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At home with Lady Dunleath in Ballywalter Park

Danish-born Lady Dunleath, who met her aristocratic husband when she came to Northern Ireland for a television project, on how Archbishop Desmond Tutu played an influential role in their marriage and why she thinks she is a good mother-in-law

By Lorraine Wylie

Apart from the name of the man who founded Ikea (Ingvar Kamprad) and put Scandinavia on the 'flat pack' map, my knowledge of the individual countries - Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland - is limited. But, according to Google, the stereotypical Danes are all sullen Vikings, obsessed with healthy food and dark clothes. Happily I had an opportunity to explode the myth and separate fact from fiction when Danish-born Lady Dunleath invited me to lunch at her home in Ballywalter Park, near Newtownards.

The journey through familiar coastal towns was uneventful but the moment I turned into the driveway and the Italianate Palazzo style mansion, slipped into view, I was in another world.

Built in 1846 by the former Lord Mayor Andrew Mulholland (the first Baron Dunleath), the house has been in the family for over 170 years. Despite decades of neglect, not to mention a fire in 1973, the 'A' listed property has survived.

The house which was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon around an original Georgian structure came within a whisker of being lost. It took a lengthy restoration project to save it from crumbling entirely.

The antiquated heating system was so inefficient that one guest described going to bed in the house as like climbing between sheets of wet cardboard.

Green technology was embraced to upgrade the property and the installation of a biomass boiler fired by wood pellets from Co Fermanagh cut the heating bill by £20,000 as well as making the house infinitely more habitable.

Thanks to the current residents, it is now among Ireland's most beautiful stately homes. In fact, the combination of period architecture, manicured lawns and lush green pastures has a hypnotic effect, making it seem more Downton Abbey than Co Down.

Petite and slim, Lady Dunleath, known as Vibeke or to friends as Vibse, welcomed me to, what she immediately pointed out was "a private home and not a museum owned by the National Trust". Formalities out of the way, she led me to a very charming sitting room where, perched on a cherry red sofa, she told me about the journey that led her from Copenhagen to London and on to Ballywalter where she's found a second chance for happiness.

She was previously married to an Englishman while working in London before meeting her Northern Ireland husband-to-be after her marriage ended. She has three grown-up sons who are all married to what she calls "lovely women".

"I was born in Copenhagen," she says, her English precise and remarkably accent free. "My father was an officer in the Danish army and like so many other resistance leaders, he went straight into the army after the German occupation. At the time of my birth, he was stationed in Copenhagen but he died when I was eight."

She may be lady of the manor now, but growing up Vibeke's dreams were modest.

"Once I understood the concept of a career, I thought I'd follow my mother's lead and become a domestic science teacher. But, such as life, it didn't work out that way. I have a talent for languages so I became a linguist, a technical translator and got a job with Scandinavian airlines. No, not an air hostess, a translator! It was much more complicated then. Don't forget those were the days before Freddie Laker and the cheap airlines. Everything had to be done precisely.

"Calculating a fare for businessmen who flew around the world several times a year and wanted to avoid jet lag was very complicated. Some would insist on flying east, others wanted to go west and they would arrange all their annual meetings accordingly. I did enjoy my work but I quickly discovered that there was a great demand for my linguistic skills in London so I applied to be based there. It all happened very quickly. I remember I applied at the beginning of October and moved over at the beginning of December 1973."

Did the experience live up to expectations?

"No!" she laughs out loud, something she does a lot. "It was a huge culture shock, a real eye-opener, I can tell you. Of course I'd been to London many times, but I'd no idea how different it was going to be living there. In the beginning it was very hard. I arrived in the Seventies when there was a real housing shortage and finding somewhere to live was almost impossible. I remember going to an interview to see if I would be accepted for a bedsit in Notting Hill. It was a basement room and there was some kind of strange pecking order for tenants. You had to start at the bottom, in the basement, and if you behaved and were a good tenant, you got to move up a floor. There were four floors! I remember the owner asked me, 'You're not going to have noisy parties are you?' You know, there was maybe 22 square metres and that included living accommodation and a kitchenette - and the bathroom was down the corridor. I thought, 'No there certainly won't be room for any parties here!' Fortunately, I found somewhere better to live and I ended up sharing a flat in Harrow on the Hill, in the much nicer and prettier suburbs. It was a fairly easy commute to my work."

