No.50 Cheyne Chelsea London + Iain Smith

Chelsea Arbour

Cheyne Walk Chelsea © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

So, 50 is the new brasserie. After a nine month rework, our favourite Chelsea haunt is up and running again. Sprinting even. It came at a price: a cool £3 million. Money well spent though: Lambart + Browne (Founding Directors Freddy van Zevenbergen and Tom Browning are from the school of Nicky Haslam) have created interiors that are at once luxurious and relaxing. Let’s start with the spacious upstairs drawing room. That’s where we’re ushered for pre drinks to meet Maître d’ David Gjytetza on the last evening of summer. It’s like being at a house party – if you’ve friends who own a Georgian property overlooking the Thames. All five tall windows are gracefully dressed. It’s clearly not curtains for curtains: significant drapes are joined by Roman blinds and generous pelmets. There are plenty of Nickyesque touches: curly edged bookshelves, squashy sofas, tweedy cushions, a host of antiqued mirrors (through a glass, darkly). The drawing room meshes highbrow bibliophilia with talented mixology: it’s somewhere to slake your thirst with a Garden of Eden Cocktail (Wolfschmidt Kummel, Champagne, apple and lavender shrub) while browsing The Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Such reserve, such reticence.

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In contrast, the intimate first floor cocktail bar is Chinoiserie red with midnight blue satin highlights. Such boldness, such sexiness. Drummonds sanitaryware is the ultimate sophistication signifier in the bathroom. The centuries old tradition of distractingly saucy cartoons of racy girls hanging on the walls is upheld. Downstairs, leather banquettes and stripy snug chairs are made for decadent dinners and languid lunches in the restaurant. Chandeliers with 50 shades radiate a soft glow. Such elegance, such comfort. General Manager Benoit Auneau joins us for a chat. Gosh, this place is friendlier than ever. The building was once a pub and it still feels like a local. A very upmarket local. “Cheyne is my baby,” says Benoit. “I’ve been here a long time.”

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Owner Sally Greene (who’s also proprietor of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho and The Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo) lives nearby on Cheyne Walk in a house with a Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll designed garden. Splendid. Sally opened Cheyne Walk Brasserie in 2004 to great aplomb; its relaunch has gone and upped the aplomb.  She says, “My passion is creativity. My passion is looking for opportunities and just going for them.” During dinner, David tells us, “The split of guests is roughly 60 to 40 residents to visitors. We get people coming from Blakes Hotel and Chelsea Harbour Hotel too.” There are a few modelly types as well tonight. It’s a terrific British menu focused round the wood fire grill. We choose the scallops starter. Unusually, they’re served cold in a cucumber soup. Such flavour, such joy. Stuffed courgette flowers with aubergine caviar for main is a sumptuous artistic composition. Classic St Véran keeps things lively.

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Exterior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Sign © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Head Chef Iain Smith © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Flowers © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Plasterwork © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Cornice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Upstairs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Bathroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

We return to No.50 Cheyne on the first afternoon of autumn. Head Chef Iain Smith talks to us over lunch. We’re back in the coveted corner table (the best place to see and be seen). “There aren’t that many restaurants in Chelsea,” observes Iain. That wasn’t always the case. A scan through the 1975 edition of a Discriminating Guide to Fine Dining and Shopping in London by James Sherwood, Founder of Orient-Express Hotels, identifies 22 restaurants in the hallowed postcode enjoyed by No.50 Cheyne of SW3. Two prominent survivals are Daphne’s and San Lorenzo. There are six restaurants on King’s Road alone:

