As old as the island itself, Northern Ireland’s original God given tourist attraction has received a manmade upgrade. The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is a spear’s throw from Ballintoy Harbour. It’s a geological wonder of around 40,000 polygonal basalt columns rising from the splashed edge of the Atlantic. A visitor centre designed by award winning architects Heneghan Peng is formed of rectangular basalt columns propping up a grass roof. Architecture as land art. Nearby, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a popular walk (not for the fainthearted) over a 30 metre deep oceanic chasm.
Hammy notes, “The development of the Titanic Museum in Belfast at a cost of almost £100 million has been a tremendous boost to the Northern Ireland tourist economy.” Next to the museum, the shipyard drawing office, the birthplace of many a ‘floating hotel’, is now a hotel itself. Belfast boasts three restaurants with a Michelin star – no mean feat for a smallish city with a rocky past. It’s become something of a foodie destination. Local chef Michael Deane has no fewer than six eateries including the Michelin starred Eipic, named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus who rated pleasure highly. True to form, the hef declares, “Fish, to taste right, must swim three times: in water, in olive oil and in Champagne!”
Anne was born in Downpatrick and spent her early childhood in Killyleagh, County Down, a town dominated by a fairytale castle built in 1180 and strategically located overlooking Strangford Lough to defend the town against the Vikings. It was adapted in the 1850s by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The castle has a colourful history which includes murder, a contested inheritance and a Judgement of Solomon. It’s now inhabited by the Rowan Hamilton family and is marketed as a self catering destination. Anne remembers going with her mother to the castle’s market garden to buy vegetables.
While at Edinburgh she was elected President of the Sculpture and of the Drama Society whose former President was the playwright John Antrobus. She wrote and produced two plays one of which is now in the archive of the Traverse Theatre in the city. Anne’s interest in theatre stems from her association with the legendary Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Players Theatre Belfast, as a scene painter. In later years Anne was elected to chair the theatre’s board, setting in motion a review of its governance.
Anne took a sabbatical when her children Leon and Mary-Ann were born and moved to County Kilkenny with her husband the architect Harry Orr. There, she revived her art practice setting up Legan Castle Design Studio. She won an Irish Arts Council Travel Award to study traditional mosaic making in Ravenna’s Accademia di Belle Arti and exhibited during Kilkenny Arts Week. Her exhibition about The Troubles, titled Images of War, transferred to The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow through the sponsorship of the journalist Kay Hingerty and the encouragement of the late Jack White, Head of Programmes at RTE, who opened the exhibition.
When Plan magazine needed a Northern Correspondent, Anne was approached. That association led to the publication of a brochure for the Festival of Architecture in Belfast for the Royal Society of Ulster Architects which subsequently evolved into the Ulster Architect magazine of which Anne was the founding editor. In the 1980s she purchased the magazine and set up a company to ensure that it would continue in publication. As publisher and editor of an architectural magazine she covered all the main building projects in the UK and Ireland with an eye to the visual arts and heritage projects. She personally interviewed high profile people including Max Clendinning, Edward Cullinan and Richard Rogers as well as covering stories throughout the UK and in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway. Her company was selected to take part in an entrepreneurial programme between University of Ulster and Boston College. Anne spent six months in the media department of a large advertising agency, Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopolous.
My Favourite London Hotel… Because I live in London I don’t often stay in hotels in the city but I did stay in the Tower Hotel at Tower Bridge when my daughter was married in London. It’s in a spectacular location with magnificent views of the bridge and the River Thames. Quite a few years ago I found The Manhattan Hotel in Covent Garden almost by accident. Named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the opulently relaxed colonial interior, you could almost transport yourself to India as it was when he was the last Viceroy. It’s now part of the Edwardian Hotels group so has probably changed somewhat since then.
My Favourite London Restaurant… I always take advice from my brother Damien and his wife Imelda when they come to London. They are both great foodies who keep me on my toes gastronomically. They lived in London before moving to France about 20 years ago but still visit regularly. So I don’t really have a favourite but I have had really good experiences with them at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly which is a slice of medium priced Paris in London, and Vinoteca, Beak Street, Soho. Great atmosphere in both and good value.
My Favourite Local Restaurant… My favourite food is Middle Eastern so I like Beyrouths in Streatham Hill which serves simple Lebanese food, great mint tea and delicious homemade lemonade. For French food I found three courses recently at Côte Brasserie on Battersea Rise faultless. The subdued interior in muted green is cleverly lit to soften the glow over the clientele and again good value.
My Favourite Weekend Destination… It used to be Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Melton Mowbray where I took my family one year for a total chillout divorced from the commercialism of Christmas. Now I think it is Kelly’s Hotel in Wexford, Ireland. Architecture as such has bypassed it in that it has grown like topsy over the years due to its popularity, particularly with families. Situated right on the beach on the Wexford coast, it has one of the best private art collections in Ireland, a selection from it hanging on the hotel’s walls: Hockney, Picasso, Miró, and good contemporary Irish art as well. Sculpture defines the surrounding gardens and the collection is catalogued in a book which can be purchased at reception. The labels of their own very good wine collection and the menus for their creative and wonderful food are designed by the artist Bill Corzier.
My Favourite Country House… While I am drawn to return to the Villa Saraceno, one of the mansions designed by Andrea Palladio near Vincenza in the Veneto in northeast Italy which inspires a deceptive sense of grandiose living, the less grandstanding Rathmullan House in County Donegal wins me over largely because of its location on a seemingly endless beach – blue flag and with spectacular views of the Fanad Peninsula. It was built in the 1760s and is a typical Georgian house of the period used as a bathing house by the Bishop of Derry. One of Ireland’s leading architects, Liam McCormick, designed a new pavilion extension in 1969 and the hotel has been extended several times since then. In spite of that it still feels like visiting someone’s home because many of the original features of the house have been retained and the staff are wonderfully friendly.
My Favourite Building… I have written about many buildings over the years for various publications so I have a number of favourites including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and the buildings of the architect who most influenced him, Louis Henry Sullivan – an almost forgotten figure – known as the father of the skyscraper which he saw as very specific to America. Although seldom credited with it, he coined the phrase ‘form follows function’. Louis’ Transportation Building for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 is a wonderful expression of architecture on the cusp of change and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna in Minnesota of 1908 has been described as the most beautiful bank in the world. Tragically his life ended in poverty and alcoholism. My favourite building by a living architect is Ted Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of 2002. It’s a wonderful organic expression of contemporary design using traditional techniques. Ted is founder of Cullinan Studio. I sat beside him at a dinner at Queen’s University when he talked about admiring the traditional blue barns he observed on his way in from the airport. A puzzled look fell over the surrounding faces. Was this part of our architectural heritage we had missed? Was it not a case someone asked of whatever paint fell off the back of a lorry at the time they were being painted. Like the time I was suggesting programme ideas to the BBC in Belfast. I’d noticed all houses on the Shankill Road were painted dark reds, browns and ochres but houses on the Falls Road seemed to favour more pastel colours such as light grey, pale blue and yellow. Was this evidence of a significant cultural difference we should be looking at? Someone asked me had I never noticed what colours the ships in Belfast docks were painted. Aha – no expression of social significance involved at all.
My Favourite Opera…Mozart’s Magic Flute. I have loved Mozart since my school days when I did a study of Symphony No 41, better known as the Jupiter – his last. On a visit to Italy after the Venice Opera House had been burned down, a French opera troop presented a very modernistic version of The Flute in a specially constructed temporary theatre in Venice. Travelling by motor launch to this very French off-the-wall interpretation heightened the whole experience making it unforgettable. La Fenici was reconstructed “as it was, where it was,” as he said, to the designs of architect Aldo Rossi before he died.
My Favourite Artist… I have two: Peter Doig because he imbues his landscape paintings with a sense of ‘presence’. There is a feeling of ‘the hour before the dawn’, of menace and the unknown with an uncategorisable technique. My second favourite is the East German artist Anselm Kiefer. I went to his retrospective at the Royal Academy last year and was almost speechless at the breadth of his work. Mostly I admire him for how he stepped up to German history with all its connotations and for his continued experimentation with various forms of expression and media.
My Favourite Scent…Jo Malone at the moment but I have been a follower of Estée Lauder for years mainly because my mother used her fragrances.
My Favourite Fashion Designer… I like classic clothes and good tailoring so I have a soft spot for Jean Muir. I also like the simplicity of Armani. When I am in Donegal I call on Magee to have a look at their tweeds. My mother gave me a magnificent tailored coat in a beautiful mix of Donegal tweed which, unfortunately, I need to lose a few kilos to wear.
My Favourite Charity… I support The National Brain Appeal and was delighted that a watercolour I donated to an exhibition at the Oxo Tower last year sold in aid of the charity.
My Favourite Pastime… Definitely reading and – running almost neck and neck – drawing.
