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Antrim + Down Coasts

Dockers and Carters

Whitehead County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Once a place to leave, not to live, never mind visit, least of all for a luxury travel experience, how times have changed. The east coast of Northern Ireland (Counties Antrim and Down with Belfast sitting over their boundary) not only has Game of Thrones backdrops like the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbour – it now offers thriving upmarket hospitality for the discerning visitor. County Antrim’s coastline is rugged; County Down’s is greener. There are plenty of scenic moments from the candy coloured Victorian villas of Whitehead to the crashing waves of Whitepark Bay.

Giant's Causeway County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

AB @ Giant's Causeway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Welcome to the Emerald Isle!” beams Hammy Lowe, founder of Spectrum Cars, a family owned executive chauffeur service based in the historic walled town of Carrickfergus north of Belfast. “Spectrum Cars was formed in 1997 to meet demand from visiting business executives for reliable and security conscious transfers for corporate clients,” explains Hammy, “including big hitters like the Bank of England. We swiftly adapted to the burgeoning tourism market and added driver guided tours of the 50 kilometre long Causeway Coast. Recently we added Game of Thrones tours. The jewel in our crown is that we are the approved transport provider for the five star Merchant Hotel in Belfast.”

Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

County Antrim Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Country Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Hotel Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Resort Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Bay Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Castle Hotel Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

AB © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

SS Nomadic Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

White Star Line Tableware Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Interior Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Bedroom Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belfast City Hall View from Grand Central Hotel Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Anne's Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Spectrum Cars’ new collaboration is the Toast The Coast tour led by World Host Food Ambassador Portia Woods stopping off for culinary delicacies in County Antrim seaside resorts. It starts with brunch in The Bank House, Whitehead. All the brunch courses are local produce from traditional soda bread (given a sharp twist with chili and pepper) to Irish black butter (darkened with brandy and liquorice). Tapas and gin tasting follow at Ballygally Castle Hotel, a haunted building dating back to 1625. Several of the world’s biggest music and film stars have travelled in Spectrum Cars but Hammy is the soul of discretion. When pushed, he confides, “A clue to our most famous client is she is the female lead role in the movie Mamma Mia!”

Belfast Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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!”

Grand Central Hotel Cocktail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

CNN Travel Reporter Maureen O’Hare who hails from Northern Ireland reckons “the food scene is really good in Belfast”. Michelin starred Ox overlooks the River Lagan. “Ox is my favourite restaurant,” Maureen shares. “It’s pure quality and class on every level.” The interior has a reclaimed industrial aesthetic. Art is reserved for the plates, not the walls. Oscar + Oscar designed the interior of Ox as well as Ox Cave, the bar next door. Architect Orla Maguire says, “We’re very proud of both – we have been lucky to work with some extremely talented clients. Ox Cave is one my favourite places to go in the city… its Comté with honey truffle is amazing.” Oscar + Oscar were also responsible for the interior of Il Pirata, a rustic Italian restaurant in east Belfast’s most fashionable urban village, Ballyhackamore.

The Merchant Hotel Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The best view of Belfast can be captured from the Observatory, a lounge and bar on the 23rd floor of Grand Central Hotel. St Anne’s Cathedral (which has been gradually constructed over the last 100 years) and City Hall (an Edwardian architectural masterpiece) are two of the landmarks visible far below. The owners of the luxurious Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort in Ballymena, County Antrim, have opened Café Parisien opposite the City Hall. History buffs will recognise the name: Café Parisien on the Titanic was its inspiration. Oranmore House is an elegant country house with just 10 guest bedrooms on the outskirts of Ballymena. Montalto House is one of the grandest country houses in County Down set in 160 hectares of rolling parkland. Distinguished Irish architect John O’Connell and his team have restored the 18th century mansion and designed new neoclassical buildings. The gardens are open to the public and Montalto House is available for parties and weddings.

Cafe Parisien Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Northern Ireland may be the least populated of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, but that hasn’t hindered the rise of some 100 golf courses. Hammy believes, “Northern Ireland is like paradise for golfers. Many of them are keen to visit Holywood Golf Club where US Open champion Rory McIlroy honed his skills.Royal Portrush is a must for a round on a links course and was the 2019 venue for the British Open. Equally attractive is Royal County Down with a most unique setting between sea and mountains. Try it on a windy day! A lesser known but recommended course is Royal Belfast with its 19th century clubhouse.” From golf to gastrotourism, urban culture to country estates, Northern Ireland’s east coast is finally a luxury travel destination.

