Lady Rose of Mount Stewart shares memories of a magical childhood growing up on her family's estate, its famous visitors and her life now, split between Strangford Lough and Venice
Lady Rose Lauritzen reveals what it's like to live in one of the National Trust's most stunning properties
American author and horticulturist Elizabeth Lawrence once said, "There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer and the morning more fragrant than ever". Lady Rose Lauritzen, daughter of the late Lady Mairi Bury and granddaughter of Lady Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, remembers such a place.
Growing up on the Mount Stewart Estate, surrounded by acres of lush meadows, mysterious woods and gardens filled with exotic plants, it would be hard to find a more magical setting than her ancestral home.
I visited Lady Rose at her family retreat where, seated in her private sitting room, with the scent of flowers wafting in from the terrace, she took me on a trip down memory lane to a time when childhood was filled with adventures and was a place few parents ever ventured.
"Life was very different to today," she begins. "My mother was young and my father was in the Army, and they were always busy travelling, so my sister and myself were looked after mainly by my grandmother.
"In the summer, we woke early, but we weren't allowed to make a sound, not a peep, until at least seven o'clock. Then our governess would come and get us up and take us to say good morning to my grandmother, who had her early morning tea around eight.
"Breakfast was at nine and, although we were allowed to eat in the dining room, we had to sit at the small table. Children were never allowed to sit at the big table with the adults.
"After lessons in the nursery, we were finally free to play outside, which I absolutely loved. Inside we weren't allowed to run anywhere and had to be silent, but outside we were complete savages."
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Was it a lonely childhood?
"Oh no. Back then there was a lot of people working here and most of them had children, so we were never short of playmates. In fact, there was a tremendous gang of us.
"We were never short of things to do. We would spend all day roaming the grounds, riding our ponies, hunting rabbits with the dogs. There were about 14 dogs at one point, so you can imagine we made a pretty impressive sight.
"Looking back, children were left much to their own devices. The attitude then was very much that children should be seen and not heard, although, I'd say, preferably not seen either."
Perched on the Ards peninsula, with views overlooking Strangford Lough, Mount Stewart attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. Much of the furniture and interior decoration dates from the period between the two world wars.
While successive generations have left their mark, it is Rose's grandmother, Lady Edith, wife of Charles Vane-Tempest Stewart, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, who made the biggest impact on Mount Stewart, especially in its beautiful gardens.
After the couple inherited Mount Stewart in 1917 upon the death of her husband's father, and up until her own death in 1959, Edith oversaw the design, implementation and management of Mount Stewart's formal gardens, each made up of themed compartments, including the Italian, Spanish, Sunken, Mairi and Shamrock Gardens.
Taking advantage of the mild climate of Strangford Lough, Edith was able to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes
"My grandmother was an incredible woman... to think she made that garden from scratch," Lady Rose says, waving a slim hand in the direction of the grounds.
"I mean, such energy. I can still recall her perched on a ladder, attempting to cut branches off a tree. Her energy was infectious, so she had us all working - guests, servants, family, anyone and everyone. I've inherited her love of nature. As a child, I liked to collect flowers and dry them. We were always finding some mutant wild orchid down on the sea plantation, and we'd send them off to the Natural History Museum, which would write back and confirm the specimen was unique to Mount Stewart. It was a very outdoorsy kind of lifestyle."
It sounds fantastic, but freedom to experience the joys of nature also exposed children to its harsher realities.
"It was an idyllic life," Lady Rose agrees. "But nature has its cruel side. One time, the rabbits were infected with myxomatosis, a horrible disease that caused dreadful suffering. Of course, we children were taught that if we found one of these poor creatures, we had to put it out of its misery and hit it on the head with a rock, so my sister and I tried not to see any. It was a terrible thing but, then, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."
The era of fun and playtime, however, was to come to an end.
"I was eight when we got a new nanny, who turned out to be a total disaster, so instead of searching for a new one, my grandmother decided to send me to The Warren school in Holywood, which I loved. The headmistress was very strict, but she was good to us.
"On the other hand, boarding school was a terrible experience. The first time I was sent to one in Sussex, the countryside was beautiful, but the school was horrible. The beds were steel-framed and very uncomfortable, there was no central heating and we were only allowed a bath once or twice a week. It was so cold that all 45 girls ended up with chilblains. I was very homesick."
Her next school wasn't much better.
"The second boarding school was near Ascot, and the school uniform was totally philistine. We had a different outfit for practically every second of the day. I remember looking at the list of items, which was over a page and a half long, and feeling aghast at what we had to wear. It included a Harris tweed navy blue suit, a blue velvet beret and bloomers. Bloomers? I'd never heard of them and I'd no idea what they were.
"It really was an awful place, especially if you were hoping to take exams. Anyone who wanted a qualification had to fight to be allowed to take the exam. I ended up with nine O-levels and two A-levels. Not much by today's standards, but they were hard-won."
I ask which subjects interested her.
"My strongest subjects were English, history of art, and painting," she tells me. "I used to paint all the time, especially later, when I'd come to visit my mother here in Mount Stewart. I loved her dearly and we got on like a house on fire but, you know, a mother and daughter together for two months at a time... I found the best way to get along was to take myself off somewhere and paint."
Although excluded from much of the adult world, the children were occasionally allowed to meet their parents' guests. Even when barred from the actual party, there was always somewhere little eyes could keep watch. Lady Rose recalls how her home was constantly full of people.
"We had people staying all the time," she recalls. "Nowadays people have to go out to work, so they limit entertaining to an evening or maybe the whole weekend. But in our home, they'd come and stay for at least 10 days and up to three weeks.
"As well as the actual guests, back then, people travelled with their maids or valet and so they all had to be accommodated.
"At one point, we had people sleeping up on the gallery in the central hall. They were lying on pallets with some sort of cloth draped between them.
"My mother was horrified. She was so shocked she had another wing added so they could have bedrooms and access to bathrooms."
Did any of the guests make an impression on the young Rose? "Oh goodness, many famous people have been here. All sorts of characters, including writers, painters, statesmen, even kings and queens and Winston Churchill. The first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he visited a lot.
"We had a lot of garden parties. There were some guests who, although very important, were less well-known. I remember a very glamorous and eccentric Romanian princess. Then there was Biddy Monckton, wife of Sir Walter Monckton (a highly decorated soldier, politician and lawyer who advised King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis).
"However, there was one gentleman in particular whom I remember very well. His name was Edmond Brock. He was an artist and did many of the portraits here in Mount Stewart. Edmond was stone deaf, so we had to communicate with him in sign language.
"It was the old-fashioned sign language that involved spelling out every letter, one at a time. It took forever to 'talk' to him, but he really was charming. I was very fond of him.
"My grandmother had her own particular favourites. She absolutely adored Frank Kingdon-Ward, the plant hunter. She was so impressed by him and showed him much more respect that any of the others in a smart vest. I think he was like a pop idol to her."
I mention the rumour that Lady Edith and Lord Ramsay MacDonald might have been lovers as well as friends. Her response is quick.
"Absolutely untrue," she retorts. "Yes, I have heard it said that Edith and Charles had a problematic marriage. Well, I can tell you, that's rubbish. They adored each other. It's true that he had a lot of girlfriends and my grandmother did put up with it. She had nicknames for everyone and she called him Charlie the Cheetah; a) because he was so beautiful and elegant and b) because of his indiscretions. But she adored him and he adored her.
"I remember how they giggled and laughed together... it really was a true love story. My grandmother certainly had a good friendship with Ramsay MacDonald, and his letters may have been flowery but, really, that's how they wrote in those days. Their relationship was strictly platonic.
"My grandmother was a good woman and never looked at any man other than her husband. Despite everything, Charles was besotted with her and she with him. You can see it here in this photo."
She reaches over and hands me a picture of a couple that, admittedly, look charmingly devoted.
"Sometimes, Charles would get tired of a girlfriend and he'd call her and say, 'Eddy darling, help me', and, of course, my grandmother did. She never acted with jealously or anything. She used her charm and very graciously chased them off. "
Apparently, Charlie was living up to his nickname long before his marriage to Edith. Indeed, his affair with American actress Fannie Ward resulted in an illegitimate child. By all accounts, the child was welcomed and became a much-loved member of the family.
"Of course, times were very different back then," Lady Rose tells me. "Men did what they wanted. But women couldn't do anything before they were married. I suppose it was a case of 'don't frighten the horses', but once they were married, they'd got their man and could pretty much do as they wished."
Infidelity is as old as the hills, but maybe then, there was less hypocrisy and people were more honest about their affairs.
Lady Rose, now aged 74, has been happily married for more than 40 years to American art historian Peter Lauritzen, and they have a son, Frederick Alexander Mark, who was born in 1977. Later, Peter and I had an opportunity to meet, and he explained how, prior to meeting his future wife, he'd already met her mother, Lady Mairi.
The pair met while Lady Mairi was holidaying in Venice, and they struck up a firm friendship. As he jokingly revealed: "I had the good fortune of becoming Lady Mairi's friend before becoming her son-in-law." Eventually, Peter was introduced to Lady Rose and romance blossomed. Although it seemed strange that with such a beautiful chapel in the family home, they decided to marry in London.
"We got married in the Queen's Chapel in London," Lady Rose tells me. "We had to ask permission from the Queen, and my cousin gave me away. Well, my father had passed away, my grandfather was in a wheelchair and my brother was just 12 and far too young, so my cousin, Lord Seafield, was more than happy to do it. Actually, it was quite a small wedding."
