Chocolate Box Architecture
No, not that Soho House. Really. There’s life beyond Barcelona, Berlin, Istanbul, Miami, New York and so on and so forth. Just so happens Birmingham’s very own Soho House is a museum not a members’ club. Not any old so so museum though. Soho House Birmingham was designed by two of architecture’s most oh so famous brothers. Wrong again, not the Adam family. Samuel and James Wyatt both revamped this Georgian gem.
Pie in the Sky | The Londond’ry Arms
In the property industry, for every floor you go up, a premium is added. Room with a view with a price tag. Presumably there’s a surcharge in the hospitality industry for a table with a view. The Hilton on Park Lane isn’t a universally beloved feature of London. Even the Queen has complained about its architecture (usually she leaves that to her eldest offspring). One way to guarantee the hotel doesn’t blot your horizon is to eat on the 28th floor. There you can see just about every other landmark from Battersea Power Station to Buckingham Palace (at Her Majesty’s displeasure). We’re looking down on The Lanesborough. We’re looking for Isabel. A frenetic excursion in Gurskyism.
The interior of Galvin at Windows by designer Keith Hobbs (who did up Nobu and Shoreditch House) is unfussy retro luxury: all husky creams and musky greens and dusky greys. A galvianised bronze ceiling sculpture unfurling like a giant Christmas cracker across the ceiling towards the view is the only bow to bling. That, and the chunky golden sculpture in the adjacent bar. More of that shortly. In this most English of settings, Chef Patron Chris Galvin has created seasonally inspired menus focused on modern French haute (no pun) cuisine. Head Chef Joo Won caters for an international audience. All Michelin starred of course(s). We opt for the menu du jour. Chris was, as you may know, the opening head chef of The Wolseley five or six years ago.
With a sense of abandon, we can but only reach for rococo hyperbole, revel in baroque pleasure and roll in art nouvelle cuisine. A radical polychromatic dream of texture and flavour. And that’s just the operatic note striking the end of the afternoon: passion fruit and dark chocolate truffle petit fours. Lady Londond’ry would approve. Mourne Mountains of diced and sliced and spliced squid, celery and seaweed come hither, as crisp as a County Down spring day. More than the title deriving mere pie, a main of vegetable tarte fine, cauliflower purée, roasted mushroom and onion juice is a distinctive essay in deconstructivism. That sculptural disruptor in the bar next door – all circles in metallic squares – transcends spheres as pink (think Diana in Savannah) praline mousse, chocolate ganache and (oh, our favourite!) marzipan ice cream. Sometimes, there’s art in simply eating.
Ok, so we’ve nabbed the best table in Galvin at Windows. Good. What’s the opposite of social Siberia? A bay window practically levitating over Hyde Park. Well, it feels like California till the auto blinds descend and the air con turns up a notch or 12. Actually the three pronged propeller shape of the Hilton, gloriously inefficient to build, does generally afford delicious views (who said the hotel’s architecture was crap?). The Thames is invisible, hidden in a sea of greyness and greenery, a chaotic urban mosaic. Wait a minute! What’s that shimmering reflection? We glimpse a pale sapphire pool cradled between the catslide roof of Montevetro and the witch’s hat roof of Chelsea Harbour Tower. There you go, the Thames reduced to a jewel. And, as it turns out, all for no extra than the table stuck next to the kitchen. It’s Good Friday. The Bishop of Stepney, who promotes the reenchantment of society, says, “Live well | Live life to the full | This life is not the end.”
Over dinner at Ashbrooke House, the very neoclassical dower house of the very neoclassical Colebrooke Park, the notable Fermanagh architect Richard Pierce remarks that, “Of course, William Farrell designed Regency gothic buildings too. St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Monaghan is an example of his Regency gothic work.” Stylistically versatile, in other words.