Royal Belfast Golf Club Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Lavender’s Blue + Ashford Castle Mayo

King Cong | More Mayo Please | Glory Days

Aunt Margaret’s maxim was, “Never stay anywhere not as grand as your own home.” And she’d an Asprey account and Trüggelmann dressing room. Lavender’s Blue’s take is, “Life’s too short to go four star.” The last time we did lunch at Ashford Castle was a third of a century – a generation – ago. With Aunt Margaret (she approved). Six hour round trip back then (walk in the park compared to her regular 12 hour return journey for breakfast at Sheen Falls). Seafood and lobster chowder starter. Other courses forgotten in the mists of time. Return visit slightly overdue.

Thankfully a leisurely two hour return trip this time. We’re staying nearby (in a country house). Deep breath. Will it live up to our wildest expectations? Repetitiousness joyousness of well spent youth to come? Terrific news! Ashford Castle has just been revamped with huge chutzpah. An all-guns-blazing-shoot-the-prisoners-full-turbo-heel-to-the-steel £40 million revamp at that. The Irishman’s home really is his tartaned up castle. As long as he earns a king’s ransom or has a two comma bank balance. The bill’s arrived. Chowder €13.50 this time. Now there’s commitment to a story arc. As for Ashford Castle 33 years later? It more than meets the hopes held high borne in hazy memories. Sepia transformed into technicolour. Aunt Margaret would still approve. She never did do faded grandeur.

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Markree Castle + Knockmuldowney Restaurant Sligo

For Richer for Poorer

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The rich man in his castle; the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly; and ordered their estate…” penned Mrs Alexander wistfully gazing beyond the river running by, through the tall trees in the green wood to the purple headed Benbulben, Europe’s only table top mountain. Little did the Bishop of Derry and Archbishop of Armagh’s wife know her hymn, first published in 1848 to raise dosh for deaf mutes (stolen children), would be an early victim of political correctness. Her Anglo Irish outlook on social immobility grated with later sensibilities so the third verse about a destined housing hierarchy disappeared. Being about Markree Castle the poor man really didn’t have too bad a time at the Francis Goodwin designed Gothic gatelodge, a piece of castle itself. Fortunately Once in Royal David’s City remains intact. The name of the castle has evolved over the last five centuries from Mercury, Marcia, Markea, Markrea and finally to Markree.

Markree Castle Gateway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Cecil Frances Alexander wasn’t the only guest to wax lyrical. William Butler Yeats recalled, “We have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.” He wrote in Running to Paradise, “Poor men have grown to be rich men; and rich men grown to be poor again.” Nowt so queer as fate. Once owned by the McDonagh clan, in 1666 the land was presented to Edward Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier from Norfolk, as a reward for his role in the Siege of Limerick. Defeated Irish chieftain Conor O’Brien’s widow Red Mary married Coronet Cooper and her two sons took the surname of their stepfather. Later, the Coopers opposed the Act of Union so no dukedom, earldom or even baronetcy was bestowed upon them. A fiefdom of 36,000 acres, generating an annual income of £10,000 by 1758, must have acted as some comfort. Any doubts of lineage and loyalty are dispelled by the stained glass window of the staircase hall. Twenty generations of Coopers are iconised between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The enlargement and embellishment of the house finally ended five years shy of the 20th century, commemorated in the date stone over the dining room French doors. In 1902 Bryan Cooper sold 30,000 acres under the Land Acts, at the same closing the basement. A seven year Indian summer was over. Benign decline in line with the times had begun.

Markree Castle Gatehouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The recent story of Markree is told in its mention in three books. Brian de Breffny and Rosemary ffolliott ominously note in 1975 in The Houses of Ireland that “Lieutenant Colonel Edward F P Cooper is the present owner and has struggled bravely to arrest the dry rot in parts of the building, though, in order to keep the roof on at all, he and his family have had to withdraw to one wing of the vast place, which was intended to be manned by a host of servants.” Thirteen years later an unhappy ending looked inevitable. The crumbling staircase hall made a poignantly picturesque back cover to the 29th Knight of Glin’s Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. Tome to tomb. By 1997, Luc Quisenaerts gushes in Hotel Gems of Great Britain and Ireland that the resurrected Markree is like “a wonderful journey through time”. Give or take the odd outbreak of civil war or dry rot, presumably. Pray how the turnaround in fortunes? A knight, this time in shining armour or at least with iron will, had arisen in the form of Charles Cooper.

Markree Castle Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree was occupied by the Free State troops during the Civil War causing damage,” Charles reveals. “Bryan Cooper’s eldest son Francis retired in 1930 and by 1950 the family had retreated to the east wing leaving the rest of the castle empty. The majority of the remaining contents were sold off. In 1988 my older brother put Markree on the market. I’ve worked in the hotel industry at home and abroad since I was 16. My wife Mary and I decided to buy Markree with the help of large bank loans and investments from family and friends. We converted it into a country house hotel. Most of the interior needed to be restored. The roof was completely refurbished due to extensive dry rot. My daughter Patricia now manages the hotel.” The top lit billiard room suspended over the porte cochère where nothing stirs remains untouched, resembling Féau & Cie’s Parisian workshop on Rue Poncelet, fit for St Simeon Stylites (“I want to be alone.”) The family live in converted and extended castellated estate buildings. Somewhere between the castle and the gate.

