“The sun always shines on the righteous!” claims hotelier Astrid Bray and sure enough the clouds fade to reveal an unblemished cobalt blue sky over the Capital City of Northwest Ulster. For once it’s not “foundering” as the locals would say. Depending on your persuasion, the name of this place is a four syllable binational portmanteau (Londonderry), a three syllable aristocratic surname (Londond’ry) or a rationalist nationalist two syllables (Derry). The city is one of two in Northern Ireland to share its name with its host county; Armagh does as well (Antrim doesn’t count as it is a mere town and county).
Sisters Margaret and Laura Bowe are joint châtelaines of Marlfield. Laura is Chairperson of Ireland’s Blue Book. “Now entering its 47th year,” she explains, “our collection of properties and restaurants continue to offer luxurious, memorable and unique experiences across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland… We are very proud of our chefs and patron chefs, with many of our restaurants boasting one and two Michelin stars.”
Guests at Bishop’s Gate Hotel are greeted by a framed picture of a quote by the sage Madame Lily Bollinger, clearly not the abstemious sort: “I drink when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” Equally educational are a series of framed architects’ drawings illustrating the genesis of the architecture of the hotel and other significant buildings in Derry.
Like all cultural tourists to the city, we ask our waitress for directions to the Derry Girls mural. “Not a bother!” she enthuses. “Just like a lollypop lady I’ll direct you!” Her shortcut is through the rear of the hotel. “This room used to be a garden and that’s a covered up well in the corner. The house where the hotel is now was used to hold prisoners during the Siege of Derry. They were able to travel underground from here to a well on Shipquay Street and from there across to boats on the River Foyle to escape.”
Sunday afternoon cricket on Wandsworth Common makes for a bucolic tableau. It’s like a Lowry painting negative: starched white figures against a deep green, the working class city swapped for middle class suburbia. Or perhaps a Surrey village scene. Two centuries ago it would’ve been a Surrey village scene. Wandsworth only became a London Borough in more recent times. In the midst of the Common is a building locals refer to as “Dracula’s Castle” with good reason – its history is as dark as its slate roof.
“My Dear Sir, If the Patriotic Fund Commission should select my ground to found their Institution on Wandsworth Common I should be willing, in consideration of the national object, to take on half the price Mr Lee has fixed on the value viz: £50 an acre… I do not wish to encounter any difficulty with the Copyholders, and the Commissioners, if they entertain any position of land, must take all risks of those difficulties. Yours faithfully, Spencer.” The Committee accepted the Earl’s offer and bought 65 acres (26 hectares) for £3,700. Nearby Spencer Park, where Chef Gordon Ramsay has his London pad, is a reminder of the Northamptonshire aristocratic connection.
The building may also look like a Victorian madhouse but that’s about the only use it hasn’t been even though it was originally called the Asylum. Now for a countdown through the decades: 1858 orphanage; 1914 hospital; 1919 orphanage once more; 1939 reception centre; 1946 training college; 1952 school; 1970 vacant; and of late, 27 apartments, 20 studios, 15 workshops, two offices, a drama school and Le Gothique bar and restaurant. Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins lives in one of the apartments. Past residents have included Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor and Charlotte Jane Bennett. The latter was an unfortunate schoolgirl who burned to death in 1901 on an upper floor – her ghost is said to prowl the interior as night falls.
What on earth is a ‘reception centre’ or to use its full name the London Reception Centre? It is a somewhat euphemistic term for a refugee detention headquarters. Following the collapse of France and the Low Countries in 1940 in World War II, a flood of refugees entered Britain. Those from Germany and the Axis countries were usually interned while non enemy aliens were interviewed by immigration. MI5 decided to create a reception centre and where better than the highly adaptable Royal Patriotic School as it was known in its latest guise. Refugees from Occupied Europe had to pass through the reception centre – a sheep from the goats process. An average of 700 refugees were processed each month. Several spies were unmasked and hanged at Wandsworth Prison across the Common. It is rumoured that the Nazi Rudolf Hess was interrogated in the reception centre.