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Sofa © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Al Ben Accotto, 58 Fulham Road… “plain walls, Venetian lanterns overhead”… “the crème brûlée is a triumph”
  • Alvaro, 124 King’s Road… “genuine, small Italian restaurant”… “octopus with spinach in chilli sauce is delicious”
  • Au Bon Accueil, 27 Elystan Road… “small, pretty, cheerful Chelsea restaurant”… “vegetables are prepared with originality”
  • Brompton Grill, 243 Brompton Road… “patterned wallpaper surrounds, pink tinged mirrors engraved with clouds”… “unforgettable tartare sauce on fried scallops”
  • Le Carrousse, 19 to 21 Elystan Street…“The original decorator was David Hicks; the original owner, Geoffrey Sharp”… “miraculously unrubbery escargots”
  • The Casserole, 338 King’s Road… “trendy Chelsea King’s Road atmosphere”… “avocado filled with cottage cheese, walnuts and celery”
  • La Chaumière, 104 Draycott Avenue… “the most expensive bistro in London”… “the entrée is served with baked potatoes and salads”
  • Chelsea Rendezvous, 4c Sydney Street… “white painted brick walls, a profusion of fresh plants and paintings by Brian McMinn”… “fried seaweed is a delicious addition”
  • Daphne’s, 122 Draycott Avenue… “plush banquettes, gilt framed pictures and subdued lighting”… “Elizabeth Shaw chocolate crisps are served with good coffee”
  • Don Luigi, 330 King’s Road… “modern prints hang on clean white walls”… “Scampi Don Luigi is a speciality”
  • Meridiana, 169 Fulham Road… “the dining room itself is bright, airy, spacious, clean and bustling”… “pasta is excellent”
  • Minotaur, Chelsea Cloisters, Sloane Avenue… “quiet, cool and spacious atmosphere of a hotel dining room”… “fresh vegetables are imaginatively prepared”
  • Parkes, 5 Beauchamp Place… “bright coloured banquettes line the dining room walls”… “artichoke hearts in mustard soup is a delicious starter”
  • La Parra, 163 Draycott Avenue… “darkly atmospheric in spite of white rough plaster walls and almost cloister-like Spanish arches”… “vegetables are seasonal and well prepared”
  • Poissonnerie de l’Avenue, 82 Sloane Avenue… “long red carpet, long polished mahogany bar, wood panelled walls, cut velvet banquettes”… “scampi flavoured with Pernod on pilaff rice is perfect if you like the idea of that combination”
  • San Frediano, 62 Fulham Road… “one of the most popular of Chelsea’s trattorias”… “salads are fresh”
  • San Lorenzo, 22 Beauchamp Place… “so popular is Lorenzo at lunchtime that it’s very hard to get in”… “in summer the favourite way to begin a meal is with either Mozzarella or Creolla salads”
  • San Martino, 103 Walton Street… “an attractive restaurant with a happy, bustling atmosphere”… “salads are drowned in dressing”
  • Sans Souci, 68 Royal Hospital Road… “the single long room has banquette seats down each side”… “salad dressings are, as the sauces, very very good”
  • Trojan Horse, 3 Milner Street… “freshly decorated in bright nurseryh red and blue with a few amphoras on door lintels”… “the rice is excellent and sauces are well blended”
  • 235 Kings, 235 King’s Road… “one of Chelsea’s most popular and trendy restaurants”… “vegetables are nicely undercooked”
  • Waltons, 121 Walton Street… “Louis XV chairs, stainless steel chairs, and even a beautiful canopied sofa at a table for six”… “soups are wonderful, especially one of fennel and courgettes”

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Starter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Iain is a protégé of celebrity chef Jason Atherton. He previously worked at Social Eating House Soho and The London Edition Hotel Fitzrovia. “I’ve found my home here!” he enthuses. His interview was cooking a 14 course meal sampled by Sally. “One of my greatest challenges was to win over regulars as this was already an established restaurant.” That challenge has been met and surpassed: “Our 100 covers are full almost every night!” The salmon tartare with avocado starter is a new cold delight. Another aubergine main, this time stuffed with piperade quinoa, proves Iain knows his onions – and fruit. We’re crème brûlée connoisseurs so on both recent visits pudding is an easy choice, especially when served with Russet apple compote and lemon sorbet. “It’s comfort food taken to a new level,” is how Iain describes his cooking. Can this Chelsea destination get any better? “We’re adding a private dining room for 30 to 40 people,” reveals David. Even better.

No.50 Cheyne Restaurant Chelsea Main © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Strabane + The Doors

Prints Charming

Strabane Doors © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Strabane, 18th century Ireland’s capital of publishing and printing.

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Africa Fashion Week London + Nigeria 2019

Talks and Walks    

Live AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s the most deliciously distinguished date of distinction on London’s August calendar – the Capital’s not-so-quiet summer month. The largest annual African fashion event in Europe. Yes, for one weekend Freemasons’ Hall Covent Garden plays architectural host to catwalk shows and exhibitions complemented by an African souk and food village. Welcome to the Grand Temple of African Style! A new addition this year is the Business Fashion Forum powered by EPG Media. Insightful talks and informative panel discussions feature guest speakers from the Mayor of London’s Office, Department of Trade UK and the V+A Museum not forgetting British perfume sensation Azzi Glasser. 

AFWL Africa Fashion Week Covent Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Princess Ronke Ademiluyi is the esteemed founder and owner of Africa Fashion Week London and Nigeria. Known informally as “Rukkies”, she is a London trained lawyer. So how did she gracefully make the transition from Suits (law) to suits (fashion)? Her Royal Highness: “When I was in the university whatever I wore to school used to get a lot of compliments. At some point I thought why not make a business out of it? I often bought stuff for some of my fellow students, dressed them up and styled them. That is how the whole fashion thing came about.”

Showcase AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Both London and Nigeria have been absolute runaway successes. Princess Ronke reveals, “Africa Fashion Week Nigeria has by the grace of God become the biggest driver in Nigeria for emerging brands. The London event is very mainstream in the sense we have a lot of mainstream media, fashion buyers and organisations who attend to see the latest coming out of Africa because it involves the 54 African countries. It is still promoting our culture as well because our fashion is our culture – it translates our cultural identity.”

AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Joseph Farodoye, CEO of EPG Media announces, “This is a moment in history. We are an amazing bunch of people – beautiful, resilient! My mother says, ‘If you know better do better!’ Africa Fashion Week London has celebrated over 900 designers. When Ronke set it up it was for aspiring designers who are now established designers. “It’s now the largest and longest running culturally diverse fashion and trade exhibition in Europe. Let’s begin to change the narrative of the landscape – we are a vibrant people!” There’s liquid refreshment too seeping through all this glamour: Amarula. This drink is made from the Marula fruit of Sub Equatorial Africa. The Marula spirit is distilled and aged in French oak for two years then blended with a velvety cream to create the smooth taste of Amarula. Yesterday’s dream.