Next to the triumphal arch is Colebrooke Park’s principal gatelodge. Kimmitt Dean gives it a mixed review in Gatelodges of Ulster, 1994: ‘In stuccoed brickwork with its fair share of Tuscan pilasters rather a poor relation of the chaste example at Ely Lodge. Single storey building on a T plan, its three bay front elevation dominated by a bow shaped hall projection. With its high ceilings and entablatured parapet concealing a hipped roof, it is truly an ungainly design. All the openings have classical surrounds but inexplicably the front door head does not line up with the rest. To compound an already unworthy design the pair of chimney stacks rise together diagonally in the most incongruous Picturesque manner. These chimneys are located at the junction of the back return and the main block, a favourite ploy of Farrell’s which he first employed in the two lodges for Ely Lodge…’
Stylistically eclectic, in other words. With a bulbous porch bursting forward to enthusiastically greet guests, this microcosmic mansion has a Grecian air save for the jolly Tudorbethan chimneys which met with Emmett’s consternation. Batty and delicious, Colebrooke Park Triumphal Arch Lodge is now an Irish Landmark Trust holiday home. John O’Connell – architect of among many other things the Montalto restoration, The Carriage Rooms and The Wallace Collection – calls it, “A very special holiday let.” And then some. The gatelodges of nearby Ely Lodge might still be there but the main house suffered a rather ignominious fate. It was blown up in 1870 to ensure the 4th Marquess of Ely’s 21st birthday went with a bang (demolition for structural reasons was the alternative less amusing excuse).
Deep Calls Unto Deep
Ship ahoy! All aboard! It was only a matter of thyme (with Botanist Islay gin and lemon wheel) until we joined The Haves and The Have Knots. Sunborn great. Others… actually make ours a mocktail (fresh kiwi, green tea syrup, ginger ale, apple and pineapple juice). On deck. Caesar salad with warm prawns too. Leaving our landlubberliness behind, we’re chillaxing on London’s only docked yacht hotel. Sunborn is bombastically blingtastic as yachts ought to be. Not plain sailing. All that glitters is gold, Franki’s incense and mirror. Busy topping up our tans, this one’s picture heavy and scripture reliant. Make waves. Oceans arise.
The Spring of Content
Dr Roderick O’Donnell, author and Country Life contributor, considers Ashbrooke House in County Fermanagh to be “a very successful Regency country house”. Kimmitt Dean notes that “this seems to have formed part of a lucrative commission for the architect, there being many buildings of similar form in the vicinity…” Such a shame the late Sir Charles Brett didn’t come west of the River Bann in his riveting series on the buildings of Ulster. It would have been interesting to hear what Charlie thought of Ashbrooke. Would he have classified it as middling or large? The front elevation stationed above a grass bank is simply divine. Aha, a haha. Five bay bliss. Formality | solidity | proportionality | materiality.
A study by Queen’s University Belfast confirms Ashbrooke’s walls are of buff pink sandstone: Ballyness Sandstone and Fermanagh Carboniferous Sandstone to be precise. This material has a lovely coloured textured finish. Just like the enigmatic standing stone on the estate. No pale smooth featureless Portland stone here. Ashbrooke House is the substantial dower house of an even larger property, Colebrooke Park. There’s an experiential reduction in scale and grandeur (yet no diminution of quality) as befits the generational decline from Viscountess to Dowager. They’re both by the same architect: William Farrell. The commodious Portaferry House in County Down is also by Will. His work has a sturdiness: an antidote to Adam style frippery. He was one of several early 19th century Dublin architects (others that spring to mind are John Bowden and John Hargrave) with country house practices. Writing in Buildings of North West Ulster, Professor Alistair Rowan summarises Ashbrooke as:
“A five bay, two storey front with big windows and a projecting solid porch with Tuscan columns. Above, a tripartite sash window. Shallow hipped roof, like the big house, but here supported on an eaves cornice with projecting stone mutules. The house has only one regular front, with a long wing behind. A plaque, in the stable yard behind, has the legend, ‘Built by Sir Henry Brooke Baronet, for the use of his tenants in the year 1830’.”
The 3rd Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough have restored and revived and rejuvenated and reinvigorated and refurnished Colebrooke. “The house was cement rendered in the early 19th century,” notes the Viscount, Lord Lieutenant of Fermanagh and Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen. An 1891 photograph shows the south elevation in that state: the polygonal conservatory has since gone; the sunken garden was yet to come. An unpeeling revealed the rugged reddish sandstone underneath. Vast (seriously large – if anything, William Farrell got scale) reception rooms with Victorian wallpaper (and umpteen bedrooms) make it the ideal setting for shooting parties. Two paned sash windows frame uninterrupted views across the parkland.