Major Rohde Hawkins was the original architect; Giles Quarme, the restoration architect. The 17th century George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh designed by William Wallace was the inspiration for the design. Major Hawkins sought to omit some of the ornamental details “to carry out which it was found would absorb too large an amount of the surplus at the disposal of the Commissioners”. Opening the orphanage, Queen Victoria declared it to be “beautiful, roomy and airy”. Recounting the day’s events in her diary that night, Her Majesty ended the entry with an entreaty: “May this good work, which is to bear my name, prosper!”
The Building News praised the new orphanage as being “bold, picturesque and effective”. Later royal visitors would include King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria, and Queen Amelia of Belgium. Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell recognises the influence of municipal Flemish works in the architecture. “This is a secular gothic rather than ecclesiastical gothic influenced by buildings such as town halls in Florence and Bruges. There are also tones of Scottish baronial. The rhythm of a central tower with balancing towers either end of the façade was very popular during this period.” A corresponding orphanage (now Emanuel School) designed by Henry Saxon Snell was built for boys slightly to the north of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum.
“Built as a school for orphaned daughters of servicemen, 1857 to 1859, by Rhode [sic] Hawkins,” summarise Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in The Buildings of England London 2: South (1983). “A typically pompous Victorian symmetrical composition of yellow brick, with coarsely robust gothic detail. Three storeys with entrance below a central tower; lower towers at the ends, corbelled out turrets and bow windows. Statue of St George and the Dragon in a central niche. Separate chapel. Low concrete additions of the 1960s to the north.”
Amongst the flourish of turrets, spikes and spires is a crocketed pinnacle with what appear to be mad cows nosediving off it. “It is strange that the gargoyles are in the form of hounds or lambs in lead!” observes heritage architect John O’Connell. “The Major designed this architectural element in timber and lead when it should all be in stone.” The orphanage Commissioners noted in their 1869 report that “from the size of the building and its peculiar construction and arrangements, it is a most expensive one to manage and keep in repair”. So much for Major Rohde Hawkins’ value engineering efforts! That’s no surprise. It is a complex complex with the main block built around a north courtyard and a south courtyard separated by a dining hall which is now used by the drama school. Both courtyards are surrounded on three sides by ground floor cloister type corridors. A rear courtyard cloistered on one side extends to the east and to the northeast is a standalone chapel.
Master of the Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s preferred builder George Myers constructed the orphanage. His tender of £31,337 also happened to be the lowest. “George Myers had an enormous works along the South Bank in Lambeth,” explains Dr O’Donnell. “Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Colney Hatch, Barnet, was his largest project.” The contractor made one change to Major Hawkins’ design, replacing a clock with a statue of St George and the Dragon – which as a skilled stonemason he may have carved himself – on the top floor of the entrance tower. Innovative construction methods included off site prefabrication of iron window frames, decorative leadwork and stone dressings. This allowed construction to be completed in under two years. Mark Justin, founder of Le Gothique relates, “This was the first building in the UK to have pre stressed concrete and mesh floors.” The restoration of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building would take three times as long.
“This building has a colourful history!” says Mark with more than a hint of understatement. He manages the bar and restaurant with his son Andrew. “Le Gothique is masculine not feminine because it’s named after the era not the building. I’ve been here for 35 years – I’m the longest serving landlord of a venue in London. Jean-Marie Martin was our French Head Chef for the first 25 years. Our Head Chef is now Italian Bruno Barbosa. If I’m asked for a description of our food I’d say ‘modern European’.”
Mark confirms the Rudolf Hess story is more than a rumour. “He came here in 1945. Why did he come to the UK though? On a whim he crash landed in the Duke of Hamilton’s estate in Scotland. He seemingly thought he could arrange peace talks with the Duke who was involved with the British Government’s war policy but he misunderstood pacifism here. Churchill went ballistic and he was arrested. But why did he come? He was invited by the Royals, specifically King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Hess spent three days in the reception centre. The Government papers were due to be released but have been classified again until 2035. It’s all to do with Rudolf Hess and the potential downfall of the monarchy.”