If housing was a disappointment, Vibeke lost her appetite for British cuisine when she tasted toast.

"The bread in London was beyond belief! They ate toasted bread, that was horrible. I'd never tasted anything like their Mother's Pride. It seemed to be the only bread available and it was just awful. You know, back home in Copenhagen, we are used to freshly baked bread. There is a bakers on every corner and the only day they close is Monday. I could not believe that people would eat such a tasteless product."

Three years later, her life changed when she decided to marry.

"Yes, I married an Englishman in 1976 and three years later, we had our first son. Then we discovered that the British childcare system was practically non-existent. So I decided to give up my career and look after our boys. My career break lasted 14 years during which time I had all three of our sons, Sam, now 39, Jack (37) and Pip, who's 30. You know, once you have the children, life becomes more complicated. It is not so easy to do all the social things you did before motherhood. But I think you just have to hold your breath and get on with raising them. Then when the children are off your hands you can go back to being yourself again. You haven't changed, you are still you and so you just pick up the threads and keep going. You start a new era when your children grow up."

As well as the lack of childcare, the young mum discovered the pitfalls of Britain's education system.

"Do you know, my granddaughter Elizabeth started school yesterday? She's four and a half for goodness sake! It made me weep. I think it's so cruel to put children so young into school.

"In Denmark, children don't go into formal education until they're six years old. Yes, of course, they do lots of other activities but there is no formal education. My eldest son Sam, Elizabeth's father, had to go to school at the same age. Back then they had an Easter intake and it was awful. By the summer holidays he still couldn't read. But you know what? In 2008, he started his own business and sold it just last year. He's big into philosophy at the moment and guess what? He's doing alright. Despite what Mrs Wilson said!"

Laughter comes readily and easily for Vibeke, totally demolishing the myth that Danes are all sullen Vikings. She obviously adores her sons but I wonder whether she would have liked to have had a daughter.

"No not really. I am one of five girls and I feel so blessed to have our sons. I find the mother/son relationship so... " She pauses to search for a suitable adjective. "Wonderful! Oh my goodness it has been fantastic to see how they've turned out. They are such loving, affectionate, intelligent, funny individuals. I am very proud of them. However, I am a mother-in-law three times over and get on very well with all three."

Is she a good mother-in-law?

"Oh yes," she giggles. "I'd like to think so. I do my best. Would you believe I myself have never had a mother-in-law? My first husband's mother died when he was just 17 and then by the time I met Lord Dunleath, his mother was long gone, so I never picked up any bad traits or had a bad pattern to follow. My daughters-in-law are lovely women. One is in PR, one a landscape architect and the third is Japanese and incredibly gifted. I like to think we're all good mates."

When her youngest boy was just three, things at home took a financial downturn, forcing Vibeke back to work.

"My husband was a very successful advertising executive but due to the economic crisis, he was out of work for a brief spell and I decided to go and talk to some people I knew with a view to getting back to work.

"Fortunately, one girl was off on maternity leave and they offered me her job. I stayed four months and left. Basically, we couldn't agree about salary. They wouldn't pay me her salary even though I was doing her job so I thought, 'You know what? I really can't be bothered with this situation' so I left and decided to go back to university. I thought I'd read history with an eye to researching why the British threw away their most precious cultural indicators. That is their cooking skills and food traditions. Anyway, I read history and politics at 'University of Westminster'."

With that she burst into gales of laughter.