Markree Castle Balustrade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Phew. Still no modern wing repro’d up to the nines. Markree remains 100 percent castle. For Pringle clad budding Rory McIlroys there are six golf courses in driving range, so to speak, for afternoon tee. Thankfully, the castle has stuck to what it does best, afternoon tea. Sleek and new golf courses: once the delight of the Irish economy; now the bane of the Irish demesne. The early 17th century siege wall of a fortress built by the McDonaghs was uncovered in the basement during restoration work. But the sash windows of the basement hold more of a clue to the current building’s true origins. Hard as it is to believe, Markree is or rather was a five bay 18th century house with a three bay breakfront façade and one bay on either side of a garden front bow. So far, so Georgian. That’s till Francis Johnston came on the scene. Joshua Cooper commissioned the architect of Charleville Forest and Killeen Castle to engulf and transform the house into a castle of the early medieval revival symmetrical kind. Not content, in 1866 his son Edward Cooper employed the Edinburgh architect James Maitland Wardrop to continue the transformation, dropping a consonant from gothick to gothic in the process. Wardrop’s output includes the Jacobaronial Kinnordy Castle and Lochinch Castle, part Balmoral part Glamis (drop the second vowel to pronounce correctly).

Markree Castle Contemporary Sculptures © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The result? An encyclopaedic use of castellation, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Archivolts; bartizans; batement windows (no that’s not a typo); batters; colonettes; conical roofs; crenellations; flying buttresses and octahedral roofs (witch’s hat type, keep up); foiled quarters; battlemented servants’ quarters; machiolation; parapets; skew tables (no not sure either); six minarets crowning the billiard room, demarking a mecca of pleasure; strapwork; tracery; transoms and mullions; vaults and voussoirs. An encyclopaedic mind is required to imbue these words with meaning. Back to the late and last Knight of Glin who, ever wearing his erudition lightly, inn quotable resonant lucidity observed in his latter years, “Markree Castle, an 18th century house transformed into a castle, leaves in no doubt the competence, richness and variety of Irish country house architecture as a whole.”

Markree Castle Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Exterior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Roofscape © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle @ Lavender's Blue

Markree Castle Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Bow Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Cats © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle from Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Ground Floor Plan © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Entrance Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Stairs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Markree Castle Chapel Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It may have taken a medley of architects, but oh boy, is the approach to the inner sanctums of the castle processional. Little wonder W B Yeats considered Markree regal. A sumptuous sequence of artistic compositions begins with the grand sweep of the staircase, tipping the ground at basement level before rising in steep ascent to the piano nobile. The double height staircase hall leads to a small hallway on one level. To one side, a cast iron radiator has been recast as a sarcophagus. This accordion-like alternating suppression and expansion of space heightens (yes pun) the sense of ancestral occasion, frozen music, a monument of its own magnificence. Tahdah! Into the double height staircase hall. Things simply can’t get any more exciting, can they? Oh yes – the triple height galleried hall. Francis Johnston at his hammerbeam roofed best. Each generation made their mark on Markree and, unabashed by eclecticism, untroubled by budget, unhindered by neighbours, unperturbed by vacillation, the twinned fruity Corinthian columns and compartmentalised ceiling of the adjoining cushioned sitting room render it neoclassical. Great rooms, beautiful lofty things, where travelled men, women and little childer find content or joy in excited reverie.

Markree Castle Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The dining room is a suite of three spaces good enough for Grace of Monaco to wander through. Calm hues of hammered gold, fleshy pink, off white and pale duck egg blue do little to dampen the Continental exuberance of the gold enamelled and mirrored interior installed by Edward Cooper in the 1830s. The result? An encyclopaedic use of applied decoration, a visual feast, a rare explosion, a gallant gallimaufry. Here goes. Acanthus leaves; beading; borders; bows; cornicing; coronets; crowns; egg and dart; festoons; flowers; friezes; fruit; heraldry; masks; mouldings; panels; pilasters; plaques; well fed putti – angels in the architecture; ribbons; rosettes; scrolls; shields; swags; tails; wreaths and reeds. Time for dinner amidst the surrounds of this visual feast. Courgette, mushroom and garlic amuse bouche. Whiskey bread. Ardsalagh goats’ cheese mousse with beetroot textures and lemon basil pesto. Buttermilk onion rings, always onion rings. Cockles from the sands of Lissadell, buttered samphire, cauliflower purée and sauce vierge. Pistachio (flavour of the moment) and olive oil cake, roasted strawberries and rhubarb sorbet. It’s a riot of colour and taste, Jackson Pollock in an Irish country garden.

