Ormiston House Belfast + Woburn House Millisle

We Dream the Same Dream

Ormiston House Belfast © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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.

A smorgasbord of cafés, restaurants and bars now consumes Downtown Ballyhackamore. Highlights include Graze (farm to plate), Il Pirata (Italian tapas), Jasmine (bring your own Indian although a free digestif is served – it’s never dry in Belfast) and Horatio Todd’s (a lively bar cum brasserie named after a dead pharmacist). Belfast prides itself on local chains. Clements (coffee), Greens (pizza), Little Wings (more pizza) and Streat (more coffee) to name a few. The #keepitlocal campaign garners plenty of support. Back in the day, Deanes behind the City Hall was The Place To Go. Chef turned restaurateur Michael Deane’s empire now spans Deanes Meat Locker, Deanes at Queen’s, Deane + Decano, Deanes Deli Bistro, Eipic and Sexy Love Fish. It’s even spawned a tour Dine Around Deanes (‘January to March sold out!’ screams the website).

The greening of East Belfast (not a political pun) continues to grow. New allotments on the Newtownards Road (who would’ve thought?) | East Belfast Mission’s vertical garden clinging to the Skainos Building, also on the Newtownards Road | Comber Greenway – the city’s answer to New York’s High Line. Quick city centre interlude. Still recovering from a driveby sighting of the shocking Waterfront Hall extension (wrong place, wrong shape, wrong materials, plain wrong – see the Ulster Museum for a lesson in How To Extend Well) squashed along the River Lagan, it is joyous to behold the new Queen’s University Library. Designed by Boston architects Shepley Bulfinch in association with local architects Robinson Patterson, it’s pure Ivy League architecture. The buttressed elevations and tapering tower are a suitably dignified addition to the campus.

Down the East Coast to cool Woburn House (no deer, not that Woburn). County Down’s very own Woburn is in the mould of a trio of mid 19th century Italianate villas-on-steroids in Newtownabbey: Seapark House, Carrickfergus (Thomas Jackson designed) | The Abbey in Whiteabbey (a Lanyon special) | Abbeydene in Whiteabbey (‘Jackson’s office or Lanyon’s office? Not without hesitation I vote for the former,’ pondered Charlie Brett in his 1996 guide Buildings of Antrim). Turns out Woburn is by neither of these Irish greats. The house sprung up in the 1860s to the design of John McCurdy of Dublin. Woburn’s tenuous connection to Ormiston is that it’s state owned. It was last used as a training centre for prison officers and now lies bleakly empty. Up to the 1950s, Woburn was the seat of the Pack-Beresfords until death duties necessitated its sale. It would be great to see both buildings even better connected, restored as single houses. That would be one helluva twist.

Woburn House Millisle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Lavender’s Blue + Twilight

Purple Reign

Janice Porter at Twilight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Twilight. The seeping of day into night. Flux made manifest. A liminal state, a period of transformation, both optical and psychological. As light fades, our eyes play tricks on us, inventing horizons, altering distances, rediscovering amethyst tinged silhouettes and moonstone obliquities. We become more obscure to ourselves as well. Soon we will be diner, dancer, lover. But in this viridian moment, the last territory of the light, the cobalt night is not so much young as hardly begun.

There’s palpable tension in this transition between our day and night selves, a metaphoric transformation from clear definition to suggestion. In Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov’s doomed character Albinus experiences it on a visit to his mistress. ‘Lights were being put on, and their soft orange glow looked very lovely in the pale dusk. The sky was still quite blue, with a single salmon coloured cloud in the distance, and all this unsteady balance between light and dusk made Albinus feel giddy.’

For lost souls, the magic hour passes unobserved, pre empted by the explicit reds of sunset; or its nuances eclipsed by the acid glow of streetlights. F Scott Fitzgerald beautifully captures the melancholy of fading day in The Great Gatsby when his narrator observes, ‘At the enhanced metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others – poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner – young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.’

The subtle apostrophe-free lavender blue of twilight deserves to be the scene snatcher. Even the near obsolete words associated with it are seductive: crepuscular, gloaming, penumbra. Little wonder the Romantics – Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth – were obsessed about fixing twilight as a poetic shortcut to existential meditations. ‘The violet hour’ as T S Eliot writes in The Waste Land is ‘when the eyes and back turn upward from the desk’. Just dwell on yet more literary episodes imbued with meaning, entwined with being: Mrs Dalloway kissing Sally Seton on the terrace, Mrs Moore’s moment of transcendence in A Passage to India, Marlow’s mistruth about Kurtz’s last words in Heart of Darkness. Not to mention the hotbed of nefarious doings at twilight in gothic novels, from Dracula to Frankenstein.

Twilight. A hymn for vespers. Victor Hugo and Les Chants du Crépuscule. A habitual sense of belatedness. The time when the power of reason wanes and fantasy weaves its own tales. Full of frisson, danger, desire. Moral and social structures loosen as the first stars appear. Under the diffusion of smoky mauve light there is heightened sensitivity to the promise of life; anything is possible in this magic hour of nocturnes and nostalgia. Grasp it, for the intensity is almost tangible; feel it, before going forth into the night; derivative yet original, living in the unregretted present yet loving the lingering evening of the past.

Lavender's Blue Twilight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Lavender’s Blue + Russborough Blessington Wicklow

Architecture in Harmony

1 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A rondo is a piece of music in which the main theme keeps recurring between different episodes. Antonio Diabelli’s Rondino was written for the piano in the 18th century. essentially a ternary or three element form, two repeats elongate this rondo into a five part composition. It opens in mezzo piano, rising through a crescendo the a forte section, before softening through a diminuendo back to mezzo piano.

2 Russborough Houssse Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Rondino is typical of the classical era of the arts. It is symmetrical with a regular rhythm set in harmonised yet contrasting elements strung out and repeated. Articulated notions of Beauty, the Sublime and the Picturesque underscore the symbolic sensibilities of the piece. This is a work from a maestro at the height of his creative gamesmanship.

3 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The same could be said of Russborough, an Irish neoclassical house designed by the virtuoso architect Richard Castle. The Palladian ideal of dressing up a farm axially to incorporate the house and ancillary buildings into one architectural composition flourished in 18th century Ireland, especially under German born Castle.

4 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The central block of Russborough is seven bays wide by two storeys tall over basement. Bent arcades link two identical lower seven bay two storey wings. This five part superfaçade is constructed of silvery grey granite. Straight retaining walls extend from the wings to terminate in gateways at either extremity, like encores. Little wonder Johann von Goethe called architecture “frozen music”.

5 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Awesome, yes. But it combined form with function from an 18th century perspective. One wing contained the servants’ quarters and kitchen; the other, the stables. The two gateways led to the separate stable yard farmyard. In the central block, the high ceilinged piano nobile was used for public entertaining. The low ceilinged first floor was for private family use. The basement housed vaulted wine cellars and yet more servants’ accommodation.

6 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Such is the genius of the place, and its architect, that this arrangement has adapted well in subsequent centuries. When Sir Alfred and Lady Beit flung open their doors to the great unwashed in 1978, a neo Georgian single storey visitors’ centre was neatly inserted behind the eastern colonnade. The west wing was restored in 2012 and discreetly converted into a Landmark Trust holiday let.

7 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Beit Foundation has ensured the survival of Russborough despite no less than four art robberies from an ungrateful element of the recipient nation. This is no picnic in a foreign land. A tour guide as graceful as Audrey Hepburn glides through the echoing halls and velvety staterooms; the latter, counterpoints in texture to the stony exterior. Not so, other Irish country houses. Carton, Dunboyne Castle and Farnham were all converted into boom time hotels with varying degrees of success. Uncertainty lies over the fate of Glin Castle, Mountainstown House and Milltown House, all for sale in an unstable market. Worst of all, Ballymacool, Castle Dillon and Mount Panther lie in ruins, home to wandering sheep and ghosts.

8 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Contemporary composer Karl Jenkins has brought Palladio back to the forefront of orchestral music. Laterally Literally. Inspired by the 16th century Italian architect, Palladio is a three movement piece for strings. Completed in 1996, Karl was influenced by Palladian mathematical proportionality in his quest for musical perfection.

9 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Palladio’s pursuit of perfect proportions can be traced back to the Vitruvian model of ‘man as a measure for all things’. He reinterpreted the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, for a new audience. Vitruvius believed symmetry and proportion created a harmonic relationship with individual components and their whole, either in music or architecture. He developed ratios based on the human body which were later used by 18th century composers. Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man illustrates the concept.

10 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Like other Roman architects, Vitruvius revered the work of Ancient Greek scholars. Their macro theses argued that the entire cosmos vibrates to the same harmonies audible in music. Pythagorean formulae quantified the relationship of architecture, music and the human form. Even the cyclical nature of the resurgence of classicism, skipping generations like beats, only to be revived in repetition and reinterpretation, has balance and form.

11 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Lanesborough Afternoon Tea + Céleste London

We Shall Have A Ball

The Lanesborough Hotel London Ceiling Detail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s been a quarter of a century since our last visit. But still there’s an air of inevitability about it. A case of when, not if. Indulging in afternoon tea at Britain’s most expensive hotel (not forgetting the 15 percent tip), that is. Lavender’s Blue intern Annabel P rocks up wearing half a diamond quarry’s worth of rocks. More (late) breakfast with Tiffany’s than Breakfast at Tiffany’s. All in a day’s work.

The Lanesborough Hotel London Lampshades © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Storming past the trompe l’oeiled reception and faux tented lobby, we take on in the tiered Céleste at The Lanesborough, a glazed roofed internal pavilion looking heavenwards. It’s Wedgwood blue now. A jasperware temple. Regency, just like the building. Last time round, the wildly eclectic gothiental Conservatory as it was then called was flamingo pink. Sometime in between, lurking here for four years was a greyish art decoesque intruder named Apsleys. The hotel has changed hands as well as hand painted wallpaper, but is still Middle Eastern owned. Once Rosewood managed, Oetker Collection has adopted it on as an English half sister to Le Bristol Paris.

The Lanesborough Hotel London Sandwich © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Lanesborough Afternoon Tea Pastry © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Christian our sommelier ensures Blenheim Palace Sparkling Natural Mineral Water is on tap. Always glad to support enterprising duchesses. Egg mayo with celeriac sandwiches are a particular hit. Even trumping the cucumber and mint. Although not quite up there with sketch Mayfair’s fried quail’s egg sandwiches (zany has a new). Dominik our waiter refills the plate. Oh! We’ve spotted another firm favourite. No, not the (mother’s) Ruinart. Caviar. Maybe not on the same scale as That Lunch at Comme Chez Soi but an effective enough Russian invasion of the Scottish salmon sandwiches.

The Lanesborough Afternoon Tea Chocolate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A careless magpie’s droppings of edible gold and silver leaf are liberally sprinkled across afternoon tea, even landing in the clotted Devonshire cream. We skip the lemon curd for strawberry preserve on the freshly baked scones (enveloped in pristine linen) but yearn for coloured sugar crystals (a dead cert at Marlfield House) to melt in the coffee. Although technically this is afternoon tea. Pastry chef Nicholas Rouzaud’s celestial array of hazelnut, caramel, chocolate and lemon meringue fantasies arrive. They quickly do a Lord Lucan.

Lavender's Blue Intern Annabel P @ The Lanesborough © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In another quarter of a century a Victorian revival will be due. Brown will be the new black. Or at least the new greige. Expect heavy oak panelling, heavier drapes (again) and half a dead zoo’s worth of taxidermy in the revamped Céleste. It will be renamed Charlotte at The Lanesborough in honour of our newly married princess.

The Lanesborough Afternoon Tea Bill © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Diana in Savannah + Diana Rogers

Moon River

Diana Rogers Pianist Savannah © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Savannah. The setting of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The events that unravelled around the intriguing characters of “The Book”, as locals refer to it, happened more than 30 years ago. But Savannah sure does still revel in larger than life people. In the heart of the Victorian District, which covers several squares of the city’s grid plan, sits the Gingerbread House. It’s the fretted spindled bracketed shuttered cookie cutter sweet as apple pie home of the marvellous musician Diana Rogers. One sultry Sunday morning, we arrived over to meet Diana in her kitchen. Exquisitely clad in oyster pink – summer hat, long silk gloves and real shell earrings to boot – she firstly entertained us with her witticisms, homemade sugared scones and a glass or three of bubbly. Diana herself sipped clear liquid out of a cocktail glass.

Diana Rogers and Leopold Savannah © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Her house is a collector’s paradise. Tables overflowed with vintage finds from clowns to toy frogs, glistening in the scorching sunlight streaming through the coloured sash windows. Diana was originally from Oklahoma. “All they do there is watch TV and go to church!” she howled with laughter. Rural life wasn’t for her. A classically trained pianist and singer, her wonderfully intoxicating voice, not to mention her superlative keyboard skills, meant she was an instant blues hit in New Orleans. Soon she even outgrew the Big Easy and packed her bags for the big time in the Big Apple. In New York she deftly launched herself on the music scene. Diana performed in all the top uptown hotels and downtown clubs: the Waldorf Astoria, Harry’s Bar, One Fifth Avenue, Windows on the World…

Savannah Townhouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hot in demand, Diana enjoyed a long engagement at Nino’s in New York throughout the Nineties. She played and sang at the Madison Arms in East Hampton during the summer months. Diana was flown across the Atlantic to perform at private parties in London and Cornwall. At the end of the century she released an album of hits featuring I Know Him So Well, La Vie en Rose and her own composition Middle Class Princess. In 2003 she decided it was time to embark on a new phase of her life so she packed her bags again and headed for the Deep South. For the price of her tiny Manhattan flat she picked up a five bedroom restored timber Victorian house with dripping bargeboards on the pink azalea lined East Gaston Street in Savannah. “I still return to New York every couple a’ months,” she drolled. “Last time I was there I ran up €2,000 on a hat. But it’s a real nice hat. Ya know my wardrobe takes up the whole top floor of the house.”

Savannah Georgia © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Diana has fully established herself as a firm fixture on Savannah’s music circuit. And social whirl. She’s performed in more than a dozen venues and can be heard in the basement piano bar of The Olde Pink House several nights a week. In fact that’s where we first came across her. Descending the stairs from the classy restaurant above, we heard Moon River in dulcet tones floating across the heavy evening air, laced with promise and romance. Fast forward 48 hours and there we were, in her home.

Bonaventure Cemetery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Come on through to the parlour,” Diana beckoned. The morning had melted into early afternoon. Keeping her gloves on – natch – she embarked on a one woman cabaret show, jauntily weaving her way through Cole Porter and George Gershwin before celebrating the present day with Andrew Lloyd Weber and John Kander. “Imelda Marcos’ daughter lives right next door,” revealed Diana. “And Jerry Spence, the hairdresser mentioned in The Book, is always calling round. ‘Honey you can find me on page 47!’ he hollers to everyone he ever meets!” Another neighbour, Patricia, arrived. “She was big in Washington!” confided Diana in a stage whisper. A medley of Johnny Mercer songs began. Outside, rain from the gunpowder grey sky beat down heavily on the veranda. But it didn’t dampen the decadent party spirit indoors.

The Olde Pink House Savannah and Planters Tavern © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Leopold, her grand tortoise shell cat, looked on attentively. “She guards the house!” exclaimed Diana. The cat got her name before her gender was determined at the vets. “My workman Mr Tiles is built like Tarzan! He was workin’ upstairs and I was away and he rang me sayin’, ‘Diana I can’t get down the stairs! You gotta help me. Your cat won’t let me past!’ He had to jump out the bedroom window and slide down the porch roof!” Late afternoon, we declined a lift from Diana in her Cadillac to Oglethorpe Mall. We air kissed our goodbyes. Diana’s phone rang. More guests arrived. The party was just getting into full swing. A competitive cacophony of church bells and thunder claps erupted but it went unnoticed, drowned out by the echo of laughter, clinking of glasses and Diana upping the tempo with All That Jazz.

The Olde Pink House Savannah Sign © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Hotel nhow Berlin + David Bowie  

Right Here Right nhow | Take Two

Hotel nhow Berlin © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hard edged dockside architecture meets playful futuristic design. Nowhere is the status of a city and its wellbeing better reflected in its music than Berlin. The two are intertwined. Think the Weimar Republic and its jazz cafés. Of course the legend of a libertarian culture destroyed by fascism was propagated by the film Cabaret. Fast forward a century and post war Berlin’s inherent appeal was again its openness. It was an anomaly, an oasis of extremity created by the Cold War. Here, anything could happen.

David Bowie arrived in Berlin towards the end of the 70s. He became immersed in the German music of the period. It was saturated in absence, loss and distance. Bands such as Kraftwerk influenced his craft, his work. Bowie’s piece V 2 Schneider reverberates to the rhythm of an S Bahn train. He recorded two thirds of his Berlin TrilogyLow and Heroes but not Lodger – at the city’s legendary Hansa Studios. As the curtain fell on communism and the 20th century, techno music would emerge, climaxing with the euphoric blaze that was Love Parade.

Which brings us to right here right now. nhow Berlin is iridescently present, a tangible addition to the waterscape, a representation of contemporary immediacy. Its roots materialise from the city’s relationship with music – more anon. With the hotel’s opening, a new layer of meaning is added to the decadence and disharmony of the not so distant past.

Positioned along the River Spree, the old line between the East and West, nhow Berlin is a fusion of Sergei Tchoban’s architecture and Karim Rashid’s design. Russian born Sergei’s creation is a cubist arrangement of boxes piled high, the top one perilously cantilevering over the others by a gravity defying 10 metres. The underside is clad in reflective steel. Sergei says he is seeking to “convey the image of a ‘crane house’”. Other planes are covered by an aluminium or brick skin punctured by square windows. It’s all about clean lines, perpendicular angles and understated colourways. Enter the tinted glass doors – white outside; pink inside – and a whole new world unfolds.

New Yorker Karim’s interiors celebrate the German capital’s zeitgeist. He employs a progressive language to describe his oeuvre. The terms ‘infostethic’, ‘blobject’ and ‘technorganic’ are given three dimensional form. Karim says, “My vision engages technology, visuals, textures, colours, as well as all the needs that are intrinsic to living in a simpler less cluttered but more sensual environment.” Strata of irregular lines, asymmetric shapes and psychedelic patterns constantly redefine the hotel experience. Here, anything can happen.

Take the reception desk. It’s a pink amorphous sculpture with inset lighting. Beyond lies an expanse of white space stretching to a glazed wall overlooking the river. A giant continuous profile of Mussolini made of gold lacquered fibreglass hovers over the bar. Piped music radiates across the ground floor by day; live gigs rock it by night. Art or seating? The luminous voluptuous organic and ergonomic sofas are both. The restaurant is segregated from the bar by sheer curtains lined with a radio wave digipop pattern.

The hot pink rooms of the East Tower take their cue from sunrise. Sky blue dominates the rooms of the West Tower. The rooms of the 10 storey Upper Tower are calming grey to counteract the vertigo inducing views. Televisions double as radio wave shaped mirrors. Floors are acoustic friendly laminate painted with the digipop pattern. Guests can rent a keyboard or guitar in their room.

Two recording studios on the eighth floor of the Upper Tower are run by the co directors of the Hansa Studios. An adjacent music lounge is equipped with the latest multimedia technology – and a pink jukebox. The lounge, conference rooms and even the roof terrace are all directly wired to the studios. This allows for impromptu recordings.

nhow Hotel is in Osthafen, a destination of the new Berlin. It’s between the offices of MTV and Universal Music. Yet history is on its doorstep. Fragments of the Berlin Wall are a stone’s throw away. David Bowie could easily have been gazing out over the dizzying panorama from the music lounge when he penned Thru These Architect’s Eyes, “All majesty of a city landscape | All the soaring days in our lives”. Back in London, a few years ago David Bowie called in with Tracey Emin to Christ Church Spitalfields. He was there to see the Richard Bridge Organ, once played by Handel. Bowie voiced the desire to play the organ once it had been restored. The Richard Bridge Organ was restored in 2015. David Bowie died in 2016. Here, anything may happen.

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Sion House Sion Mills + Celia Ferguson

We’re Marching to Sion

Sion House Entrance Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Daphne’s, South Ken: voluminous pneumatic crowns all round at Astrid Bray’s moliminous blown up festive dinner party. ‘Twas the season. A party out of the top drawer, as F Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh would’ve said. Grilled squid with caponata at Princess Diana’s old haunt was impossible to resist. Equally irresistible, grilled squid with garlic for lunch at 8 Mount Street was a surprising success. Nope, the reviews aren’t correct. Marble ain’t cold, it’s classy. The menu’s been sorted. End of. Sociability then solitude, Derek Hill style. Southeast to northwest.

Sion House River Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

County Tyrone sure isn’t the most obvious location to come across an overblown Tudorbethan mansion. This half timbered affair would look more at home in the Surrey Hills. Southeast England, not northwest Ulster. A Cyclopean scaled forerunner to Stockbroker’s Tudor semi d’s. The landscaped gardens are an attempt to tame the wildness of this rainswept region. It’s not surprising, then, to learn the architect of Sion House was an Englishman.

Sion House Garden Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The original early 19th century house, which would later be engulfed through rebuilding, was a much more typical country house of this region. It was a mildly Italianate three bay wide by three bay deep stone faced two storey house built in 1846 to the design of the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon, a starchitect of his day. A 19th century John O’Connell. Less than four decades later, William Unsworth designed a replacement house. With gusto.

Sion House Bridge Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

William Unsworth is famed for designing the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps that’s where he developed his penchant for all things half timbered. He was mates with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned also knew his jettied projections from his mullioned multi diamond paned canted bay windows. William just happened to be the son-in-law of his client James Herdman. He was also brother-in-law of the celebrated Missionary of Morocco, Emma Herdman.

Sion House Grounds Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Herdmans arrived in Ireland from Ayrshire in 1699. This Plantation family swiftly established itself as big time farmers. At the time of the first potato famine of 1835, the Herdman brothers James, John and George upped sticks to the sticks, moving from Belfast to the district of Seein in County Tyrone. Adopt a broad Ulster country accent and saying it aloud you can hear how Seein evolved into Sion. Those were the days when spelling – for those who could actually write – was idiosyncratic at best.

John Herdman had gone into partnership in 1833 with Thomas, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland who owned York Street Linen Mill in Belfast. The Herdman brothers brought this expertise to the development of a new spinning mill at Sion. Not content with just building a country house and mill, the Herdmans philanthropically added a model village, Ulster’s answer to New Lanark. Soon there was a shop, cricket club, fishing club and cottages fitted out with – ta dah! – newfangled gas as soon as it became available. William Unsworth also designed a gatehouse to frame the main entrance. Again, he discontinued the tradition of single storey demure vaguely neoclassical gatelodges. Instead a Hansel and Gretel version of the black and white three storey gatehouse of Stokesay Castle appeared.

And so the glory days began. For 70 years the new Sion House happily played host to generations of the Herdman family. Celia Ferguson née Herdman is one of the two last direct descendants living in Ireland. Her daughter is a neighbour of Lavender’s Blue HQ. Celia still lives in the village and founded the Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust in 1999. In an exclusive, Mrs Ferguson reminisces,

“Sion House was my grandfather’s home. I lived there after the Second World War. It was such a busy house! As well as my relatives and Welsh nanny, there was a cook and four or five parlour maids. A dairy maid, washer maid and four under gardeners came during the day. The head gardener lived in the gatelodge. It was very self sufficient. In fact the whole of Sion Mills was like that. When we needed a plumber, he came from the mill.

The Italianate gardens were designed in 1909 by Inigo Triggs of Hampshire. Inigo was in partnership with William Unsworth and a friend of Gertrude Jekyll. I was recently asked to go along to Glenmakieran in Cultra which I’m quite sure is another Unsworth house. In 1955 a fire threatened to destroy Sion House. Such a huge house. Nevertheless my grandfather rebuilt all 50 rooms exactly as they were before. I remember the oak panelling in the dining room and linen wall covering in the drawing room.

In 1967 it took just one day for Ross’s to auction the house and its contents, even the books. The house went for only £5,000 and the contents £3,000. Fortunately Sion House is well documented. My grandfather wrote daily letters from 1934 to 1964 chronicling life in the house. At the moment I’m writing a book about my mother Maud Harriet Herdman MBE JP, a fascinating person.”

After much ado involving a collapsing clock tower and the first Compulsory Purchase Order of a Building at Risk in Northern Ireland, Hearth Preservation Trust restored the roadside stables block. It’s now a tearoom and education centre. But something is awry at Sion House. The gatehouse is boarded up; the river overgrown; the façade butchered; the lean-to fallen over. It’s as if the struggle to combat the barrenness of its far flung location has proved too much. The tall neo Elizabethan chimneystacks have been lopped off; the veranda has vanished like the lost ‘h’ from verandah. Worst of all, the back of the house looks like it’s been struck by a meteorite. There’s a gaping hole in the centre in its centre. A spiffingly watchable tragedy. Another Irish country house bites the dust. And then there were none. Less of a whodunit and more of a whodidn’tdoit. Ulster says so.

The Irish Builder flatteringly recorded the rebuilt Sion House in its December 1884 publication. Even then, the country house halcyon days had less than half a century to go. Sion House, besides being almost unique in style, was one of the last country houses to be built between the Gael and the Pale.

“Sion House, the residence of E T Herdman Esq, JP, which, for some time past, has been undergoing extensive alterations, is now completed, and as the building and grounds are singularly picturesque and pleasing, a short description of what is unquestionably one of the most unique and remarkable examples of domestic architecture in the North of Ireland, will be read with interest. The approach to the grounds is on the main road from Strabane to Baronscourt, about three miles from the latter place, and is entered through a delightfully quaint Old English gatehouse of striking originality, containing a porter’s residence and covered porch carried over the roadway.

Winding down the graceful sweep of the avenue, through the wooded grounds which appear to have been laid out with considerable judgment many years ago, we catch a glimpse of the house, reflected in the artificial ponds formed in the ravine that is crossed by a two arch stone bridge of quite medieval character.

As we approach the house, the general grouping of the house is most pleasing, and the full effects of the rich colouring of the red tiled roof is now apparent, diversified with quick pitched gables, quaint dormers, the beautifully moulded red brick chimneys, the skyline being covered by the Tyrone mountains and the village church in the distance. The style of the building is late Tudor of the half timber character, which, though it has been described as showing a singular and absurd heterogeneousness in detail, yet gives wonderful picturesqueness in general effect. The principle entrance is on the north side, through a verandah, supported on open carved brackets, in which is placed an old oak settle, elaborately carved and interlaced with natural foliage in bas-relief. On entering through an enclosed porch we are ushered into a spacious panelled hall, with its quaint old fashioned staircase, open fireplace, and wood chimneypiece, with overmantel extending to the height of the panelling.

The screens enclosing the entrance porch, as also that from the garden entrance to the southeast side, are filled in with lead lights, glazed with painted glass, and emblazoned with national and industrial emblems, monograms and coats of arms. The billiard room, which is in a semi-detached position, and entered from the east side of the hall, is very characteristic of the style of the building, having the principal roof timbers exposed, and forming the pitched ceiling into richly moulded panels. The walls are wainscoted to a height of five feet in richly moulded and panelled work. The fireplace is open, and lined with artistic glazed earthenware tiles of a deep green colour and waved surface, giving a pleasing variety of shadow, and is deeply recessed under a quaint panelled many centred architectural, freely treated, forming a most cosy chimney corner with luxurious settles on each side. On a raised hearth, laid with terra-metallic tiles in a most intricate pattern, are some of the finest examples of wrought iron dogs we have ever seen. There is also in this chimney nook a charming little window, placed so as to afford a view of the pleasure grounds. The reception rooms are on the south side. On entering the spacious drawing room we notice particularly the panelled arch across the further end, which forms a frame to the beautiful mullioned bay window, enriched with patterned lead glazing.

From the recess of the bay a side doorway leads to a slightly elevated verandah, enclosed with balustrade, extending the full length of the south façade, and leading to the beautiful conservatory on the south side, with a short flight of steps giving access to the tennis lawns. The dining room is enclosed off this verandah by a handsome mullioned screen, having folding doors and patterned lead glazing similar to the drawing room bay. The walls of this room are panelled and moulded in English figured oak, enriched with carvings, the arrangement of the buffet being an especial feature, as it forms part of the room in a coved recess and designed with the panelling. The fireplace is open and lined with tiles, in two colours, of the same description as the billiard room, with chimneypiece and overmantel of carved oak, having bevelled mirrors, and arms carved in the most artistic manner in the centre panel. The mullioned screen masked by a gracefully carved arch, made in oak, and capped (as is also the panelling over the buffet and mantel) with a moulded cornice, supported with artistically carved brackets and richly dentilled bed mouldings. Here and in the drawing room the ceilings are of elaborate workmanship, enriched in fibrous plaster, with moulded ribs in strong relief, and massive cornices, with chastely enriched members. The floor, like those of the principal rooms and halls, is laid in solid oak parquetry.

The library and morning room are situated on the north side. These rooms are complete in arrangement for comfort, most of the required furniture and fittings being constructed with the building and in perfect character. The culinary departments are situated on the west side, on the same level with the principal rooms. They are of the most perfect and convenient description, containing every modern appliance for suitable working.

Here also the evidence of artistic design is to be observed, more especially on a wrought iron hood, constructed over the range for the purpose of carrying off the odour from the cooking, to flues provided for that purpose. The hood is a very intricate piece of wrought iron work, which, we learn, was manufactured at the engineering works of the Messrs Herdman and Co. The upper floors contain 16 spacious bedrooms and dressing rooms. Several of the bedrooms are obtained by the judicious pitching up the main roof, and obtaining light through the quaintly shaped dormers, which form so marked a feature on the roofline. There is a spacious basement extending under the entire area of the building, which contains the usual offices, and in which are placed two of Pitt’s patented apparatus, now so favourable known for warming and ventilating, by which warmed fresh air is conveyed to the various apartments and corridors.

Sion House Side Elevation Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

One of the great features of the exterior elevations is the balconies, of which there are several, whence views of the varied scenery and charming surroundings can be obtained. There is also easy access to the leads of the roof, from which more extended views of the beautiful and romantic valleys of the Foyle and Mourne, together with the picturesquely grouped plantations of the Baronscourt demesne, and the far-famed mountains of Barnesmore, Betsy Bell, and Mary Gray, can be seen in the distance. From this point a magnificent bird’s eye view can be obtained of the village of Sion and of the palatial buildings which form the flax spinning mills and offices of the Messrs Herdman and Co, which we are pleased to observe are so rapidly extending their lines and improving under the enlightened policy of the spirited owners.

Sion House Rear Elevation Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The gardens and grounds are laid out in terraces, with low red brick walls, in character with the house, which give great effect when viewed from the several levels. It is noticeable throughout the perfectness and richness of all the detail, which has been carried out with great care, from special designs. The architect has succeeded in giving an individuality and picturesqueness of outline, due proportion of its parts and beauty of the whole, to the buildings and grounds, which have not been heretofore obtained in this part of the country.

Sion House Sion Mills Tyrone Old Photos @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The execution of the work throughout was entrusted (without competition) to Mr J Ballantine, builder, of this city, who has carried it out in a style of workmanship maintaining his high reputation as a builder, and reflecting credit on the skilled tradesmen associated with him in the work. The entire building, gate entrance, bridge, grounds, fittings, and principal furniture have been carried out according to the designs, and under the superintendence of Mr W F Unsworth, FRIBA.”

Sion House Sion Mills Tyrone 1900 @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Advent + Gracehill Moravian Village Ballymena

The Passing

Gracehill Village Ballymena © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Advent is about waiting,” says Reverend Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields. CCSpits. Temporality. “The advent lifestyle is to keep watch, be ready. Keep going and you will be rewarded.”

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The London Edition Hotel + Berners Tavern

London Spy

The London Edition Hotel Lobby © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ian Shrager is back in town. The man behind Studio 54 has returned to London 15 years after he introduced Sanderson and St Martin’s Lane hotels. On the same street in Fitzrovia as Sanderson comes The London Edition, the latest hotel from a brand he conceived in partnership with Marriott International. So what’s on offer this time? Redefining luxury is the quest of the moment. Charu Gandhi, former Head of Design at Morpheus Developments, speaks about delivering “liveable lux” for multimillion pound interiors. Mary Colston, talking at her Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool, says, “I avoid the word as everyone’s idea of luxury is different.” Ian reckons, “The definition has changed. We’d rather be known for service than anything else. To me, luxury is having no formula, being subversive to the status quo and unafraid to break the rules.” With a little help from New York hotel specialists Yabu Pushelberg.

The London Edition Hotel Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“It’s a different reality,” is how Ian sums up The London Edition. A cubic glass vestibule – past immaculate staff – opens into a “new kind of gathering place”. “Lobby socialising” accompanies his “hotel as theatre” descant. Partying with a purpose. This is hotel lobby-meets-bar-meets-office-meets-meeting room. Times they are a-changing. Free state of the art wireless internet access is available throughout the hotel and in a corner of this cavernous space is a black walnut table fitted with Apple desktops and laptop outlets. Conference rooms, it transpires, are terribly passé. The grandeur of the Grade II interior former Berner Street Hotel is seriously sensational. A Belle Époque ceiling dripping in stucco, the icing on the architectural cake, competes with enough marble to make Enya burst into song.

The London Edition Hotel Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ian winks, “I do like an element of surprise!” In place of a chandelier dangles an outsized silver egg, a sculpture hatched by Ingo Maurer. Equally unexpected is the oak weatherboarding of the reception at the back of the lobby. A reproduction Louis XV Gobelins tapestry behind the rustic reception desk is one of many unexpected juxtapositions of scale, style, texture and period. But, thanks to the hotelier’s eye, they work. Portal, a three dimensional digital artwork by artist Chul Hyun Ahn heightens the high octane eclecticism. Beyond reception is The Punch Room, a clubby fumed oak panelled den dedicated to private partying and the odd game of billiards.

The London Edition Hotel Reception © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Off the lobby is Berners Tavern. Ian’s respect for genius loci continues. A salon hang of a whopping 185 pictures against a rich taupe backdrop rushes up past (plasterwork) scallops to a voluminous stuccoed cloud crescendo. Burnished and furnished with chestnut mohair banquettes and bleached oak tables, this interior ranks as the chef d’oeuvre of The London Edition. Ian’s penchant for theatricality elevates the kitchen to stage: sliding glass doors offer diners tantalising glimpses of what Executive Chef Jason Atherton’s team are bringing to the party.

More scallops (the edible kind) for starter come with cucumber, black radish and jalapeño on a bed of lime ice. Main is roasted stone bass, caramelised cauliflower, fennel and cockle velouté. Triple cooked chips and honey roast parsnips on the side. Dark chocolate with mint ice cream for pudding. Posh nosh. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Blenheim Palace Sparkling Natural Water. It’s amazing how easy it is to spend £260 on a lunch for two on a wintry afternoon. It’s 3pm and the restaurant is jammers. The lights dim, the music gets louder. The tables will be turned two or three times later, reveals the waitress. Food is served till midnight.

The London Edition Hotel Punch Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A marble staircase sweeps guests from the lobby, Sunset Boulevard style, to the 173 bedrooms. Upstairs the tempo not so much changes as grinds to a halt. Listen… sshh… silence. London’s busiest street may be a plumped up faux fur cushion’s throw away but the cacophony of shoppers goes unheard. Ian also separates the frenetic public areas from sleeping quarters, both physically and acoustically. A sound insulated internal envelope inserted into the basement lets clubbers dance the night away unfettered. Hotels tend to bring out the kleptomaniac in even the most morally incorruptible (if it’s not alarmed, it’s for taking) but clients are actively encouraged to pilfer the branded glasses in the club. Good for marketing, apparently. Getting distracted, back to the bedrooms.

The London Edition Hotel Berners Tavern © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Yacht cabins are the inspiration – Ian likes holidaying on boats. From the smallest 22 square metre room to the sprawling 195 square metre penthouse with its terrace tucked between Mary Poppins chimneypots, all are cocooned in either dark walnut or light oak panelling. A “no colour colour palette” is part of Ian’s understated “anti design” agenda for the bedrooms. “It’s an effort to make people feel good rather than the place look good. It’s a compilation of unlikely pieces, designs, finishes and details put together in a way where alchemy happens.” Traditional tufted slipper chairs by George Smith sit below gilt framed Old Masters. Hang on, they’re anything but. This is, after all, Ian Shrager at work. The ‘Masters’ are new – painterly poses remastered by photographer Hendrik Kerstens. Upon close inspection, his daughter Paula transmogrifies from a Vermeer sitter to a contemporary girl wearing tinfoil on her head. Off each bedroom, subway tiled bathrooms feature enclosed rainforest showers.

The London Edition Hotel Suite © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The last word – double entendre intended – belongs to Ian Shrager. “Since we invented the boutique hotel everything has become monotonously similar. There is always room for something really unique and original. Always! The London Edition is the next generation of lifestyle hotel, one that has incredibly exciting visuals; great, friendly, attractive and personalised service; exciting food and beverage concepts; and a unique vibe. There is simply nothing else like it currently in the marketplace. We tried to capture the details of life in the details of the architecture.”

The London Edition Hotel Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Photos by Nikolas Koenig
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Tyrella House and Tyrella Beach

Demands of the Temple of The Sun at Baalbec | Let the Heavens Open | Blockbuster

Tyrella House Sham Fort © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It was always going to be a raucous affair: dinner with Westbourne and Lavender’s Blue intern Annabel P at Il Pirata in Shepherd Market. Boom. Torrential rain merely exhilarated bacchanalian spirits while devouring tapas alfresco. So did an octopusfest of salpicón de marisco and pulpo a la gallega. Shepherd Market is round the block from the Queen’s birthplace in Mayfair. Like Her Maj, it’s close to the madding crowd yet discretely detached. Capital royal discretion continued when the divine Princess Alexandra popped by Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt. Oh, yes. Of course it’s rude to namedrop but the Westminster Property Association lunch with Lord Adonis at the Grosvenor House Hotel was rather fun too. Next, town and country came together in the bumptious dining room of the Garrick Club, recently spruced up by Christopher Vane Percy, over supper with the great Irish philanthropists Martin and Carmel Naughton. Finally, acoustic levels are a little lower dining like lords (bands of ermine at the ready) inside Tyrella House which hugs the south coast of County Down. After the turbulent intensity of autumnal London living and Spanish travelling, a late blossoming of Ulster quietude ensues. Long table à deux please. Calling it the Sandringham of Northern Ireland may stretch the royal metaphor a trifle far. Plus it’s much prettier.

Tyrella House Grounds © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Surprisingly Tyrella House isn’t covered by Burke or Brett. Lavender’s Blue gladly fill the gap, plug the hole, step ointo the breach. Surprising, that is, considering it’s a roomy building of historical, architectural and social significance, twice as deep as it’s wide, lumber rooms uncounted, holding court amidst low lying greenery. First glimpse (through a verdurous vista) from the sweeping driveway past the hillside sham fort (every entrance should have one) is of a squarish main block five bays side on, four bays frontal. A neoclassical beauty; architecture’s acme: Augustus’s vision and Maecenas’s taste and Dostoevsky’s nuances set in stone. The house’s character changes when viewed from the garden. The far side, which will be moonlit later, is elongated by a long lower less imposing wing. This arrangement has adapted well to Tyrella’s 21st century modus operandi. The main block is open to paying guests under the gilded parasol of The Hidden Ireland while the owner, David Corbett, lives to the rear. Another of the group’s seaside properties, almost dipping its toes in the water of Woodstown Bay, is the supremely suave Gaultier Lodge, where the owners live most of the year below the guest rooms in a lower ground floor. “Houses in The Hidden Ireland,” explains David, “must be owner occupied.”

Tyrella House Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Princess Diana famously quipped “three’s a crowd” but clearly squires of 18th century Ulster disagreed. Tripartite windows were all the rage. Their legacy is a series of glazed triptychs framing views of the countryside. And draughts – ménage à froid. The entrance front of Tyrella has pearly twin sets. Fellow Mournes mansion Ballywillwill House likewise has four. Clady House Dunadry has five; Glenganagh House Ballyholme, six; Drumnabreeze House and Grace Hall Magheralin neighbours, eight; Craigmore House Aghagallon, 10; Crevenagh House Omagh, numberless. Tyrella’s windows are even more special, stretching head to toe, and like Montalto’s, skirt the driveway. Standing in the regal dining room is like “Hardwick Hall more windows than wall”. Soon, silverware will sparkle in the candlelight. Pictures and conversations will merge. Sitting in the princely drawing room is like being immersed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of her home, “The few large living rooms at Bowen’s Court are, thus, a curious paradox – a great part of their walls being window glass, they are charged with the light, smell and colour of the prevailing weather; at the same time they are very indoors, urbane, hypnotic, not easily left.” Lying on the queen size bed as the internal pale transitory colours of the hour fade, dreams past and future are present. Outside, framed by the curved sashes of the half oriel window, across silent lawns, the tamed headland lies submerged in shadow, the ridge of the Mournes melting into silver drifts of cloud alight with gold, lilac, mauve and pink lining.

Tyrella House Entrance View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The original architect isn’t known but whoever he was, the outcome is a meeting of métier and form, augmented and mellowed through the ages. According to illustrious architect John O’Connell, “This is a very accomplished Georgian box, as they used to say.” Architectural aficionado Nick Sheaff reckons it is “an incredibly elegant country house, and in some ways it reminds me of James Gandon’s Abbeville”. Better known as Charlie Haughey’s old gaf. Charles Plante, the celebrated director of Charles Plante Fine Arts, says, “I love the front dripping with ivy and the chic Regency bow window.” Three arched openings – a window on either side of the entrance door, are framed by a slim Doric portico celebrating the triglyph’s verticality, the architrave’s horizontality and the proportional totality of the order. Not dissimilar really to the central arrangement of Clandeboye’s garden front. “It’s Tuscan Doric,” confirms Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell. “Tuscan is rural, countrified, perfectly correct for this type of house. The window proportions are dictated by the portico. That’s particularly attractive.” A stained glass window of the Craig family crest in the study is a leftover from previous owners. Notable family members included the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James “Not an Inch” Craig (1st Viscount Craigavon) and his architect and yacht designer brother Vincent who combined both his skills at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club Ballyholme. The 3rd and last Viscount, Janric Craig, born in 1944, sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. A retired accountant, he has a handy flat on Little Smith Street, Westminster.

Tyrella House Garden View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Vincent clearly employed his skills closer to home as well. At home. Tyrella features his signature idiosyncratic fenestration. No fewer than four oeils de boeuf grace the garden front. Charles Plante reckons, “The garden front is charming. The bull’s eye window in the gable is really special.” Most extraordinary of all, amidst the blaze of Arts and Crafts stained glass, is the first floor upper casement window which projects at an acute angle to appear permanently ajar. Zany stuff. “Vincent more than likely introduced the ceiling beams and light fitting to the hall,” suggests David. “And he designed the hall fireplace. It’s very Malone Roadsy!” This airy space is painted a deep ochre which Charles Plante calls “John Fowler orange”. Upstairs Free Style panelling looks suspiciously Vincentian. A bit of Cadogan Park here, a bit of Deramore Park there. So does the recently reinstated conservatory. “The conservatory is actually almost entirely new except for the brickwork. It took three years to recreate. The pale green paint inside is the original colour.” Maybe Tyrella House isn’t quite the chunk of Georgiana it first appears to be. “The middle bit behind the new Regency addition,” he explains, “is William and Mary.” The house used to be even bigger. “My father demolished about a third of the house – the cream room, jam room, butler’s pantry, the dark kitchen and so on.”

Tyrella House Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella was the seat of Reverend George Hamilton and his wife Ann Matilda (daughter of the 5th Earl of Macclesfield) at the close of the 18th century. Rural legend has it that the Reverend used the stones from the old local church to rebuild the house in 1800. Arthur Hill Montgomery bought the estate in 1831 aged 36. Six years later, Samuel Lewis records in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, “Tyrella House, the handsome residence of A H Montgomery Esq, is beautifully situated in a richly planted demesne of 300 acres, commanding extensive views over the bay, with the noble range of the Mourne Mountains in the background, and containing within its limits the size and cemetery of the ancient parish church.” Arthur was the fourth son of Hugh Montgomery of Greyabbey House down the road. Bill Montgomery, a great-great-something-great-grandson of Hugh, still resides at Greyabbey with his wife Daphne. Their daughter is the actress Flora Montgomery who’s married to the owner of 1 Lombard Street restaurant. “I hate to disappoint you,” David says on the subject of ghosts. “All the people have sold the house and went on to do something else. Spent money on it, changed hands. I don’t miss ghosts, wouldn’t want one.”

Tyrella House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s time for that dinner in the spirit free dining room. Plat du jour du nuit. Such joy. A love song to Northern Irish cuisine. Spinach and ricotta tartlet | stuffed sea bream | mascarpone, raspberry and lemon tart. Fitzrovia’s Pescatoria relocated. Best seafood since the roast fillet of curried cod with oyster mushrooms and herb butter sauce at the O+C. Or the sous vide salmon cooked by Paolo Pettenuzzo at the C P Hart party. The diver scallop crudo, cucumber, black radish, jalapeño and lime ice at the London Edition Berners Tavern springs to mind. Or even the creamed cheese and smoked salmon Westbourne breakfast with Natalie Elphicke OBE. Chatting about Conservative housing policy, Chief Exec of the Housing Finance Institute Natalie summed it up as, “Something old, something new, something borrowed – Lord Adonis, who’s turned blue.” Stop! Tangent alert! What’s the story? Oh, Renideo Pinot Grigio 2009 and St Jean Pays D’Oc 2012 over dinner at Tyrella House. The dining experience isn’t always this peaceful according to David. When Country Life visited in 1996, dinner was interrupted by ebullient bovine neighbours nosily emerging from between the rhododendrons. Country Life published “during dinner a herd escaped and raped the garden like a Mongol horde”. David smiles, “Overweight marauding rogue cattle licking the dining room windows wasn’t the look we were going for at all!” At least Country Life did also mention the flourishing polo school at Tyrella.

Tyrella House Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Conservatory © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Nursery Wing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Entrance Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Twin Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Double Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella House Tea Set © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Strand © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach Mournes © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Tyrella Beach Newcastle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Descendants of the last owners, the Robert Neill and Sons Ltd dynasty, recall early 20th century life at Tyrella, in a Lavender’s Blue exclusive. Coline Grover says, “I lived in the house with my grandparents, and relatives various, from 1940 until they sold it in 1949, and moved with them to Old Forge House in Malone, south Belfast. Tyrella House was wonderful with a swing house underneath the nursery wing. It was incorporated into the property and had two marks on the ceiling where if you went high enough your feet touched the ceiling! And there was a rock garden with a two storey playhouse called Spider House.” Coline’s cousin-in-law Ian Elliott adds, “The Georgian house had a boudoir and some lovely Arts and Crafts additions – and that fabulous view to the Mournes. It was bought by the Neill family – brothers Jack, Samuel and William – as part of their businesses (coal, construction, farming etc) in the 1920s after the 1st World War. They already owned East Downshire Fuels in Dundrum as well as Neill’s Coal in Bangor, Kingsberry Coal and Bloomfield Farm (where the shopping centre is now). The family circle elected Billy Neill to live and farm there with his wife Vera. She was formerly Phelps from Kent, a direct descendant of Jane Lane who helped Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester in the 1640s. They raised their three children (including Berry) there. The Corbetts (whiskey distillers from Banbridge) have owned it since 1949.” Coline’s brother Guthrie Barrett concurs that “Billy Neill sold Tyrella in 1949”.

Tyrella Beach Sunset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I haven’t been back to Tyrella House since 1949,” says nonagenarian Beresford Neill, otherwise known as Uncle Berry. He lives in Malone now. “A most wonderful childhood. Absolutely beautiful. Tyrella was completely and utterly the back of beyond. For goodness sake, it was completely feudal. There were no neighbours. We had our own entrance into the church next door and our own pew.” Berry’s on a roll: “My father got married in February 1917. He bought the estate: 300 acres; a 3.5 acre walled garden; 48 rooms.” Althorp has 90 rooms. Although what constitutes a room is a moot point. Lumber rooms, anyone? “There was no electricity. In 1906 a gas heating machine was installed. It had huge pipes and a great big cage in the kitchen. There was no telephone until 1933. How mama coped I don’t know. We’d a cook, housemaid and three gardeners. There were three bathrooms – one for staff, two for the family. We always had dogs – mostly Labradors. There was a large wood to the side of the house and a rock garden. The rocks were transported in 1890 from Scrabo to Tullymurry by train, then by horse and cart. It was a tremendous effort!”

Mountains of Mourne Sunset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Berry reminisces, “In 1944 I enlisted as a private soldier in the Rifle Brigade. It’s now called the Rifles. It was a very swish regiment. After the War I got transferred to Ballykinler Camp. I spent the whole of 1946 there. I’d a marvellous time! I could walk over the fields from Tyrella to Ballykinler in 10 minutes.” Life wasn’t uneventful, even at isolated Tyrella. “We had the most enormous beech tree but a storm split it down the middle. It was sawn up by a gardener of course but a stump remained. One quiet Sunday afternoon I decided to blow up the remains of the tree. I thought I was the last word in explosives! I got seven anti-tank mines, made a fuse, and set them off. Bang! The birds stopped singing. Silence. Then… tinkle tinkle. The windows shattered. Sheer bloody stupidity! I should’ve opened the windows first!”

Tyrella House View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We don’t usually open to paying guests in November,” signs David, due to ignorant comments about temperature levels inside the house midwinter. Some people really don’t get it, do they? First of all, welcome to Northern Ireland. The clue is in the first part of the Province’s name. Mind you, Huntington Castle in the south of Ireland suffers from the same issue. Secondly, if you want over-insulated overheated rooms check into a hotel. Don’t stay in an Irish country house. They don’t do double glazing or underfloor heating. But they do have lashings of character, history and art; uncompromised aesthetics; and endlessly entertaining hosts. What about open fires in marble surrounds? De rigeur. Like those other majestic Hidden Ireland gems, Hilton Park and Temple House, heavy curtains and concertina shutters in Tyrella’s guest bedrooms put to sleep any worries of chilly discomfort. A newly installed biomass boiler also helps. “I’ve still kept the 1906 boiler with its original instruction manual. It’s beautiful – like a beast of a furnace on the Titanic.”

Tyrella House Spider House © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And bags at dawn. Peering over the bedroom landing, the oval staircase resembles a gargantuan pencil sharpening, a bannister bordered carpeted curlicue, a variation on the Fibonacci spiral. Downstairs, breakfast is laid out country house style – buffet on the sideboard. “I do recommend Lindy Dufferin’s Greek Style Yoghurt,” says David. Distinguished historian Dr Frances Sands announced recently at 20 St James’s Square: “Breakfast was the only meal of the day you served yourself. That’s why there is side furniture in the breakfast room. If there is no separate breakfast room, really then the dining room should be referred to as the eating room. There was a huge fear of odour in Georgian times. The eating room would’ve had no curtains, carpet or silk wall hangings. Seating would’ve been leather.” The dining room or should it be eating room was once the billiard room according to the host of Tyrella House.

Tyrella House Sea Bream © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It is impossible to leave Tyrella without mentioning the beach. The Mountains of Mourne thrillingly tower over miles of unspoiled golden strand between Clough and Killough (interchangeable townlets after a G+T). “It is no secret that Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s greatest writers,” brags the local tourist board, “Lavender’s Blue, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Louis MacNeice and of course, C S Lewis.” This part of County Down was C S Lewis’s childhood holiday destination and provided literary fodder for Narnia: “I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards, which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.” Coline Grover concludes, “Tyrella Beach never changes of course.”

Tyrella House Dinner © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Credits Guthrie Barrett, David Corbett, Ian Elliott, Coline Grover, Berry Neill

Tyrella House Pudding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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