"Oh!" she says mischievously, "I say the 'University of Westminster' with great irony because it was the Polytechnic of Central London. I don't want to offend anyone but frankly it was still a Poly and really everybody knows there is a pecking order. Unless you have a degree from Oxbridge or a 'red brick' it doesn't count and really, it doesn't matter anyway. What mattered to me was getting some research skills."

I asked whether she enjoyed being a mature university student.

"There were many women there, who like me, had had their babies and were looking for something more meaningful to do. Most had what we called the 'The housewife from Harrow Syndrome' - those who never really felt good enough. It was as if you could con yourself into a teaching job and as long as nobody realised you were a housewife from Harrow, you'd be fine. It was something I didn't really get but I suspect is part of the British make-up of the hierarchal..." She pauses, then goes on: "Yes, well it's not as egalitarian as some countries."

I ask her whether living in London during the Seventies, had given her any preconceived notions about Ireland.

"I'd never been to Ireland, but at the time the papers were full of news of the Troubles and of course there was the IRA bombing in London. One of my friends was from Northern Ireland. Her husband, at the time, was head of psychiatry at Queen's University and had been working at Northwick Park Institute for Medical Research, long gone now. She invited me over to Belfast and told me 'For God's sake, don't believe all you read in the papers!"

By 1993, Vibeke was a successful businesswoman and founder of her company, Primary Sauces.

"It was a play on words - a historian needs sources!" she laughs.

In 2000, an invitation to pursue a television project, led her to Northern Ireland where, she met the man who had everything that she, a self-confessed Danish foodie, could want.

Although at the time, it was Lord Dunleath’s walled garden that she found most attractive.

“Yes, indeed. Did you know, a walled garden was the supermarket of the 18th century? At the time, we were working on a project that required us to have access to a walled garden. Someone mentioned that Brian had a lovely place full of chickens. So we asked him and he graciously gave his consent.”

What about romance?

“No it wasn’t love at first sight,” she admits. “It was strictly business. Of course, at the time neither of us was looking for a relationship. I was newly single and, being a Dane, I wasn’t interested in divorce settlements or maintenance money. I was determined to make my own way in the world, do it myself, thank you very much. It was actually many months before we met socially. We got together and I was lamenting that, here I was, nearly 50 and wondering what life was going to throw at me next. You know one of the things about being foreign is that, unless you have a very specific skill, its quite difficult to break the barriers down.”

What attracted her to Brian Mulholland?

“The thing is, when you read about the upper crust as an outsider, you can’t help form a stereotypical impression. But, although he’s done all the usual things you’d expect, like going into the Army and then industry etcetera, he’s nothing like the upper crust twit of the year you might expect. In reality, Lord Dunleath is really well educated, incredibly sensitive, funny with such a wide range of interests and a wonderful sense of humour. He’s also a very talented interior designer. We started meeting socially and got on wonderfully well.”

The couple were married in 2006 at the Danish Church in London. Interestingly, Archbishop Tutu’s opinion on marriage might have had some influence. 

“We had a BBC production team here, it was for a programme called Facing the Truth,” she smiles. “It involved bringing victims and perpetrators of the Troubles together. Anyway, Archbishop Tutu stayed with us for three weeks and we became very good friends. At the end of the visit he somehow discovered we weren’t married and told us ‘This really isn’t good enough you know’. So I guess when the Archbishop says ‘jump’ we say ‘how high?!”

It’s well known that both Lord and Lady Dunleath enjoy hunting and shooting.

“It’s a marvellous winter activity, especially in Denmark,” she enthuses. “I enjoy it very much.”

How does she respond to critics who describe shooting as cruel?

“Yes, well, that’s mainly in the British Isles,” she shrugs.

As a food historian, Vibeke has some very definite opinions about nutrition.

“Today people all appear to be vegetarian, gluten intolerant or even worse vegan. It’s madness,” she exclaims, with refreshing honesty. “Here we have a 12-week growing season. I mean, you could easily be vegan in somewhere like India where you can grow vegetable crops more or less continually throughout the year. The bean crop, for example, takes approximately eight weeks from seed to harvesting. In the Northern hemisphere, you need animal protein to survive properly. But the thing I resent most is the way some people adopt a moral high ground which is actually c***. Studying nutrition is really quite difficult because it’s practically impossible to persuade people to stay on a diet long enough.”

Her Ladyship is equally opinionated on the subject of obesity and knows exactly what’s causing it. “Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar,” she states. “Denmark has had a sugar tax from forever. When my nieces and nephews used to visit me in London, they could not believe the amount of sweets available in Woolworths and the fact that they were even cheaper than food. It’s the simple carbohydrates that are the problem. The interesting thing to me is that, the poorer you are today the more obese you become. Yet back in 1789, in revolutionary France, it was the poorer you were the skinnier you became.”

So what’s the solution?

“Education. Without a doubt education is the way forward.”

How about her own regime?

“I don’t have breakfast, I have coffee, my morning drug. For two days each week, I avoid alcohol and that means no steak. How can you enjoy a steak without a good robust red? The main thing for me, is to take my age into consideration. You know, geriatric muscle is different to young muscle so it needs to be treated accordingly. There’s no point saying things like, ‘You’re as young as you feel or age is only a number’. That doesn’t work. We have a cross trainer. Now, I don’t do hours and hours on it. I do about eight minutes every day and I also use a hula hoop with a weighted hoop. Then I’ll do 10 minutes of Pilates. Apart from that, I eat what I like.”

Admittedly, whatever she’s doing, its working. Now 67, Vibeke has decided not to dye her hair, but there’s no doubt, she has the complexion and figure of a woman 10 years her junior.

If needed, would she ever consider Botox?

“No,” she exclaims. “I think once you have something done, you need to do more and more. I have grown into this face, so I accept who I am. We once had a lady stay with us and she was very beautiful, although she’d obviously had a little work done. But as we were about to go upstairs, she complained of pains and I thought to myself, she should have used the money to fix her hip instead of her face. I think a good way to look at growing older is how someone in a Gene Kelly film once put it. Think of it like the carats in a diamond. The higher the number, the better.”

Having enjoyed the bright lights of the London social scene, I asked her whether she finds Northern Ireland a little dull in comparison.

“Not a bit,” she retorts. “I love it here. I have to say, I’ve always been made most welcome here, both by my husband’s friends and the local community. There are always so many places to go, things to do. Would you believe, I consider the social life in Northern Ireland much, much better than anything London has to offer.”

With such a beautiful setting, Ballywalter Park is in high demand with film producers. Does she get involved with the various events?

“The rooms are dressed as individual sets but I don’t really follow the programmes. I don’t watch a lot of television. Although when the people and crews are here, I watch them like a hawk!”

What is the next thing on her to do list?

“I’m starting a gardening club called Paradise Garden. It’s planned for the first Saturday in the month. It’s very exciting. My head gardener is going to be involved and we already have Sarah Raven (who runs a gardening and cookery school and is a television presenter) booked for 2020. You know, I love gardening.  I don’t know what I’d do if wasn’t able to get out there and weed. In fact that’s the whole purpose of exercising. If I lost my mobility, I wouldn’t be able to keep gardening and that would be terrible.”

Unfortunately, due to damage caused by Storm Ali, the Paradise Gardening event has been postponed until January 2019. The storm has demolished the rare 18th century glasshouse in the walled garden, but the  joiners are already working to rebuild it so that the gardening club can take shape. But the club isn’t the only project on the horizon.

“Oh, the list is still coming together but what I’m really keen to do is a course on making your own paint. My sister is a conservationist architect and makes her own old fashioned paint. It’s fascinating.”

When I ask what she enjoys most about her life today, her response has nothing to do with her role as a ‘Lady’ or her Danish nationality.  

“I love being with our family,” she says, revealing her heart as a mother and grandmother.

The other thing I notice is that, we’ve been so busy talking, I haven’t had lunch!

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