“The restoration and conversion were featured in a 24 page spread in Architects’ Journal. Architect Eva Jiricna did the apartment interiors. She replaced the wooden beams with high tension steel wire and added glass staircases to mezzanine bedrooms.” Mark finishes, “Businessman Paul Tutton bought the 3,700 square metre derelict listed building from the Greater London Corporation for a pound. It was pigeon central! He restored and converted the building incrementally. Geoff Adams bought flat number one in 1985 for £24,000. Geoff died last year.” Gnocchi with butternut squash velouté followed by tart aux poires with vanilla ice cream, modern and European and delicious, are served alfresco in the north courtyard. Upstairs, a figure darts across one of the windows. Could it be Charlotte Jane?
Back at the last manor of the day, after a 22 minute whiz through the South Downs from Standen, the voice of a waiter announcing the arrival of the sugared strawberry appetiser is music to our ears. Afternoon tea at Ockenden Manor is on its way. Sussex cheddar sandwiches zhuzhed up with homemade piccalilli compete with smoked salmon to hit the high (crust free) note. Homemade scones with clotted cream and raspberry slash redcurrant (not strawberry!) jam contribute to a mellow-day. A harmony of sweets follows. Lemon drizzle cake, chocolate éclairs, strawberry shortcake and petit fours: all of Mrs Beeton’s boxes are ticked. At Lavender’s Blue, we pride ourselves on originality of word, image and thought. Mostly. This one is plagiarised. Below is an adapted cut and paste job from our favourite hotelier-turned-MD-soon-to-be-restaurateur’s review of a lively supper last summer at The Ivy Chelsea Garden.
Doorwoman: warm, welcoming and gregariously friendly
Reception: great welcome, big smiles and efficient
Bar: it might not be a school night but it’s our chauffeur’s day off (return visit required)
Room: perfect layout and comfortable seating areas, spacious, adequate (not too bright) lighting – and still in essence a country house – phew!
Waiters: just utterly divine – in looks, style, knowledge and personality
Loos: lovely design and everything worked (not us, the area!)
Food: good choice, perfectly cooked, baked and presented, adequate timing between servings – and did we mention this is still in essence a country house? – double phew!
Wine: see entry for ‘bar’ above
Could be our new (country) favourite!
There’s so much more to Ockenden but we’re as stuffed as the taxidermy at Standen, as full as Saint Hill’s bookshelves. For architecture devotees, the building is a bubbling laboratory of samples through the centuries, well worth analysing. And what about the cutesy chocolate box village of Cuckfield beyond those open gates? But even an indoor | outdoor swimming pool – the laps of luxury – tucked into the walled kitchen garden can wait. Designed by John Cooper Associates, the contemporary spa pavilion is a rhapsody in (copper coloured) steel. And Parklex 1000 Natural Boak. And glazed curtain walling.
Together these architects captured the spirit of the age. Lynn produced a majestic baronial pile with chamfered bay windows perfectly angled for views of the garden and lake simultaneously. Lanyon crammed the house of Italian Renaissance interiors and designed a matching loggia to boot. Fully signed up members of the MTV Cribs generation will find it hard not to go into unexpected sensory overload at this veritable treasure trove of historic delights. Castle Leslie is all about faded charm; it’s the antithesis of footballer’s pad bling. But still, the place is an explosion of rarity, of dazzling individuality. Sir Jack’s brother Desmond Leslie wrote in 1950:
“The trees are enormous, 120 feet being average for conifers; the woods tangled and impenetrable; gigantic Arthur Rackham roots straddle quivering bog, and in the dark lake huge old fish lie or else bask in the amber ponds where branches sweep down to kiss the water.”
We caught up with Sammy in the cookery school in one of the castle’s wings. “Although I’m the fifth of six children, I always wanted to run the estate, even if I didn’t know how. After working abroad, I returned in 1991. The estate was at its lowest point ever. My father Desmond was thinking of selling up to a Japanese consortium. There was no income… crippling insurance to pay… The Troubles were in full swing. People forget how near we are to the border here.”
