading tea in Hong Kong and proceeded to splash out three quarters of a million pounds on rebuilding his ancestral seat.

In 1865 he added a three storey L shaped block directly behind the façade of the Colonel’s late Georgian house, to the design of the English firm Johnstone & Jeanes. The longer arm of the mirror image L stretches across the seven bays of a repositioned entrance front. The tip of the short arm adds a top storey to the middle of the garden front.

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On the entrance front the attic floor ducks behind a heavy balustrade which luxuriantly wraps around the side of the house like a colossal stone tiara. One year later Alexander was dead. His presence lives on in dashes of Chinoserie scattered throughout the interior. Alexander’s son went on to marry Charlotte O’Hara who lived at nearby Tara Annaghmore.

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The inside of the L forms two walls of a courtyard. A long low service wing completes the other two sides. This inner sanctum, devoid of distracting decoration, displays a strange and abstract beauty, its sheer silver grey walls pierced with diamond paned windows. Form doesn’t always follow function on the outer envelope, though. In the dining room behind the majestic Victorian portrait of Jane Perceval (Alexander’s mother who died in the Great Famine) is a false window with the sole purpose of maintaining the harmony of the exterior.

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“We believe each generation should leave its mark on the house,” relates Helena. “We’ve painted the dining room a rich ruby red using an authentic Farrow & Ball paint.” It used to be insipid pea green. “Next is the staircase hall. We’ve identified a specific blue in the cornice which we hope to use for the walls. After that will be the sitting room. Perhaps ivory or off-white.”

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Upstairs a rather more relaxed approach has been taken to the fragile interiors. “The Twin Bedroom hasn’t been decorated for 100 years,” laughs Helena, “but that’s a good thing at Temple House!” Signs next to the pair of tall sash windows request guests not to pull the curtains. They’ll fall down. When the shutters are closed at night no light penetrates the bedrooms anyway. “Temple House boasts rooms of enormous proportions,” comments Roderick. One is called the Half Acre Bedroom. “Yet there’s a real sense of intimacy here too.”

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“The first guests we catered for were one challenge which we met and are now adept at,” he says. “We love having groups of friends to stay. Then hosting our first wedding was the next challenge. Organising an arts and music festival was another exciting venture.”

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Irish country houses are increasingly flinging open their doors to the public as a shaky economy triggers innovative ways of making owners ensure estates pay for their upkeep. Ireland’s Blue Book is another association of country houses which also includes historic hotels, castles and restaurants.

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Ardtara, Tankardstown and Marlfield House. Three great neoclassical country houses featured in Ireland’s Blue Book. Like Annaghmore, Ardtara in County Derry relies on plate glass windows in canted bays for its visual serenity. Tankardstown in County Meath was voted Condé Nast’s Best House to Rent in Ireland 2009. “Sublime!” is how Robert Redford describes Marlfield House in County Wexford which has been remodelled by aristo architect Alfred Cochrane.

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Once the bastions of the privileged few, for centuries Irish country houses were hidden away behind high stone walls and locked cast iron gates, their existence barely acknowledged beyond a mile or two’s radius. Now, anyone can experience their otherworldly faded grandeur without the responsibility of their unwieldy financial upkeep.

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