In 1974, the executors of the 1st Viscount Brookeborough instructed Osborne King + Megran to auction the contents of the big house to cover death duties. Basil Brooke had been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland for two decades. The 2nd Viscount was also a politician. The 3rd Viscount’s brother the Honourable Christopher Brooke and his wife Amanda live in a new baronial style house on the estate. The Brooke family has been in Fermanagh since Sir Henry (High Sheriff, Governor and MP for County Donegal) was granted lands by Royal Patent in 1667. Military and public service have been something of a family tradition ever since.
In the family plot in Colebrooke Church of Ireland graveyard (a cornerstone dates the church 1765), one tombstone reads, ‘Here lies the body of Brigadier General Henry Francis Brooke eldest son of the late George Frederick Brooke of Ashbrooke and of the Lady Arabella Brooke born 13th August 1836 killed in action 15th August 1880 aged 44. He fell while commanding the sortie against the village of Dehkhoja during the siege of Kandahar, south Afghanistan, in the noble endeavour to save the life of a wounded brother officer Captain Cruikshank R.E. Greater love hath no man that this. That a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15.13.’
Amanda, a talented ceramicist who has exhibited at the Royal Ulster Academy, has turned her artistic hand(s) to decorating Ashbrooke House. It is available for parties or as a holiday let. All four reception rooms, eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and one kitchen (with Aga). The tack room and rabbit man’s cottage, outbuildings behind the main house, are now artists’ studios.
Hidden from the public for almost 200 years, now is the time for Ashbrooke House to be revealed. Literarily, not literally. Nestling in the 1,000 acre Colebrooke estate, it’s always going to be exclusive. The building is T shaped: a drawing room and dining room on either side of the entrance hall in front of an older lower wing. This arrangement allows for lots of light and airy dual aspect rooms. “I don’t like subdivided rooms so en suites are in former dressing rooms and other minor rooms,” explains Amanda. With typical 19th century disregard for convenience, the kitchen was originally located at the tip of the return. That is, as far as possible from the dining room. Not anymore. The new kitchen is next to the dining room and the old one is now a bright sitting room with exposed stone arches. Guests who can’t cook won’t cook never cook can rely on catering by French Village.
“The house had barely changed in 40 years,” she records. “But in restoring it we haven’t gone for the ‘interior designed’ look.” A more organic approach was taken: relaxed country house chic. With a few family heirlooms thrown in for good measure. A portrait of Eugene Gabriel Isabey dominates the drawing room; Reverend James Ingram guards the dining room. Architectural detailing is restrained in keeping with the exterior. The drawing room timber and marble fireplace was salvaged long ago from the ruinous Corcreevy House in Fivemiletown. Vintage fire extinguishers and milk churns marked ‘Colonel Chichester, Galgorm Castle, Ballymena’ are recycled as lampstands. There are one or two inherited colour schemes. The last Dowager’s choice of mustard walls in the dining room for instance. “That’s my late mother-in-law’s wallpaper,” smiles Amanda pointing to the trellis design zigzagging across the walls and ceiling of the blue bedroom. “Not the best for hangovers.”
Over dinner, distinguished Fermanagh architect Richard Pierce waxes lyrical about Ashbrooke: “The proportions are beautiful. The scale is beautiful. The setting is beautiful. You approach Colebrooke from above. You first see Ashbrooke from below. It’s very austere except for the porch. There’s a tremendous counterpoint between the centre and the rest. I like the fact it’s not showy. It’s quiet good taste but very good taste. What I feel about Ashbrooke is that it has a sense of neoclassicism you’d find in a St Petersburg dacha.” Amanda agrees, “There’s a purity to the design.”
“These houses aren’t museums,” Christopher believes. “They have always been sources of employment. They need to be run like businesses to survive.” He should know. He has turned Galgorm Castle outside Ballymena, another family property, into a thriving enterprise employing around 300 people. Gatelodges on the Colebrooke Park estate are holiday lets. Historically, the triumphal arch, still the main entrance to the estate, was a less successful venture. It was built for the arrival of Queen Victoria but at the last minute, she pulled a sickie. The Baroness was not amused.
