In the land of champ and Portavogie scampi and pasties (Ulster not Cornish) and soda farls and wheaten bread and dulse and Tayto crisps and fifteens and rocky roads and yellowman there’s something new and exciting to go and explore for a wee dander. The original house at the heart of the Culloden Estate – the Bishop’s Palace – may be 145 years old but Art and Soul, the Holywood International Art and Sculpture Fair filling its grounds and interiors, is very much a meantime use.
Dr Howard Hastings, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, explains “At Hastings Hotels, I believe that we can distinguish from our competitors by highlighting the local culture and heritage surrounding our hotels. One way we do this is by focussing on our own locally grown produce in our menus. At Culloden Estate and Spa, another way we achieve this is through the artwork on display throughout the hotel. Some of these paintings were acquired by my father, Sir William Hastings. He selected paintings he liked and which he thought were in keeping with the Bishop’s Palace setting. More recently we’ve concentrated on supporting our local artists, many of whom have international reputations, yet still live and work in Northern Ireland.”
The great poet may have immortalised Ben Bulben Mountain but there’s so much more countryside besides. At Drumcliffe, a tavern, café and shop cater for profane needs and then the spirit is lifted – once the church, grave and round tower have also been visited – by nature at its wildest. It ain’t called the Wild Atlantic Way for nothin’.
It’s the last weekend of summer. As the train meanders past the chalky White Cliffs of Dover we come over all Vera Lynn. Altogether now: “There’ll be love and laughter; and peace ever after…” Although it’s hard not to dream of the cliffs as topography’s answer to Fanny Cradock’s powdered cheekbones. Past Priory (no, that one, although smuggling is involved), our sun kissed naval base looms into view. Maybe not quite looms. Deal isn’t big. Nor raw. Deal meal. Puns (mostly) over, we’re here for the domestic architecture.
A tale of two towns. Kind of. A higgledly piggedly jumble of centuries old topsy turvy Georgian or Georgian faced townhouses squeezed between the esplanade and High Street contrasts with voluptuous Edwardian villas strung out along the coast. Of course that’s a gross oversimplification but wherever there’s pudding to be egged there’s Lavender’s Blue. Britain’s only brutalist pier doesn’t fit our narrative. Nor do the Brightonesque Regency houses. Nor does the tulip shaped Tudor castle. Ours is a binary filtered storyline of sepia saturated prose.
Close of play is more like end of day as a cricket match on the pebbly beach unfolds unabated through an unforgiving sunset. It is, though, a spectacularly balmy evening. We stroll past The Black Douglas Coffee House. Named after a tyrannical 14th century Scottish ruler, the surname is more closely associated with his descendant Bosie. It’s owned by Dalziel Douglas. Her partner is closing shop. “Come for breakfast tomorrow and Lady Douglas will give you the full history! She’s the great great niece of Bosie.” Oscar Wilde called the Douglas family a “mad, bad line”. The aptly black painted shopfront is in a quintessentially Deal block. Four buildings – four window levels – four eaves heights – four colours. All perceptibly lopsided, living in fear of the perpendicular, clinging to each other like tipsy aged fishwives.
We dive into the orb speckled alleyways behind Beach Street. No minimum distances between dwellings; no wonder everybody knows everybody. Tiny windows peep above pavements and a dusting of Dutch gables graces the slit of artists’ sky above. Christmas House; The Paragon; Steadfast; Tally Ho. Some have planchette plundered passageways; others, secret hidden rooms. Collectively, a smugglers’ paradise of the past. And if you didn’t benefit from ill gotten gains back then, there was still plenty of booty to be had. A poster on a wall announces:
“Wreck sale on the quayside of this port at 10 o’clock in the forenoon on the 24th day of April 1796. Part of the cargoes of ships that have recently come to grief in these parts. Consisting of: 56 Bales of Wool | 124 Deer Skins | 37 Cases of Flour | 9 Casks of White Lead | 287 Oak Handspikes | 21 Barrels of Tar | 341 Pieces of Cloth | 67 Articles of Pewter | 23 Barrels of Potash | 154 Pieces of Firtimber | 1 Open Boat | 16 Hatchets | 20 Casks of Cudbear | 112 Cases of English China | 45 Pipes of Linseed Oil | 209 Spills of Cotton Yarn.”
A poster on a bow window advertises the clandestine sounding Dining Club. Temptations listed include potato and mushroom terrine followed by roast mullet and pea fritter. Leaving the twisted grid of ghostly cross lanes behind, we head south. Between the two halves of the town we promenade past an antiques shop named 1815 in a building that looks 1915. The mesmeric shop window displays chandeliers, piers and a stuffed seagull. The art of the deal.
Beyond, the Edwardian villas are unabashedly self important, acutely aware they can be viewed from all angles unlike their narrow northern neighbours. Widows’ and Juliet balconies galore. There are terraces and balconies and verandahs and terraces on balconies on verandahs. One especially memorable house is crowned with a gloriously top heavy coven of witch’s hat roofs. Their inhabitants aren’t self important: they even say hello on the street. Goodness, this really isn’t London-on-Sea. Shame that discovering The Black Douglas was on our last night. But it’s not a deal breaker. We’ve an excuse to descend on Deal again. Not that one’s required. Last pun (for now). It’s a deal.
This isn’t a tale of two pities. At last! A country house in Ireland not being converted into flats or a hotel or worst of all abandoned? Rather, being returned to its original use? Well, that is a good news story. Ok, it’s a country house historically if not geographically cause it’s plonked in Ballyhackamore, Belfast’s very own East Village, off a busy dual carriageway, but still. Restoration is ongoing – already, correctly detailed skylight windows in the stable block and proper cleaning of the sandstone suggest it’s all going to be terribly smart. Consarc are the architects of its revival. Ormiston House had a narrow escape. Planning permission was granted in 2010 to carve it up into 20 frightful flats. Thank goodness for a knight and madam in shining white armour in the form of the owners of Argento Jewellers. Past distinguished owners include Sir Edward Harland of Harland + Wolff fame.
With a burst of turn of the century optimism, the Northern Ireland Assembly bought Ormiston for a whopping This Boom Will Never Bust £9 million. Late 20th century uses had included a boarding house for nearby Campbell College and a police station. The final sale price to Peter and Ciara Boyle was a few quid over £1 million. Scottish architect David Bryce’s 1860s baronial pile is back in town. A grand 57 square metre staircase hall accessed through north and south lobbies sets the tone. Back of country house essentials such as a pastry kitchen and boot room aren’t forgotten. The four staircases will be put to good use, linking two floors of formal reception rooms, informal entertainment suites and bedrooms to a turreted top floor of two airy eyrie guest rooms.
As its name suggests, Duck + Waffle isn’t the most glaringly obvious choice for a chronic coeliac, devout vegan and puritanical pescatarian. But then this restaurant puts the extra in front of ordinary. A high speed glass lift swoops customers like a ravenous transparent vulture from street level up 40 storeys in sixteen seconds of ear popping heart stopping stomach churning vertigo inducing awe inspiring spirit lifting butt clenching knicker bocker glory.
The view from our table reminds us of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. “The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying both: the windowpane and the landscape.” The great indoors and great outdoors as one. Filling the foreground is the sharp grey homogeneous city, all metallic silver angles and bottle green glass shapes. A morning mist lingers over the blurred strange hinterland beyond, merging with the hazy blue sky toward an uncertain horizon. The tip of the glacial Gherkin is our neighbour. West Coast Cooling.