Back to Marlfield House, 20 years since the first visit. The Gorey bypass may cause a moment of disorientation along the journey, but the country house hotel at the heart of the 30 acre estate is still reassuringly grand, everything just so, now entering decades of decadence, heaven’s in the detail, sugar crystals in silver bowls for coffee de rigeur. Marlfield is now in the very capable hands of the second generation of the Bowe family to run the hotel. Sisters Margaret and Laura and their own families live on the estate. Their parents Mary and Ray bought the house from the widowed Lady Courtown in 1977. À la mode modifications completed over the following decade allowed the building to breathe as a hotel. Through recessions and a boom, Marlfield became a byword for brilliance, a billet doux to hospitality, a magnet for the smart Dublin set.
Forget the usual bog standard 20th century hotel extension horrors. Distinguished artist and architectAlfred Cochrane’s work at Marlfield adventurously augments its presence, both physically and architecturally. Creative clients helped. “We’re all mad about design,” according to Margaret. “Our family all have a good eye.” From the whimsical to the wacky, always tasteful, never tacky, it’s a tour de force of neoclassical language reimagined for the spirit of the age. Petit Trianon on speed, Temple of the Winds on a high, Crystal Palace methodology. Now if Loulou de la Falaise was an annexe… Take the entrance portico. Its Doric centrepiece, confidently stepping forward from rusticated stone bays, explodes into a not so much broken pediment as broken temple, like ruins glued together with glazing.
A vast half moon (fully completed by the half moon pond outside) entrance hall links the main house to the rest of Alfred’s single storey bedroom wing. Top lit long galleries spread like elegant tentacles in all directions connecting the entrance hall to the six state suites: the Print Room, Morland Room, Stopford Room, Georgian Room, French Room and Sheraton Room. The crème de la crème is the Print Room, an octagonal cove ceilinged panelled pièce de résistance. “Mariga Guinness did the print decorations on the walls,” says Margaret. “They took days and days to complete! The inspiration came from Louisa Connolly’s famous Print Room at Castletown. When the doors are pulled across the bed alcove, wedding ceremonies are often performed in this room.” A handily placed harp stands next to the French windows. She confirms the hotel can accommodate up to 145 guests for a wedding.
The other 13 guest bedrooms, all with marble bathrooms, are upstairs in the main house. A conservatory on the garden front, also designed by Alfred Cochrane, balances the state room wing on the entrance front. History, symmetry, geometry, harmony, luxury: all are important at Marlfield. The conservatory is a tripartite triumph in cast iron and glass. A central projection balloons up to a storey height ogee shaped dome. A frame of distinctive lattice metalwork pilasters topped by stylised Ionic capitals holding a frieze is as stylish as anything produced in the days of the Prince Regent. Yet more French doors lead onto a croquet lawn.
Bon appétit! Mushrooms immersed in white wine, thyme and cream on toast accompanied by poached hens’ eggs trickling in black truffle oil are a culinary must in the library. “The eggs are from our neighbours, Samuel and Maurice Allen’s happy hens!” Many of the herbs and vegetables are from the Bowes’ kitchen garden while fish, meat and dairy produce are all sourced locally. Classy food in classical surroundings. The library is a rich blue; the sitting room next door, a pale lemon. Like all the rooms, they are filled with more antiques than Mealy’s on auction day. Plasterwork and white marble fireplaces form the backdrop to colourful festoons and fabric pelmets.
Marlfield House was built in 1852 by the 4th Earl of Courtown as a dower house in association with his principal seat, Courtown House. It’s a classic three storey block of the middle size, four bays wide by two bays deep. The west or side elevation is bowed towards the sunken topiary garden. The other side elevation adjoins a two storey ancillary wing. A two bay breakfront projects from the centre of the south or garden front. Characterful rugged semi coursed rubble stone on cut granite and red brick quoins contrast with overhanging modillioned box eaves (c’est quoi?). A low pitched roof is punctuated by tall chimney stacks. The 5th Earl swapped the ground floor multi pane windows found elsewhere in the building for plate glass sash windows in 1866.
This architectural dowager, a bon viveur full of joie de vivre, not in mourning, never rests on her manicured laurels. More than 160 years after the first stone was laid, a new lease of life is underway for Marlfield. “It will be rustic and informal, edgy even!” says Margaret about the new bistro in the ancillary wing. “French doors will open onto the market garden and there’ll be a fireplace on the terrace. It will be very family friendly. We’re also opening a small interiors shop which will host pop up events every so often.”