Backstage AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Designers AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Vanessa Gounden Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Becca Apparel AFWL © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Becca Apparel Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Makeup AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Beauty AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Style AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

AFWL © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Model AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

South African fashion designer Vanessa Gounden believes in merging creativity and business to be sustainable. “My husband and I are activists involved in the liberation. I’ve always had a passion for fashion!” she exclaims. “What is my actual USP? It’s an activist expression of wearable art – the very essence of how we can be more feminine and responsible. I’ve created an integrated atelier proud of ‘Made in South Africa’ goods that can compete in the international luxury market.” Vanessa Gounden is now open in Soho London’s Ham Yard Village. Today’s fashion; tomorrow’s vintage.

Hairstyle AFWL Africa Fashion Week London © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Elisabeth Murray, Curator of Modern Fashion at the V+A, says the museum is “an amazing resource for designers and makers”, adding, “there are around 80,000 fashion and textiles objects”. Janet Browne, Senior Producer of Audience Development at the V+A Learning Academy, predominantly works with black audiences at the museum. Her aim is to “celebrate difference and tell the difference through narratives in the collections”. There are around 4,500 objects from Africa and its diaspora. Janet confides, “My favourite is the bust of a black youth made in the 18th century which stands proudly in the Europe Gallery. He has no collar so he wasn’t enslaved. We believe he was probably a gondolier who worked for himself in Italy. The bust is made of marble with glass buttons. I love him!”

Africa Fashion © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Africa Fashion Week London is packed with other fashionable dignitaries taking part. To name just a few: Her Royal Highness Queen Diambi Kabatusuila Tshiyoyo Muata of the Democratic Republic of Congo; Her Excellency Erelu Bisi Fayemi, First Lady of Ekiti State, Nigeria; and Her Excellency Mrs Olufolake Abdulrazaq, First Lady of Kwara State, Nigeria. August isn’t August isn’t august without Africa Fashion Week London. And Christmas isn’t complete without Africa Fashion Week Nigeria. As for the First Lady of Fashion, Mary Martin, after triumphantly showcasing her premier menswear collection at Africa Fashion Week London she’s flying off to present the highlights of her show at Africa Fashion and Cultural Week, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

Vanessa Gounden Material © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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La Divine Comédie Demeure Privée + Spa Avignon

A Sense of Theatre

Rooftop View La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A private paradise. A secret world. A hidden kingdom. Cloistered glory. The very essence of exclusivity. If luxury could be bottled… heavenly scent. A multiple epiphanic realisation of complete beauty and tranquillity. Not even a Gallic Frances Hodgson Burnett could dream up the discreet walled splendour of La Divine Comédie. Although Colette comes pretty close in Gigi: “Such a beautiful garden… such a beautiful garden.” Its only outward expression, an enigmatic public face, is an ivied arched wooden gate at the end of a laneway off Rue Sainte Catherine or is it Rue des Bains or Rue Saluces? Such is the labyrinth that is old town Avignon. Corrugations of sunshine ripple across the lawn and climb over a card table. Gigi again, “What about a game of piquet?”

Rooftops View La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“We called it La Divine Comédie after the many theatrical connections of Avignon,” explains co owner Amaury de Villoutreys, a former financier. There are two theatres – Théâtre Golovine and Théâtre du Chêne Noir – within Galilean binoculars view of the house. A diorama of a stage in the dining room reinforces the theme. Distinguished architectural historian Dr Roderick O’Donnell reckons, “As Chaucer is to English, so Dante is the father of spoken Italian. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, referenced Dante when he quipped there is a ‘special place in hell’ for certain politicians.” This could well be the beginning of always.

View La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Trees La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Terrace La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pool La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Garden Pool La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Swimming Pool La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bench La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Urn La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pond La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bust La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Table La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Swag La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bamboos La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Night Lantern La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Lantern La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Perspective La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Garden View La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Exterior La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Orangery La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Upper Floors La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Shutters La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Eaves La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pavilion Table La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pavilion La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pavilion Bust La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pavilion Coronets La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Staircase Hall La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bannister La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Stairs La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Night Time Stairs La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Landing La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Landing Table La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Staircase Rooflight La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Attic Stairs La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dining Room La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Elephant La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Horse La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Taxidermy La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Chess La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Drawing Room Mantelpiece La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Drawing Room Statue La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Drawing Room Shadow La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Drawing Room Sculpture La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Drawing Room Door La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bedroom La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bedroom Diorama La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bedroom Chandelier La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bedroom Boat La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bedroom Mantelpiece La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bathroom La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dog La Divine Comedie Hotel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dog La Divine Comedie Avignon Provence © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Dog La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Cat La Divine Comedie Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Five guest suites breathe and stretch and spread and sprawl across three uncrowded bedroom floors, louvred shutters flung open to the birds tweeting leaves rustling church bells peeling. The Cat by Colette, “Above the withered stump draped with climbing plants, a flight of bees over the ivy flowers gave out a solemn cymbal note, the identical note of so many summers.” Last used as a school, the stone house – dating from the 18th and 19th centuries – is so tall yet not as tall as its smothering of ancient plane trees. Remnants of the 14th century palace of Cardinal Amédée de Saluces, ghostly tracery of the past, are imprinted on the garden wall. A 15 metre swimming pool lies hidden behind dense bamboo woodland. The perfumed aroma of musk and civet intensifies with the heat of a lost summer afternoon. Piquet time.