Nevertheless Sammy took it on. “I sold dad’s car for five grand and got a five grand grant from the County Enterprise Board to start the ‘leaky tearooms’ in the conservatory. They were great as long as it didn’t rain! And I sold some green oak that went to Windsor for their restoration. Sealing the roof was the first priority. Five years later we started to take people to stay and bit by bit we got the rest of the house done. So we finished the castle in 2006 after – what? Nearly 15 years of slow restoration. “The Castle Leslie and Caledon Regeneration Partnership part funded by the EU provided finance of €1.2 million. Bravo! The house and estate were saved from the jaws of imminent destruction.
The Leslies are renowned for their sense of fun. An introductory letter sent to guests mentions Sir Jack (an octogenarian) will lead tours on Sunday mornings but only if he recovers in time from clubbing. In the gents (or ‘Lords’ as it’s grandly labelled) off the entrance hall beyond a boot room, individual urinals on either side of a fireplace are labelled ‘large’, ‘medium’, ‘tiny’ and ‘liar’. Take your pick. A plethora of placards between taxidermy proclaim such witticisms as ‘On this site in 1897 nothing happened’ and ‘Please go slowly round the bend’.
Bathrooms are a bit of a Leslie obsession ever since the thrones and thunderboxes were introduced upstairs. “The sanitary ware in the new bathrooms off the long gallery is by Thomas Crapper. Who else?” she smiles. “We’ve even got a double loo in the ladies so that you can carry on conversations uninterrupted!” Exposed stone walls above tongue and groove panelling elevate these spaces above mere public conveniences.
In the top lit gallery which runs parallel with the loggia, the 1st Sir John Leslie painted murals in the 1890s of his family straight onto the walls and framed them to look like hanging portraits. Always one to carry on a family tradition with a sense of pun, this time visual tricks, Sammy has created a thumping big doll’s house containing an en suite bathroom within a bedroom which was once a nursery. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Irvine Welsh’s play Babylon Heights.
A sense of history prevails within these walls, from the amusing to the macabre. The blood drenched shroud which received the head of James, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, the last English earl to be beheaded for being a Catholic, is mounted on the staircase wall. “It’s a prized possession of Uncle Jack’s,” Sammy confides.
Our conversation moves on to her latest enterprise: the Castle Leslie Village. “An 1850s map records a village on the site,” she says. “Tenant strips belonging to old mud houses used to stretch down to the lake. Our development is designed as a natural extension to the present village of Glaslough.” In contrast to the ornate articulation of its country houses, Ulster’s vernacular vocabulary is one of restraint. Dublin based architect John Cully produced initial drawings; Consarc provided further designs and project managed the scheme. Consarc architect Dawson Stelfox has adhered to classical proportions rather than applied decoration to achieve harmony. Unpretentiousness is the key. At Castle Leslie Village there are no superfluous posts or pillars or piers or peers or pediments or porticos or porte cochères. Self builders of Ulster take note!
That said, enough variety has been introduced into the detail of the terraces to banish monotony. Organic growth is suggested through the use of Georgian 12 pane, Victorian four pane and Edwardian two pane windows. There are more sashes than a 12th of July Orange Day parade. Rectangular, elliptical and semicircular fanlights are over the doorways, some sporting spider’s web glazing bars, others Piscean patterns. “We’ve used proper limestone and salvaged brick,” notes Sammy. “And timber window frames and slate.”
We question Sammy how she would respond to accusations of pastiche. “They’re original designs, not copies,” she retorts. “For example although they’re village houses, the bay window idea comes from the castle. The development is all about integration with the existing village. It’s contextual. These houses are like fine wine. They’ll get better with age.” It’s hard to disagree. “There’s a fine line between copying and adapting but we’ve gone for the latter.”
Later we spoke to Dawson. “Pastiche is copying without understanding. We’re keeping alive tradition, not window dressing. For example we paid careful attention to solid-to-void ratios. Good quality traditional architecture is not time linked. We’re simply preserving a way of building. McGurran Construction did a good job. I think Castle Leslie Village is quite similar to our work at Strangford.”
The houses are clustered around two eligible spaces: a square and a green. Dwelling sizes range from 80 to 230 square metres. “We offered the first two phases to locals at the best price possible and they were all snapped up,” says Sammy. “This has resulted in a readymade sense of community because everyone knows each other already. A few of the houses are available for holiday letting.”
