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Architecture Country Houses Hotels People

The Marshall Doran Collection + Belleek Manor Mayo

China in Your Hand

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Terrace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belleek Manor, or Belleek Castle as it’s now called, is unique and we don’t apply that word obliquely. Surely it must be the only example of 19th century Gothic Revival meets 20th century Medieval Revival in the country. Certainly it’s the only case of this hybrid style in Ballina, County Mayo. Two distinct (in era and nuance) building extravaganzas by two extraordinary (in talent and obsession) characters come together in this west of Ireland setting.

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

First glimpse is of baronial grandeur. After a long drive through forestry, the house is revealed behind a balustraded forecourt propped above a grassland bowl. Sir Francis Knox-Gore set out to impress his wife who came from Lissadell, the neighbouring county’s most palatial country house. He lavished £10,000 on their John Benjamin Keanes designed marital home; hopefully Her Ladyship approved. His descendants must have: the Knox-Gores lived here from 1831 to 1940. After being used as a tuberculosis hospital, it lay empty until Marshall Doran bought the house and its immediate 20 acres.

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Marshall, who died in 2007, was a Great Gatsby type adventurer. Born Jack Fenn, the Liverpudlian ran away to join the American Merchant Navy, changed his name and made a fortune which he invested in transforming Belleek Manor into Belleek Castle. It only cost £5,000 to purchase but that was just the start of the spending spree. Jack Fenn’s Courtyard Café in the former stables – anyone for deconstructed scone or spicy avo and egg? – is named in his honour. His son Paul now runs the hotel. There are 10 guest bedrooms. But hang on. The interior! Wow! Where to begin?

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s definitely the sole instance where, under one roof, we’ve come across Spanish Armada salvage, Cistercian abbey pieces, Venetian caryatids, samurai armoury, woolly mammoth tusks and Grace O’Malley’s fourposter. It all makes the taxidermised last wolf of Connaught look almost commonplace. As we wander through the rabbit warren of labyrinthine museum rooms, subterranean Aladdin’s Caves, taking in the visual feast we leave it up to the story boards on the stone walls to continue the narrative, the story of how a manor became a castle:

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Tall, handsome, barrel chested and powerful, young Marshall was an accomplished athlete and earned under 18 championship medals in boxing and swimming. At 16, Marshall already radiated charm and was most enthusiastic about girls. He fancied a gypsy trapeze artist from the circus and so signed on to be a highflyer. After a few exciting moments on the high wire and a fallout with the gypsy, Marshall thought it prudent to reposition his career, and moved to a shooting gallery at the fair.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Fanlight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley“To supplement his earnings he went on the ‘knock’ calling door to door, buying gold and silver. This triggered a lifelong passion for things old – antiques to fossils, and everything in between. Still 16, in Liverpool, Marshall stowed away on a ship bound for America, the first of countless ocean passages. In 1998, then aged 82, Marshall took part in a survey for The Geological Curator magazine.”

Marshall’s passion for antiques required that he find a place to store them. He attempted to buy Rozel Fort, a beautiful property dominating the cliffs at Rozel in Jersey, but was gazumped. So he decided to build his own castle at Flicquet Bay in Jersey. In 1961, Marshall decided to buy a second castle, this time in Ballina, County Mayo. He commenced the monumental task of converting the former manor house into a fine hotel and medieval museum – Belleek Castle. As an avid collector he threw away nothing, everything was of value.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Banqueting Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“In 1961, Marshall bought Belleek Castle. Visitors would find him swinging hammer and chisel on immense blocks of timber, a red bandana tied around his again against the perspiration, holes in his trousers and worn shows from toes protruding. He worked alongside other stonemasons, and taught his tradesmen proper adze technique, and how to use a drawknife to age and fashion wood in the medieval style.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“On his time off, he combed Europe’s auctions and shops, amassing what is thought to be the finest collection of armour, weaponry and fossils in Ireland. As an avid collector he could never pass up a bargain. Some of these bargains remain in this room today where he left them – he called it his Junk Shop.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Fortunately for us today, many of his original papers survived and his collection of books remains intact. Many treasures have been discovered, from the original sales catalogues to the receipts for payment. On 30 April 1973, Marshall attended an auction at Christie’s in London. He bought 16 items that day all of which are listed in this catalogue as being from a sale of items from the Tower of London.”

Belleek Castle Hotel Mayo Wolf © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Categories
Hotels Luxury

The Morrison Hotel Dublin + Sparkling Afternoon Tea

Shadows and Highlights

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All in the name of research, you’ll understand. No really. We – the Delphic Oracle of hospitality – have been asked to nominate candidates for the World Boutique Hotel Awards. The next ceremony is less than eight months away: so little time, so many boutique hotels. Back in the day, or decade (the Nineties), The Morrison in all its monochromatic glory was where it was: It Boys, It Girls*, just it. The lobby cum lounge cum bar cum posing gallery was practically pitch dark and forever echoed to the clamour of clinking glasses and laughter. Dublin liked to party, and there was nowhere better to perch than on the John Rocha cow skins draped across black leather banquettes. A vague utopia of younger dreams. Boom.

Bang. Bust. Boom again. Google Googletown. The Celtic Boomerang Economy. The hangover’s over; Dublin’s back to partying. If you can’t beat them… sparkling afternoon tea for two please. Sparkling company, sparkling conversation and a glass of fizz. In the intervening years, The Morrison has become a DoubleTree by Hilton. Its interior is lighter now and even has – shock, horror! – accents of colour. A splash of fuchsia on the carpet runner; a streak of lavender across the reception desk. Still got it, though.

That familiar flow from savoury to sweet via homemade scones and fresh cream, as calming as the River Liffey framed by great windows open to the south, starts with smoked salmon and lemon butter sandwiches followed by cucumber with cream cheese and chives sandwiches. A trouser stretching diet busting calorie mounting range of miniature puddings completes the pleasure. Blueberry Bakewell tarts | mango and passion fruit panna cotta | lemon drizzle cake | best of all banoffee pie. A table filled with the talk of youth. Innocence and beauty.

*Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, the greatest It Girl since Clara Bow, was beloved by all. Scott’s in Mayfair was one of her favourite haunts. The restaurant famously has only one combined entrance | exit. Tara dined at Scott’s just after she got her nose job. The paparazzi eagerly gathered on Mount Street outside. “Do you think they’re here to photograph my legs?” she laughed, pointing to her rather fine pins.

Categories
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

Categories
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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