Cat La Divine Comedie Avignon Provence © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

La Divine Comédie is the outcome of a revelatory seven year conversion and restoration programme. The interiors radiate confident good taste: the other co owner Gilles Jauffret is a leading decorator. Antique pieces, vintage finds and contemporary artworks are mixed with bravura under rococo’d ceilings. There’s an elephant in the (sitting) room. Pictures in the staircase hall are hung as close as stamps in the style beloved by Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors. Light selectively permeates the spaces through internal French doors and rooflights. The Cat once more: “The zone of shadow… the zone of shadow…” Persian siblings Gaston and Simone curl playfully on matching grey chairs. Thédule the Weinheimer blends in with the suede cover of a garden seat while alfresco quail’s eggs breakfast is served. Such pedigree.

Cat La Divine Comedie Avignon Hotel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Avignon + The Doors

French Collection

Avignon Doors © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provençal not provincial.

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Place de l’Horloge + Hôtel des Monnaies Avignon

Minted

Place de l'Horloge Avignon Provence © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Like the writer Susan Sontag, we choose to view the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. And nowhere more so than in the City of the Popes amidst the swags and swagger of such forceful architecture. A busker with a cat plays an organ in Place de l’Horloge. “Look,” the busker says pointing to the cat’s bed under the organ, “he lies on an iced blanket to keep him cool in the heat. I have 29 cats altogether.”

Place de l'Horloge Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hotel des Monnaies Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hotel des Monnaies Avignon Provence © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Organ Busker's Cat Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Avignon + Lavender’s Blue

Finding You in the Mystery

Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s known as the Golden Triangle of Roman Cities: Avignon, Arles and Nîmes. Lavender’s Blue are in Avignon, favoured of late by the Obama family, less late by the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and rather less late again, by Charles Dickens. The author wrote in Pictures from Italy, “There lay before us, that same afternoon, the broken bridge of Avignon, and all the city baking in the sun; yet with an under-done-pie-crust, battlemented wall, that never will be brown, though it bake for centuries.”

Musee Calvet Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Town Centre Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Steeple Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Papal Palace Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Papal Palace Tower Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Papal Palace Walls Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Church Rosette Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Church Door Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

City Walls Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Wall Ruins Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Battlements Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ramparts Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Historic Walls Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Crucifix Papal Palace Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Crucifix Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Cross Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Church Dome Avignon © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Provence + Lavender’s Blue

Less Than A Year

Provence View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A week in Provence.

Provence Riverbank © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Riverside © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Boat © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Mooring © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Church © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Tower © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Corbel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Madonna © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Statue © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Cross © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Provence + Twilight + Moonlight

Sonata

Provence Twilight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provence Moonlight © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Belmond British Pullman + Venice Simplon-Orient Express + Murder Mystery Lunch

The Snuff That Dreams Are Made of

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Minerva © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hard copy invitation cards are so dreadfully last season. This fall it’s all about (minimum 600 gsm) hard copy personalised travel journals arriving first class. Ever since George Pullman launched his eponymous coach in 1874, that surname has become synonymous with luxury train travel. The British set of sumptuous carriages dates back to the swigging swirling Swinging Twenties. The Belmond British Pullman service forms part of Venice Simplon-Orient Express’s British journey. You really can’t overdress on the Orient Express. And certainly not on this ride for it could be your last. Best looking drop dead gorgeous, so to speak. Wait, just dress to kill or be killed! Now all aboard! There’s a murder mystery to solve – although not before five course table d’hôte lunch is served on William Edwards Phoenix Blue (The Queen Mother’s favourite hue) finest bone china.

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Perseus © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just an Agatha Christie novel. Avoiding Istanbul and Calais, it’s a thriller of a circular route (with some twists) from London Victoria through the Kent countryside and back again in time for gold rush hour. We’re in Minerva (1927), one of 11 Pullman carriages or belles. Minerva, Cygnus (1938), Perseus (also 1938) and Phoenix (1927) are all 26 seater carriages. Six carriages are 20 seater: Audrey (1932), Gwen (1934), Ibis (1925), Ione (1928) Lucille (1928) and Vera (1932). Zena is the only 24 seater carriage. Our dining car – all marquetry panelling and art deco detailing just like The Gore (pun) on wheels – is filled with accents as polished as the overhead latticed brass luggage racks.

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Ibis © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

As the long lighted platform fades from view, we start breezing through the Garden of England. The 270 kilometre journey departs via Ashford passing Leeds Castle and on to Canterbury before following the south coast taking in Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and Whitstable. Not that we’re paying much attention to the great outdoors – there’s too much action in our carriage. Amidst smoke (or at least cigarette holders) and mirrors (bevelled not crack’d), there are flapper girls sporting cloche hats, turbans, fringed shawls, boas and strings of pearls as well as dapper guys in black tie. The zesty citrus notes of Laurent Perrier La Cuvée and the fruity aromas of Terre del Noce Pinot Grigio Dolomiti 2018 lace the air.

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Vera © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bang! The dashing self proclaimed wine connoisseur Van Quaffleur bombastically bursts into our carriage. He was a close friend of Nicholas 6th Lord Deville who was poisoned a few days ago at a dinner party in Knightsbridge. Van Quaffleur is now a suspect in his murder. “Nicholas face planted the semolina,” he howls. “A splurge and a splat!” Hang on, there’s something fishy and we’re not just talking about the off menu red herrings. Lunch – the Chef de Train has clearly been scouring the archives for some vintage seafood favourites – is served:

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Lucille © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Minerva Model © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Kent © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Railway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Rack © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Minerva Interior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Marquetry © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Corridor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Goody Bag © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Lamp © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Tassels © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Curtains © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Pinot Grigio © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Amuse Bouches © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Biscuits © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Bread © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Pickled Beets © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Basil Soup © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Main © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Seared Sea Trout © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Sea Trout © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Apricot Tart © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Waiters © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Waiting Staff © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Waiter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Staff © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Van Quaffleur © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Wine Connoiseur © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Tamara Crispin-Pettipace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch TCP © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Tamara Crispin-Pettipace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Nurse B Ware © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Jezebel Horne-Deville © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Mrs Horne-Deville © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The supremely attentive exquisitely liveried marvellously mannered completely courteous waiters cater to our every caprice. All is calm, serene, peaceful. Sleuth! Strewth! A fracas breaks out in the middle of our carriage. “That nurse is a gold digging little trollop! I would’ve killed her, not dear Nicholas!” Lord Deville’s close friend Mrs Tamara Crispin-Pettipace aka TCP has arrived. Tamara’s referring to Brenda Elsie Ware aka B E Ware, a rather attractive and by now very indignant nurse from Tender Temps who has turned up unexpectedly. Awks. Brenda was engaged to the somewhat older Lord Deville and is now suspected of senicide. As the quarrelsome madams jostle their way into the next carriage, the Honourable Jezebel Horne-Deville, the 6th Lord Deville’s younger sister, rocks up, dressed head to toe in blood red. She’s suspected of fratricide. “I arranged a huge life insurance on Old Nick just for the fun of telling him he was worth more to me dead than alive!”

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Smith the Butler © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Smith the Butler, Lord Deville’s faithful manservant, joins in the melee. He cuts quite a swathe. “I have no motive! But the nurse is a flighty thing. So vulgar! She was very hands on with His Lordship!” he smirks. The frisson of intrigue intensifies but surely we’re not losing the plot? “Oh, do you know Nick? I think we’ve seen you at one of his soirées perhaps?” Flummoxed, banjaxed, poleaxed, we slink off to the bathroom. The Indian summer sunlight streaming through an oeil de boeuf window illuminates its mosaic floor. Floris, The Queen Mother’s favourite handwash, stands next to the marble basin.

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch Seyton Deville © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Back in Minerva, the final suspect introduces himself. “I am the Honourable Seyton Deville, Old Nick’s son and heir.” He’s suspected of patricide. “Ask me questions, I’ll tell you no lies. The others have all spoken complete poppycock.” Van Quaffleur reappears: “The more you drink, the easier it is to solve the murder!” We start tying up the loose ends. And then there was one. So whodunnit? Well, we couldn’t possibly say – only servants tell tales before bedtime. A rumbustious scuffle breaks out. Mercy! Such brouhaha! Somebody makes a dash for it. Is the guilty party about to escape? You really can’t overstress on the Orient Express. The Murder Mystery Lunch on the Belmond British Pullman is a day of curious tensity, filled with indulgent fun, and heaps of occidental decadence.

Belmond British Pullman Murder Mystery Lunch It's a Wrap © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Nicholas Ashley-Cooper 12th Earl of Shaftesbury + St Giles House Dorset

Changing the Dial

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper 12th Earl of Shaftesbury 2019 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Giles House has quite an evolving history,” says Lord Shaftesbury. “Country houses are always living organisms. The Victorian obsession was to make them bigger and better. Strange French château style pavilions were added to St Giles. They were poorly constructed and didn’t survive more than seven years. Whoever thought they were a good idea?” Nick is England’s coolest aristo. He also happens to own Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. His great grandfather who was Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast gifted the family’s Northern Irish seat, Belfast Castle, to the City Council in 1934. Today, Nick is dressed in a linen suit and trainers with his trademark sweptback hair touching his shirt collar. He also happens to be responsible for one of the most iconic – not a term to use lightly – country house rooms of the 21st century. More of the Great Dining Room later.

“Growing up nearby I used to cycle past St Giles and think what a strange place it was – from another era.” A series of very unexpected events resulted in Nick inheriting the derelict house and its 2,220 hectare estate just south of Cranborne Chase, Dorset, in 2005. The first phase of restoration of the house was to “create a cosy family space akin to our Earls Court flat life at that time”. Nick and his wife Dinah along with their three children moved into this “cocoon” occupying a few rooms. He remembers, “We needed to live and feel and breathe the building.”

Despite lying empty for 50 years, “It was an incredible house just full of stuff. Our challenge was navigating our way through what was worth salvaging and what wasn’t. We found some beautiful unique pieces we wanted to showcase. Otherwise, the interior is a combination of beautiful architectural decoration and relatively modern pieces. My wife loves to be bold and not use more mellow colours!” He adds, “At the time, a lot of people asked how do you go from being a DJ to running an estate? But running a venue was something I could do – I could bring people in.”

And so the second phase of restoration began. “I told the builders not to leave. The public rooms have been kept sparse to allow them to be used for events. The architecture is so beautiful and you are drawn to that. There are very few curtains on the ground floor – you don’t need them. The thing that makes it magical is you’re going into a space that has been used by generations of people. In some ways this is imprinted on the structure. Patination is an important part of the atmosphere.” A particularly innovative approach was taken for the Great Dining Room.

“This room was really badly hit by dry rot,” explains Nick. “My father was forced to rip out much of the panelling. And so it was a room in pieces really. But we had six family portraits, features in their own right, and a wonderful overmantel. During restoration you lose character if you put everything back. Here was a space that you couldn’t create – it was what it was. We wanted to allow people to interact with its current condition, a new dimension. There is no one time period that necessarily trumps another. Patina gives it that movement and feeling of character which is very hard to create.” The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury concludes, “It’s been a wonderful journey of exploration, a really big adventure. If we get this right, we will have turned around the estate for several generations. Sometimes I feel like the stars have aligned on this project!”

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Forss House Thurso Caithness + The Chimneys

Passing Places

Forss House Hotel Thurso Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Really, a newspaper cutting was enough to book Forss House for a Highlands escape. Those chimneys, even looming large in a thumbnail! Close to the northernmost point of Britain, Dunnet Head, the hotel overlooks a serpentine river and is surrounded by an enchanting forest. Ian and Sabine Richards have owned it for the past dozen years. Anne Mackenzie, a Forss force of nature, has been General Manager for the last 32 years. Later she will show us a Viking style pine cup. “Major Radclyffe found it in the attic in 1900. Are you quite pleased to see it?”

Forss House Hotel Thurso Caithness © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The chimneys are a riot. Even more so up close and personal when viewed from a roof ledge. They’re so tall and Tudorbethan, or as Sir Charles Barry would’ve said, “Anglo-Italian”. Joseph Gribben, a mid 20th century Belfast builder, always insisted on lofty chimneys because they keep smoke away from the roof. Some of them have windows between their stacks. They look like they belong to another house, not the 1810 Regency one below. Together they form a defensive ring around and above the perimeter walls. What a silhouette!

Forss House Hotel Thurso Woodlands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Gifford writes in The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands, “Eight kilometres west of Thurso. Harled early 19th century mansion of the Sinclairs of Forss, with huge chimneys on the wallheads as well as the gables. Lower mid Victorian west addition; the east gable’s conservatory is also late 19th century. On the north front, a crenelated porch added in 1939. Beside the Forss Water to the west, an early 19th piend roofed mill; at its south end, a small miller’s house with gable stone dormers. On the river’s opposite bank, a second mill, probably also early 19th century. Two arch bridge with rounded cutwaters, of circa 1800.”

Forss House Hotel Thurso View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The five bay garden front is a chessboard of blind windows: the central window on the raised ground floor is a visual trick; so are the alternating middle windows on the first floor. “Forss House was built as a hunting lodge by the Sinclairs of Orkney,” according to Anne. “The wild game hunter Major Charles Radclyffe retired here at the end of the 19th century. He had the first coloured tattoo in Britain.” There are plenty of reminders of its hunting lodge past, from the stags’ heads in the entrance hall to the fresh fish on the menu. Dinner is held in the dining room which overlooks the south garden and river:

Forss House Hotel Thurso Mill © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso River © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Weathervane © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Date Stone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Fish Catch © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Blind Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Silhouette © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso River Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso South Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Roof © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Roofscape © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Chimneys © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Mirror © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Whisky Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Whisky Bar Antlers © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Cup © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Attic Find © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Whisky Bar Sofa © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Antler Chair © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Cairnmore Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Bed © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso Entrance Bath © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Forss House Hotel Thurso G+T © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In the whisky bar next door to the dining room is a framed letter from a newspaper published by the Continent’s first English bookshop. It’s addressed to the Major’s father: “C J Radcoyffe Esq, Hyde, Wareham, Dorset. Dear Sir, We the undersigned desire as members of the Staff of The Galignani Messenger to collectively offer you and your family our heartiest good wishes for a happy Christmas and a bright New Year. We take this opportunity of earnestly trusting that you may be spared for many years to preside over the ever increasing success and prosperity of The Galignani Messenger and we on our part will use our best endeavours to attain that object. Paris 24th December 1894.”

Forss House Hotel Thurso Goats's Cheese Mousse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

All the raised ground floor reception rooms are carpeted with Hunting McKay Black Watch tartan, the only non clan tartan. Breakfast is in the adjoining conservatory. The original 19th century conservatory was doubled in size in the second half of last century. It overlooks the east garden. A shallow sweeping staircase leads to four first floor bedroom suites. Rooms are named after hills and types of fishing bait. Cairnmore and Torran overlook the river. Brimside has a view of the east garden. Tulloch overlooks the entrance. There are a further four bedrooms on the lower ground floor plus accommodation in estate buildings.

Forss House Hotel Thurso Scallops © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Under pink laced clouds and a Phoenix Blue sky, Forss House more than lives up to its chimneys.

Forss House Hotel Thurso Entrance Petit Fours © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Euphemia Honeyman + Skaill House Orkney Islands

Never Enough

Skaill House Orkney Island View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A family house steeped in 5,500 years of history – well of course it’s going to be riddled with ghosts! And it would take a Norse code to unravel its beginnings. The current building is a conglomeration of wings and whims from the early 17th century to the mid 20th century. It has an amazingly unified appearance despite – or should that be because of? – a thorough 1950s rejigging. Skaill House is set between the Loch of Skaill and the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby, a World War II Italian Chapel and German warship wrecks are remnants of more recent history. Captain Cook’s dinner service is a sign this Laird and Lady Laird boast serious provenance.

Skaill House Orkney Islands Sunken Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Major Malcolm and Jane Macrae are the current owners. Their daughter Kate was born in 1987 and son John in 1990. The Laird restored the unoccupied house and opened it to the public in 1997. It’s incredibly charming with low ceilinged rooms except for the centrally placed double height staircase hall. A drawing room upstairs has gorgeous views across the Atlantic Ocean. The house is surrounded by the plainest of parterres and simplest of sunken gardens, as befits this windswept treeless location.

Skaill House Orkney Island Main Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Island Loch Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Island Scotland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Island Scotland Garden Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Wing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Island Bullseye Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Portrait © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands First Floor © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Drawing Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Lamp © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Taxidermy © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Shutters © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Island Bedroom © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Skaill House Orkney Islands Dress © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands by John Gifford records, “1.2 kilometres south of Sandwick. Rustically smart harled laird’s house placed on a low hillside between the Bay of Skaill to the northeast and the Loch of Skaill to the southwest. The earliest part of the main house is the narrow crowstep gabled north range, probably built for Bishop George Graham circa 1620, apparently as a freestanding block, its slightly off centre south door from the present stairhall provided with a bar hole and clearly the original entrance from outside. In the late 17th century the Bishop’s grandson, Henry Graham of Breckness, converted the house to a U plan by adding a southwest link to a broader straight gabled south range, the two west gables being joined by a screen wall. In this wall, a roll moulded round arched doorway, its weathered keystone decorated with a cherub’s head surmounting the Honours of Scotland (crown, sword and sceptre). Above this, a reused lintel, probably from a fireplace, carved with a monogram of the initials of Henry Graham and his wife Euphemia Honeyman and the inscription ‘Weak things grow by vnitie [sic] and love by discord strong things weak and weaker prove Anno 1676.’ The date may be that of the additions.

Sunken Ships Orkney Islands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The south range was damaged by a fire circa 1800, and subsequent remodelling of the house introduced late Georgian windows, including a big ground floor bullseye window in the south range’s west gable. Probably at the same time the open centre was partly filled by a piend roofed stairhall with a three light first floor window looking over to the sea. In the mid 19th century further alterations took place, two gabled stone dormerheads being added on the south side and a flat roofed porch built on the east, providing a resting place for early 17th century carved stones. In the porch’s south side, a panel taken from Breckness House bearing the arms and initials of Bishop George Graham. In the porch’s east front, a dormerhead, its strapworked cartouche again containing Bishop Graham’s initials. At one corner of this front, a skewputt carved with a shell, at the other a skewputt bearing a rosette.

Italian Chapel Orkney Islands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Office courtyard attached to the house’s north side, its present appearance largely informal late Georgian. Tall crowstepped north range. On the east range’s east front, shaped dormerheads, perhaps mid 19th century. Over the entrance through the single storey west block, a reset 17th century dormerhead carved with a cherub’s head under a star. Mid 20th century courtyard to the northeast with a battlemented screen wall on the southwest and north ranges, the north with shaped armorial dormerheads, forming two sides. The fourth side is closed by the north end of the 19th century crenelated walled garden.”

Italian Chapel Interior Orkney Islands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Dornoch Cathedral + Dornoch Castle Sutherland

Highland Reel

Dornoch Cathedral Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In the year 2000, pop star Madonna had her son Rocco christened in Dornoch Cathedral the day before she got married to film director Guy Ritchie at nearby Skibo Castle. They divorced in 2008. In 2010 billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk married actress Talulah Riley in Dornoch Cathedral. They divorced in 2012. As a congregation of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, the church is actually not the seat of a bishop but retains its ‘cathedral’ title since historically it was the seat of the Bishop of Caithness. Previously, Dornoch was probably best known as the last place a witch was burnt in Scotland. The town is very smart with attractive sandstone buildings and a 15th century castle which is now a hotel.

Dornoch Cathedral Spire Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

According to John Gifford, writing in The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands, Dornoch Cathedral is: “Much restored and partially rebuilt 13th century church of the diocese of Caithness. Gilbert de Moravia was made Bishop of Caithness circa 1223 and soon after began the erection of a new cathedral at Dornoch. The choir was presumably completed by 1239, when the bones of Bishop Adam were translated there from Halkirk, and Bishop Gilbert himself was buried there in 1245. William, Earl of Sutherland, is said to have been interred in the south transept in 1248, but the nave was probably not roofed until 1291, when Edward I granted 40 seasoned oaks from Darnaway Forest for the fabric of the church. In 1428 a papal indulgence was accorded to visitors contributing to the restoration (perhaps the rebuilding or reconstruction of the nave) of the church and to be ‘collapsed in its fabric, desolate and destitute and in need of costly repairs’. The cathedral was burned by the Master of Caithness and Mackay of Strathnaver in 1570 and the roofless nave’s north arcade destroyed by a gale in 1605. Repair of the choir and transepts was begun by John, Earl of Sutherland, and carried on by his brother Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (the Tutor of Sutherland) in 1614 to 1622, and further repairs made in 1714, 1728, 1772 to 1775 and 1816.

Dornoch Cathedral Fountain Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In 1835 to 1837 Elizabeth, Duchess and Countess of Sutherland, undertook what she described as ‘a plain and correct restoration’, reroofing the nave’s central vessel (but demolishing the remains of its side aisles) and fitting up the choir as a monument to her husband. Drawings for the scheme were produced by William Burn; but the Duchess, disliking his ‘modern gothic in bad taste and ‘useless plans of ornament’, dismissed him before work began, and the executed designs were by Alexander Coupar, the Superintendent of Works on the Sutherland estates, assisted by William Leslie. Advice was provided by Francis Chantrey and sketches by the Duchess. Further work was carried out in 1924 to 1927, when harling and plaster were stripped from the walls to expose their naked rubble to the gaze of the prurient.”

Dornoch Cathedral and Dornoch Castle Sutherland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Queen Mother + The Castle of Mey Caithness

The Definite Article

Hoy Orkney Islands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“That is possibly the funniest episode I have ever read,” emailed the much missed Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, in response to a descriptive summary of a group visit to a certain castle in Sussex. Said summary included a luxury coach breaking down, a shuttered up gothic castle, a game septuagenarian scaling a battlemented wall, a mass trespass into the castle, a hungover hostess lying in a four poster bed… and then things went from bad to worse… Fortunately, a visit to The Castle of Mey is less turbulent.

The Castle of Mey Caithness View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“It’s very romantic,” notes heritage architect John O’Connell, “and the walled garden is beautiful.” Teetering on the edge of the world, or at least the top of Britain, overlooking Hoy, the second largest Orkney Island, is the only private residence The Queen Mother ever owned. In August 1952, just widowed, she bought the derelict Barrogill Castle for a token £100 from a local landowner. It was love at first sight, and who could blame Her Late Majesty? It helped that her great chum Lady Doris Vyner just so happened to live next door, or rather next estate, at The House of the Northern Gate.

The Castle of Mey Caithness Coast © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Following a three year reconstruction, The Queen Mother spent four weeks every August and 10 days every October at The Castle of Mey, as she rebranded it, right up to her death in 2001 aged 101. She furnished it simply with purchases from local antiques shops complemented by a few family pieces. And a Linley occasional table. Curtains are draped below bathroom basins in that upper class domestic fashion. Prince Charles continues the holidaying tradition and stays in the castle for 10 days every July. The building dates from the late 16th century except for the double height front hall which was added in 1819 to the design of William Burn for James Sinclair, 12th Earl of Caithness.

The Castle of Mey Caithness Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Glasshouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Flowerbeds © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Scotland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Queen Mother's Castle of Mey Caithness © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Castle of Mey Caithness Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite’s younger daughter wasn’t just so keen on The Castle of Mey. Despite having a bedroom named in her honour, Princess Margaret never slept in the castle, preferring the luxury of the Royal Yacht. The Queen Mother’s favourite colour, Phoenix Blue, is everywhere from picture frames and towels to her raincoat on display in the front hall. There’s a well stocked drinks table in the drawing room. “The Queen Mother’s best loved tipple was one measure of Gordon’s Gin and three measures of Dubonnet served with lemon and ice,” explains her close friend Major John Perkins. He’s still a regular guest at the castle. “She always had ice in drinks and used her fingers, claiming ice prongs were an American invention!”

The Castle of Mey Caithness Wing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Queen Mother frightfully loved picnics,” he continues, “but when she formally dined in the castle, the seats on either side of her were called the ‘hot seats’ for special guests. At the start of the meal, everyone spoke to the person on their right and then swapped to the person on their left. That way no one was left out of conversations. She rang a bell for the next course to be brought out. Her three corgis would bark at the same time. After dinner, the gents would remain in the dining room drinking port, while the ladies would withdraw to the drawing room. If the gents lingered too long, The Queen Mother would start a rousing rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’! That meant get packing!”

The Castle of Mey Caithness Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Major adds, “The Queen Mother had a terrific sense of humour. She was highly highly intelligent. She met all the world leaders of her time except for Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.” On décor, “The Queen Mother didn’t like suspended lights. She liked soft lamps which cast more flattering light and shadows. The castle is exactly as she had it as her home. We haven’t added posh stuff!”

The Castle of Mey Caithness Keep © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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