It’s spring at Ashbrooke House. Dewy drumlins sprinkled with a dusting of daffodils and bluebells by day. And lambing by night: after dinner a midnight jaunt beckons across the estate to a barn full of Zwartbles sheep and lambs gambling amok. “Zwartbles sheep are very friendly and make great mothers,” observes Christopher. This Dutch breed has a distinctive blackish brown fleece and white forehead streak. Sure enough, in the wee small hours one gives birth to twin lambs. “It’s a far cry from Clapham Junction,” observes Amanda. She used to live near Lavender Hill.
Breakfast at Harrods
Ever since he started pottering about in 1759, aged 29, Josiah Wedgwood’s surname has been synonymous with feats of clay. Just 11 years later the self proclaimed ‘Vase Maker General to the Universe’ wrote to his business partner Thomas Bentley about a “violent vase madness” afflicting the Anglo Irish aristos. Trust the West British to have a weakness for garniture. Americans have subsequently assumed the mantle.
The last time we dined at Harrods we were plonked on a banquette next to the late Lady Lewisham (aka Raine Spencer) sporting the grandest bouffant since Marie Antoinette. Her Ladyship was promoting Le Grand Atelier. Today it’s breakfast and launch. Generations come and generations go. Now it’s the time of the talented designer Lee Broom to shine. He’s a tastemaker and a man of taste (Kitty Fisher’s is one of his favourite London restaurants).
The stats are impressive. In less than a decade Lee has: released 75 furniture and lighting products under his own label | designed 40 commercial and residential interiors | created 20 products for other brands | opened two eponymous showrooms (London and New York) | won 20 awards including British Designer of the Year 2012 | received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2015. Having collaborated with iconic brands such as Christian Louboutin and Mulberry (he has a fashion degree from Central St Martin’s), it was only natural that Wedgwood would come knocking on his door. He may have products in 120 stores worldwide, but there’s only one Harrods (complete with Wedgwood concession).
In person, Lee is charming and polite. “I was inspired by Wedgwood’s historic black and white Jasperware,” he explains. “It already has a contemporary feel. I’ve taken the classical elements and silhouettes and stripped back the ornamentation for an even more modern look. I love the charcoal colour and biscuit texture of Jasperware which I’ve injected with neon high gloss details!” Priced from £7,500 to £12,000, the bowl and vases are handcrafted in Wedgwood’s Stoke-on-Trent factory. Josiah would approve.
Ned is having a moment. The smart money for a hot spring London staycation is on The Ned, bang next door to Trinity House. Carved out of the former Midland Bank HQ and named after its jolly architect Sir Edwin ‘Ned’ Landseer Lutyens, the hotel cum member’s club is the latest affair from Soho House complete with spoiling Cowshed spa. Even more exclusive (it’s not open to the public) is Little Thakeham, a very private house by Edwin at the end of a long lane, meandering past vineyards, embedded in the edge of the South Downs.
Since its inception at the turn of two centuries ago, Country Life has provided a weekly dose to the shires of girls in pearls and country house porn. The ultimate double page spread quenching all the quintessentially British desires surely is Little Thakeham ever since it first graced the magazine in 1909. The Arts and Crafts with Elizabethan roots of Country Life owner Edward Hudson’s house Deanery Gardens elopes with the Grand Mannerist Wrenaissance of Country Life’s original offices Hudson House. For once, the gardens aren’t by Ned’s green fingered chum Gertrude Jekyll. The architect designed their structure and the original planting was by his client Ernest Blackburn.
This Free Vernacular meets British Empire marriage organically climaxes in the main reception room (currently a music room). A double height mullioned bay window (recently restored following mini tornado damage) to make Bess of Hardwick proud abuts rustication and half moon pediments keeping up with Inigo Jones. Only a talented architect could pull off such stylistic daring. Little wonder Ned himself proudly called Little Thakeham “the best of the bunch”. A country seat with a country seat: 14 times the size of the average British home. Nine bedrooms. Eight bathrooms. Five reception rooms. One Thakeham Bench. First designed for Little Thakeham, this ubiquitous garden seat design has become synonymous with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Some people are always in fashion.