With our own daughter's wedding just around the corner, the size of the guest list has become a major talking point.
"How many guests is a small wedding? I ask, hoping for some pointers.
"Five,' she says with a mischievous smile. "Apart from my mother, I didn't invite my relatives."
Really, why not?
"Well most of my family were divorced, so I didn't invite them because I didn't want to jinx my own marriage."
While husband Peter was spared the task of having to meet the mother-in-law for the first time, he had to brave a much scarier introduction - the bald cockatoo.
"My grandmother had this cockatoo. It lived in an aviary in the hall, which is where birds were kept then. Anyway, when she died the poor thing fretted and pulled its feathers out, so it was left with a huge white and yellow crest but completely bald. It was a bit like a blue oven-ready chicken. Of course, we'd all grown used to it, and after a while we didn't notice it was bald. But when my husband came over for the first time, we'd been married for about a year by then, this bald bird flew at him and he almost had a heart attack - scared the life out of him."
Nowadays the couple divide their time between their home in Venice and Lady Rose's private quarters in Mount Stewart House. With such a scenic setting, boredom is never a problem. But with our climate, what does she do when it rains?
"Well, I like to read. I love all kinds of books - biographies, American crime thrillers, everything. My son bought me a Kindle, so I use that. Its wonderful and very practical at airports or when I'm going on holiday. I can bring 10 books with me instead of one.
"Although I do have a confession to make. Sometimes I'll go into book shops, see the titles I want to read, get the details and then buy them on Kindle. I also like to watch television, but we don't have Sky or Netflix or anything. Instead I'll watch films or re-runs of programmes, I'm particularly into Murder She Wrote at the moment."
Is there anything she misses from her old life at Mount Stewart?
"Yes I miss the dogs. The house used to be full of dogs. My grandmother had lurchers and deer hounds - you name it, she had it. My mother loved miniature Dachs, and my sister and I had whippets. But with us travelling back and forward, it just isn't practical.
"I'll tell you what I do miss living in Venice. I really miss chocolate bars. Over there, chocolate is the truffle kind, but I'd much prefer a Fry's Chocolate Cream or a Mars Bar! As soon as I get back, a big bar of chocolate is the first thing I buy."
Outside, the sound of people talking is a reminder that Mount Stewart is now a National Trust property. Does she ever find visits from the public intrusive?
"No, I think they bring the place to life again. The National Trust own everything, apart from a few small properties. But I'm happy that, due to the way things have been set up, they can never sell it on.
"My mother was traumatised that she'd given up her family home but latterly, she came and lived at Mount Stewart all the year round and was very happy here.
"I think for me, the fact that it was given over slowly helped me to get used to it. I remember one of the people from the National Trust came here to look round, and he described the place as 'shabby chic'. I hated that term, I prefer 'decayed elegance'.
What does she hope for the future of Mount Stewart?
"I simply want it to go on for ever."
Family home once played host to Hitler’s Minister of Foreign Affairs
Mount Stewart estate, originally known as Mount Pleasant, was purchased in 1744 and has been the home of the Londonderry family for over 250 years.
After a three-year restoration project costing £8m, the neo-classical mansion now reflects the 1920 to 1950 era, when Charles, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, and his wife Edith, Lady Londonderry, made it their much-loved home. Lady Edith wrote to her husband Charles: “This is the most divine house. Why do we live anywhere else?”
The National Trust took over the gardens in 1957, and in 1977 Lady Mairi, the last surviving child of the 7th Marquess, gave the house and most of its contents to the trust.
In 1936, in an effort to prevent war, Lord Londonderry, a former Unionist minister at Stormont, invited Reich Minister of Foreign Affairs Joachim Von Ribbentrop to Mount Stewart.
Charles had met Hitler in Berlin and had taken his teenage daughter, Lady Mairi, along. Von Ribbentrop was later convicted at the Nuremberg Trials for his role in starting the Second World War and enabling the Holocaust. He was hanged in 1946. Lady Mairi called him “the most arrogant creature” and it was said she disliked him more than Hitler.
The chapel at Mount Stewart, in which the family’s marriages, christenings and funerals took place, is still used every month by the family and visitors for a communion service.
The funerals of Charles and Edith, in 1949 and 1959 respectively, were held at Mount Stewart’s chapel. Edith’s youngest daughter, Lady Mairi, was married at the chapel in 1940, and her funeral was held there in 2009 before she was buried at Tir na nOg, Land of the Ever Young, the family burial ground, situated north of the estate’s lake.
Most of the restoration project’s cost was covered directly by the National Trust. It was delivered by local contractors H&J Martin. The house was re-opened to the public on April 20, 2015, and on May 22 that year the Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall visited to mark the official reopening.