“We’re concentrating on construction first,” she explains. “The hunting lodge being restored by Dawson will have 25 bedrooms, a spa and 60 stables. It’ll be great craic! Between the various development sites we must be employing at least 120 builders at the moment. Estate management is next on the agenda. Food production and so on.” Just when we think we’ve heard about all of the building taking place at Castle Leslie, Sammy mentions the old stables. “They date from 1780 and have never been touched. Two sides of the courtyard are missing. We’re going to rebuild them. The old stables will then house 12 holiday cottages.”
We ask her if she ever feels daunted by the mammoth scale of the task. “I do have my wobbly days but our family motto is ‘Grip Fast’! I think that when you grow up in a place like this you always have a sense of scale so working on a big scale is normal. I mean it’s 400 hectares, there’s seven kilometres of estate wall, six gatelodges – all different, and 7,300 square metres of historic buildings.” Sammy continues, “The back wall from the cookery school entrance to the end of the billiard room is a quarter of a kilometre.”
“A place like this evolves,” Sammy ruminates. “There’s no point in thinking about the good ol’ days of the past. The castle was cold and damp, y’know, and crumbling. And it’s just – it’s a joy to see it all coming back to life. The whole reason we’re here is to protect and preserve the castle and because the house was built to entertain, that’s what we’re doing. We’re just entertaining on a grand scale. People are coming and having huge amounts of fun here. Castle Leslie hasn’t changed as much as the outside world. Ha!” This year there’s plenty to celebrate including the completion of Castle Leslie Village, the Leslie family’s 1,000th anniversary, Sammy’s 40th birthday, and Sir Jack’s 90th and the publication of his memoirs.
That was six years ago. This summer we returned to Castle Leslie. Our seventh visit, we first visited the house umpteen years ago. Back then Sammy served us delicious sweetcorn sandwiches and French onion soup in the ‘leaky tearooms’, looking over the gardens of knee high grass. The shadows were heightening and lengthening ‘cross the estate. Her late father Desmond showed us round the fragile rooms lost in a time warp. Ireland’s Calke Abbey without the National Trust saviour. He would later write on 11 May 1993, waxing lyrical to transform an acknowledgement letter into a piece of allegorical and existential prose:
“I am glad you enjoyed your personally conducted tour. We try to make them interesting and amusing. Thanks also for St John – the only disciple who really understood. His opening verses contain more advanced cosmic science than all the modern theorists bundled together. I also love Chapter 17 ‘that ye may be one’. But now, at least, scientists state it all began with the sudden appearance of light from nowhere, filling the whole of space in a billionth part of a second – The Big Bang. Or more simply – ‘Let there be Light. And there was Light.’ As our old friend Ecclesiastes says, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ I hope you will come again when you have nothing better to do on a nice weekend.”
On another occasion, Sammy’s sister, the vivacious Camilla Leslie, came striding up the driveway, returning home from London to get ready for her wedding the following week. “Nothing’s ready! I’ve to get the cake organised, my dress, at least we’ve got the church!” she exclaimed, pointing to the estate church. This time round we stay in Wee Joey Farm Hand’s Cottage in Castle Leslie Village, enjoy a lively dinner in Snaffles restaurant in the hunting lodge, and once again, afternoon tea, now served in the drawing room. Meanwhile, Sir Jack is taking a disco nap in the new spa to prepare for his regular Saturday night clubbing in Carrickmacross.
That was four years ago. Visit number eight and counting. More to celebrate as Sammy, still living in the West Wing, turns 50. Sir Jack would have turned 100 on 6th December but sadly died just weeks before our visit. This time, we’re here for afternoon tea in the rebuilt conservatory or ‘sunny tearooms’ as they turn out to be today. The assault of a rare Irish heatwave, 26 degrees for days on end, won’t interrupt tradition. A turf fire is still lit in the drawing room. ‘Apologies for the mismatching crockery as so many of our plates have been smashed during lively dinner debates’ warned a sign on our first visit. The crockery all matches now but the food is of the same high standard: