The Mists of Time
Red or Read
“I always wear one primary colour,” quips the Swedish born Belgravia based former model Leonie Frieda. She’s dressed head to toe in black. Now a highly acclaimed writer, Ms Frieda is celebrating her hot off the press publication Francis I: The Maker of Modern France. Smashing read. But what about the primary colour? Louboutins, darling. Achilles never looked so good.
Pointed Arches Circling the Globe
Mid 19th century England saw a flowering of Gothic Revival architects: George Gilbert Scott, William Butterfield, William White and of course the Pugin dynasty. Across the Channel, things were pretty pointed too. At the dawn of the Second Empire, 200 churches were under construction in France. The Gothic style enjoyed official State endorsement as Napoleon III garnered support among the Catholic clergy.
It’s 1854. The booming city of Lille is declared a diocese, independent of the declining capital of French Flanders, Arras. Time for a church dedicated to a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary protected by an iron trellis. Time for an international architectural competition. A diktat declares it must be Gothic Revival. What can possibly go wrong? English Protestant architects winning? In the words of one assessor, “L’Angleterre qui a triomphé!” And so William Burges and his sidekick Henry Clutton take first prize.
William Burges was the master of polychromatic romanticism. Witness his rather bonkers Tower House in Kensington. A neo medieval mini fortress on an uppity middle class leafy avenue. Further witness his bold and brilliant maximalist St Fin Barre’s Cathedral of Cork. But Lille was never to benefit from William Burges’ boldness and brilliance. Much curmudgeonly fudgery later, winner of the third price – the Gothic Revivalist and very French Jean-Baptiste Antoine Lassus – was commissioned to build the “Cathedral for the North of France”.
The church was indeed later upgraded to a cathedral with the establishment of the seat of the Bishop of Lille in 1913. But the dosh ran out in 1947 and Monsieur Lassus’ twin peaked entrance was never executed. Fast forward to the 1990s and the front was finally completed to the design of Lille architect Pierre-Louis Carlier. The style is Minimalist Gothic. A vast arch dominating the façade is filled with 28 millimetre thick white marble which appears opaque outside but allows orangey light to flood the interior. A rose window by Ladislaus Kijno is set into the top of the arch. Shadows crisscross as candles flicker against 21st century artworks. Overhead, a hanging reads: “Revenez à Dieu: Il vous appelle à la Vie en Jésus Christ!”
Ok, it’s a feeble excuse. But since Lavender’s Blue have once again been asked to sit on the Nominations Committee of the World Boutique Hotel Awards, we simply had to hop on Eurostar Business Premier to five star intimate luxury in Lille. Three blind mice arches on either side of a gated pedimented Corinthian pilastered archway line the pavement of Rue de la Barre in Quartier du Vieux. Beyond this most enigmatic of screen walls, set back behind a courtyard, is the façade of a gorgeous nine bay three storey 18th century stuccoed mansion. It’s Relais + Châteaux; it’s really a château.
Clarance Hotel started life in 1736 as the home of Count and Countess of Hespel. Current owner Aurélie Vermesse says, “It took me more than two years to set up La Clarence as a hotel, opening in April 2015. Today, I have 30 employees, a Michelin starred restaurant, and I generate €2.7 million in turnover!” Our coterie, an outré beau monde, is at home among the soignée haute monde, social carousels in slow motion, floating through the airily graceful reception rooms. A row of French (what else?) windows lighting the rear enfilade opens onto a gloriously private walled garden with the tower of St Catherine’s Church as a backdrop. Fruit trees and beehives surround a pond of waterlilies that would give Monet a run for his money. Clarance Hotel is divine, so chic.
It’s not just us feeling Lille. “For those who want a London career,” surprises Annunciata Elwes in Country Life, “but enjoy a French attitude to cuisine and culture (cheese and wine), apparently Lille is the next commuter property hotspot. Website Emoov claims that the combination of the capital’s higher wage potential, Lille’s more affordable properties (34.9 percent cheaper) and a Eurostar commute of only an hour and 22 minutes is a winner.”
By nightfall, turndown of our light and spacious bedroom includes a handwritten card from the hotelier: “’There, all is order and beauty, luxury, Peace and Pleasure.’ I wish you a pleasant stay at Clarance. Aurélie.” And the all important chocolate truffles. Our room, No.14, is called Le Voyage. It’s one of just nine rooms on the second floor. The others are called No.12 Allegorié; No.15 L’Albatros; No.16 Hymne; No.17 Le Flacon; No.18 Le Jeu; No.19 La Musique; and No.20 Clarance. No.13, its door luckily unnumbered, is the broom cupboard. A segmental arched window looks across the courtyard to a pleasing jumble of chimneys and rooftops. Directly below are seats perfect for enjoying a nightcap of Les Rochettes Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu 2015 from Loire Valley.
The categories for this year’s World Boutique Hotel Awards are Beach or Coastal| City Explorer | Classic Elegance | Culinary Excellence | Family | Honeymoon Hideaway | Inspired Design | Newcomer | Relaxation Retreat | Romantic Retreat | Wellness Spa | Sustainability | Stunning Views. We could easily nominate Clarance Hotel for all 13. Ok, Beach or Coastal might be pushing it.
A Tale of a Lot of Cities
Lille. A little frayed round the edges. Faded grandeur. A touch crumbly. True chic amongst shabby chic. And on Rue Esquermoise, there’s Méert, the best decorated chocolaterie and confiserie imaginable. What’s not to love?
Somewhere between the heights of Wheely Down and Beack Hill, hiding in the low lying parishes, lies Warnford Park. And somewhere between the contemporary mansion and the medieval ruins lies The Church of Our Lady. The diversion of the Portsmouth Road and the relocation of Warnford village in the late 18th century added to its isolation. So tranquil. The church leaflet sums it up nicely,
“Deep in the woodlands of the Meon Valley, The Church of Our Lady stands in peaceful isolation. This is hallowed ground where God has been worshipped continuously for 1,300 years. The church serves a scattered parish of farms for there is no real village centre of Warnford… The building is Early English of the simplest kind, as befitting so tiny a parish… There was an earlier church here, founded about 682 by St Wilfrid the Bishop during his exile from Northumbria.”
The tower is dated 1125; the nave and chancel are 1270 or so. The chancel is separated from the nave, as to be expected, by a rood screen. This one is beautifully carved in the Jacobean tradition and dates from 1634. The ruins are of King John’s House and date from the 1230s. In the mid 18th century they were consolidated to form a picturesque feature of the pleasure grounds. Jane Austen was familiar with the estate – her Pride and Prejudice character Lady Catherine de Bourgh is meant to be named after a member of the de Burgh family who once owned the estate.
Under a holly tree next to the church porch is a gravestone with an unrevealing inscription: “To the memory of George Lewis who died December 17th 1830 aged 41 years.” But a graphic carving suggests this wasn’t a peaceful passing. It depicts a skeleton standing under a tree next to a funeral casket. An extended arm points to a fallen branch and a saw leaning against the trunk. Rural legend has it that the unfortunate George, who was the estate carpenter, was in the habit of working Sundays despite dire warnings from the Rector of Our Lady’s Church. One day, a branch fell off a tree and sent him to his Maker.
One man’s folly is another man’s fort. It’s something of a Tardis, a Marino Casino for the South Downs. The Summer House is really a compact three storey villa disguised as a gothic folly. A delightful conceit. The garden front in particular, when viewed from afar, is dressed up as a toy fort. Only the side elevations display the full extent of the building: the attic hidden behind the quatrefoil punctured parapet and the lower ground floor concealed behind the grass mound.
There are two entrances on the façade. One is up a triumphal flight of steps; the other is through a grotto arched under the steps. Where’s a hermit when you need one? Indeed, a hermit was found for an especially authentic party a while back. From a distance, at least with an unhealthy dose of Impressionistic myopia, the flint walls appear to be made of pebbles and shells.
The Summer House sits in the centre of a landscaped park. Just as carvings aren’t carvings unless they’re Grinling Gibbons and carpets aren’t carpets unless they’re Aubusson, so parkland isn’t parkland unless it’s Capability Brown. Fortunately not only did young Lancelot design this park (and lake) but he might even have had a hand in the house itself.
It was built in the late 18th century as a bath house for the Norman Irish 11th Earl of Clanricarde. Running beneath the building is a canal, a tributary of the River Meon, which originally fed the windowless lower ground floor bathing pool. The octagonal pool room is now, with great aptness, a bathroom. The octagonal Chinese wallpapered dining room above benefits from a canted bay window. Stalking light, drawing with light, the dining room overlooks a 200 metre long terrace which overlooks That Park which overlooks the Meon Valley which overlooks Old Winchester Hill. This weekend it’s Narnia.
The internal arrangement lends more than a certain sense of country house grandeur. Meals are carried on trays up a double height staircase hall (with a little detour via the drawing room) connecting the lower ground floor kitchen to the dining room. The enfilade of piano nobile reception rooms separates the lower ground floor master bedroom from the top floor guest rooms. Positive negative space.
The Bath House | The Dower House | The Gardener’s House | The Summer House. A perennial eyecatcher. It’s not summer this weekend but rather very late winter: spring solstice. Snowfall has brought monochromatic elegance, a binary gamut. White noise, white mischief, white magic. Perfect for capturing indecisive moments, framing representations. Everything is more defined, more sculptural: a temporary white phantasmagoria. “I hope you enjoy working in the art world,” beamed Julia Korner, Fine Art Consultant and Agent, Maritime Specialist and Lecturer at the BADA vernissage a few days previously. One man’s folly is another man’s forte.