Markree Castle Sitting Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Double doors sliding into the thickness of the dividing walls in the dining room are panelled like geometric jigsaws. Circles and squares, quadrant pieces and segmental cutouts. Jib doors allow the dado rail to continue uninterrupted. The French doors open onto an external staircase leading down to two acres of formal gardens rich in memory glorified, silent in the breathless starlit air. The staircase was the last addition to Markree and it sure did go out with a bang. It firmly belongs to the Belfast Castle outdoor staircase school of “more is more”. A piece of architecture itself, a central bay containing an unglazed Tudorbethan window is looped in the loops as they turn and turn in wildering whirls. Dartboard windows flank each side of the staircase at basement level.

Markree Castle Sitting Room Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In Ephemera W B Yeats ponders, “‘Ah do not mourn,’ he said; ‘That we are tired, for other loves await us; hate on and love through unrepining hours. Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’” Markree, now old and grey, exudes an air of permanence in an ephemeral age. Centuries of building, from castle to house to castle to hotel, have merged into authenticity, melded by the patina of age: one form hewn from rock, one colour, one character, one craft, oneness. (1) The staircase hall remains just that. (2) Sinéad O’Connor (Sinéad O’Connor is the new Sinéad O’Connor) can still be taken to church in the traditional sanctity of the velvet curtained chapel. (3) The kitchen has been promoted to adjoin the new dining room. (4) The dining room rebranded the Knockmuldowney Restaurant was the drawing room. (5) The library stocks fewer books as the sitting room. (6) The same ghosts peer over the galleried hall to the family portraits below. (7) Drinks continue to be served in the sitting room now it’s a bar. And don’t forget the porte cochère, still there, it’s found a humbler use as a smoking room. These days it’s more upper case Regal. At the extremity of the garden front, just before the lowest wing tapers into the garden wall, a gothic arched outbuilding is now the stately home of two cats.

All 32 bedrooms are decorated in vibrant shades and furnished with dark Victorian pieces – such antique joy. The six largest are individually named. On the second floor, The Mrs Alexander Room is 370 square feet, the size of a one bedroom flat in London. It would give Temple House’s Half Acre Bedroom a run for its money. Also on the second floor, The Charles Kingsley Room has two great windows open to the south. The second floor W B Yeats Room is a hexagonal shape, pushing into the garden front bow window. Further along the garden front second floor corridor is The Bryan Cooper Room. On the first floor, The Coronet Cooper Room over the bar has a rectangular bay window and is accessed via its own serpentine stairs sliced through the thickness of the internal wall. The Johnny Cash Room (the singer stayed here in the 1990s) over the dining room is semicircular shaped. It too has its own stairs sliced through the wall.

Markree Castle Dinner © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Handmade Soap Company caters for all creature comforts great and small in the en suite bathrooms. Grapefruit and Irish Moss soap; Lavender and Rosemary bath and shower gel; Basil and Sweet Orange shampoo. A storm darkened rabbit warren: a life sized snakes and ladders game of corridors, galleries, landings, lobbies, passageways, staircases, stairwells, vestibules and more lobbies connecting the rooms is lit by a starry bright patchwork of archways, clerestories, rooflights, roof lanterns, casements and sashes. On a smaller scale, beyond the gate and pavement grey in Ballaghaderreen a castle designed by John McCurdy, architect of the Shelbourne Hotel, is for sale. Edmondstown Castle: offers around €800,000. A seven bedroom High Victorian pile on 29 acres for the price of a one bedroom flat in London.

Markree Castle Shutter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

An illuminated address presented by the tenants of Markree to Charles Cooper’s great uncle when he attained his majority hangs in the bar. It harks back to a more hat tugging, reverential era, reflecting a social order recognisable to Mrs Alexander: “Address and presentation to Edward Francis P Cooper Esq, Markree Castle, 1933. We the undersigned employees on your estate beg your acceptance of our best congratulations on the attainment of your majority and we wish you long and happy enjoyment of the position you now occupy as owner of the Markree property. We are all aware of the interest you take in Markree, and as most of us experienced very great kindness at the hand of your late father Major B R Cooper, than whom no better employer could be. We have every confidence in thinking that you will be equally good and feel that it will be a similar pleasure to serve you. We take this opportunity of expressing our deep appreciation of the many acts of kindness that we have already received from yourself and every member of your family. In commemoration of this occasion and a slight token of our feelings, we trust you will accept this small gift that we now offer with our best wishes for your welfare in the future, at the same time hoping you will be long spared to spend many happy days at Markree.” In September 2014, Markree Castle was advertised for sale in Country Life for sale for €3,125,000.

Markree Castle Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley