“Oh yes I stayed in The Witchery years ago,” a journalist bravely whispered to us during the Making Africa press briefing in the Guggenheim Bilbao. Admittedly a mildly incongruous locale for such a muted conversation. It was undoubtedly a memorable stay. “I woke up in the middle of the night in the most frightful sweat! It was like the bed was on fire! I was boiling alive!” She got an unexpected roasting, so to speak. The next day at breakfast the journalist voiced her concern to a waitress. “That’ll be the witches,” came the nonchalant reply. “They used to burn them at the stake on Castlehill right outside.” And presumably it wasn’t the effects of a wee dram nightcap.
Our Easter Thursday lunch in the restaurant turns out to be a slightly less steamy but still hot affair. Dr Johnson and his biographer James Boswell used to lunch there. Well if it’s good enough for Sam and Jamie… The schlep up the Royal 1.6 Kilometres past winding wynds and claustrophobic closes is so worth it. Four enigmatic fanlights peering over Johnston Terrace way below are all that hint at what lies beneath. We’ve arrived. Physically and metaphorically. Bewitchingly charming certainly, hauntingly beautiful definitely, ghoul free thankfully. Think Hunderby without Dorothy. Or Northanger Abbey goes to town. Owner James Thomson, Scotland’s best (known) hotelier and restaurateur, is evidently a follower of the Donatella Versace school of thought: “Less isn’t more. Less is just less.” An eclectic dose of ecclesiastical remnants, gothic salvage and Jacobean antiques is healthily apt for this 16th century building. A pulpit above, a trellised obelisk to love, a flag there, a tapestry where? Candlesticks galore carry flickering flattering light across a Secret Garden the envy of Frances Hodgson.
The interior may flurry with wild abandon but the service and setting mercifully don’t. Our Milanese waiter makes sure of the former. Tradition takes care of the latter. Linen tablecloths, phew. Round plates (slates are for roofs), double phew. Unheated pudding (a dish best served cold), triple phew. After a bubbly reception (thank you Mark), the feast unfolds. Palate seducing grilled sardines followed by lemon sole with brown shrimp butter preceding chocolate orange marquise with espresso jelly raise spirits further. The huggermugger harum scarum of a prowlish ghoulish night owlish postprandial prance on the mansard tiles of Edinburgh’s Auld Toun awaits. The only way is down (hill).
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.