Clodagh McKenna talks to Barry Egan about country life with the Honourable Harry Herbert in Hampshire, keeping pigs, dancing with Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger and the death of her dad
A popular song from the late 1920s goes: "I've danced with a man who's danced with a girl who's danced with the Prince of Wales." Last Christmas, Clodagh McKenna, whose boyfriend's late father was the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, Lord Porchester, went to a private party in London and danced with a Rolling Stone.
"It was a friend's party," says the Ballymaloe-trained chef, author and broadcaster.
"Mick Jagger walked in and he grabbed me up to dance. It was really cool. I was like, 'This is a dream'. It was brilliant. I can't remember what we danced to because I was so in the moment."
Willowy and blonde, Clodagh has that posh boho look popularised by Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg in the 1960s, so Jagger was possibly as lost in the moment on the dancefloor as she was.
Did he try to pull her?
"No. Oh my God, No," gasps Clodagh, who attended the London house party with Imelda May.
"She is a really good friend of mine. Imelda and her music are so special. She only lives down the road from Highclere."
Highclere is, of course, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the ancestral home of Clodagh's boyfriend Harry Herbert and where the TV series and movie Downton Abbey was filmed. Still on the subject of popular TV shows, Harry's father Henry Herbert will be better known to fans of The Crown on Netflix as Porchy, the Lord Porchester, who was the Queen's racing manager from 1969 until his death from a heart attack in 2001.
The Crown's innuendo that Porchy had a romantic relationship with the sovereign - condemned by the Queen's former Press secretary Dickie Arbiter as vulgar and unfounded - was nothing new.
The late social diarist Nigel Dempster allegedly started the rumour that Porchy was, in Harper's Bazaar magazine, "the biological father of Prince Andrew, who, according to the gossip, was conceived while the Duke of Edinburgh was at sea for duty".
"We watched The Crown together," Clodagh says.
Is Harry like Porchy?
"Everybody who meets Harry says he is the most incredible gentleman you will ever meet," replies Clodagh over lunch at Dunboyne Castle Hotel. "So, I guess he is like his father. Obviously, I never met his father because his father died years ago."
When Clodagh and Harry met in 2017 at a lunch in London, he had been separated for two years from his wife of 25 years Francesca Bevan, with whom he has three grown-up children: Chloe, Francesca and William. Clodagh, meanwhile, had been similarly on her own since the break-up of her relationship with Peter Gaynor.
"I was single for over two years when I met Harry," she says. "That was really important. We had both come out of relationships. We were both at the exact same point. It was bizarre. He calls it 'the sliding doors'. I am not really a lucky person, but we were both very lucky. It is like people say, when you meet somebody and you just think, 'This is it'."
And is it?
Are you at all thinking about things like walking down the aisle together one day?
"We are so happy right now. I am loving the happiness."
Why do you describe yourself as "not a lucky person"?
"You know how some people always seem to be lucky, or they find the man of their dreams straight away? For me, it just came later. It was the right time in my life and I think being on my own for two years made me who I am. I learned that I am okay on my own.
"I think everybody has that fear of being on their own at a certain age. I was really frightened for the first six months.
"I needed a break. I wanted to become strong as a person. I was very much focused that I wanted to get really good mental health. I wanted to get physically strong. I wanted to get to know myself more. I think those two years were like finding me. It never really stops. The process never stops."
Clodagh's father's death in 2014 was the start of that process.
"It was a sudden death, a heart attack," she says. "He was 74. He was really fit. He golfed every day. So it was a shock."
She dedicated her 2015 book Clodagh's Irish Kitchen thus: "To my dad. I would give up everything to share one more meal with you."
His death brought on "a slight rethink" of her life. Clodagh prioritised being "happy". Her father's passing made her "re-evaluate everything in my life. A lot of people hit that at some point in their lives where they realise that the most important thing in life is to be happy".
She put this into practice by not working as much. Clodagh, who was living in Dublin when her father died, "Spent about a year looking after my mother, just to help her, literally from the day he died. I took a lot of time. I had a big responsibility to look after my mother at the time. You grow up very fast. I'm 44. I should be way grown up by this stage of my life".
What did you learn in that year?
"I found that I liked being with myself. I quite like being on my own a lot of the time. I can always bring my work into my world too. I can cook for my partner. But ever since then, my big thoughts are how to have a peaceful, gentle, happy life with my family and my friends and with Harry, who is the most gentle and kind man I have ever met," she says of the Honourable Harry Herbert, who was born at Highclere Castle on March 2, 1959.
I love having people round and spending the weekends cookingClodagh McKenna
When you and Harry first met, what did you think of each other? Did you Google each other? Is that what people do when they are well known?
"You do, don't you?" says Clodagh. "But I didn't do a Google. We were sitting together at a lunch. It wasn't an instant thing, but it led on from there. He was open that he liked me."
How did he do that?
"(He said) I like you, Clodagh," she laughs. "Then we had another dinner together. We weren't sitting next to each other at that dinner. Then he asked me out after that."
They went to the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone on their first date. Clodagh chose the venue. Their second date, chosen by Harry, was in Highclere Castle.
What was it like going up the driveway of the famous estate for the first time?
"It was so mesmerisingly beautiful there. It was like, 'Oh my gosh'."
Cork girl Clodagh, the youngest of four, moved in with Harry in August 2018.
Is it cold at night? Do you have to go to bed with your coat on?
"We don't live in the castle. Nobody lives in the castle. We live in a house called Broadspear."
Is it cold at night?
"Well, it is an old house. But, no, we have good heating."
"I had a privileged upbringing at Highclere," Harry told the Daily Telegraph in 2016. "Like a lot of those places, there's grandeur and not much cash, which is kept for keeping the roof on and running the place. So I was always very aware."
Broadspear and its 60 acres is, Clodagh says, "kind of like a 20-minute, half-an-hour drive to everywhere, but then, at the weekends, we always have people over."
Is Clodagh constantly 'on', then?
"I love having people around. I love spending the weekends cooking. And I know a lot of people will think, 'Oh my God, you work in food', but I am not in the restaurants any more," she says, referring to Clodagh's Kitchen in Arnotts in Dublin city centre and another restaurant of the same name in the south side of the capital.
"I love having the weekends to cook for people."
She adds that her "perfect number at a table is eight".
Clodagh is currently writing a book called Midweek Suppers, which will be published this Christmas.
"At the moment, I am testing 120 recipes. It is a lot of recipes to get through, so I have to be cooking every weekend. I love it."
"I still do ITV's This Morning every couple of weeks," she adds. "And I am in talks with ITV at the moment about doing a new series."
"More cooking," she laughs. Clodagh also pops up from time to time on Channel 4's Sunday Brunch. While Clodagh tries her 120 recipes, Harry isn't stretched out on the chaise lounge with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in his hand, recounting old family stories (his great-grandfather, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon - with the help of Howard Carter, the archaeologist on whom Indiana Jones was based - discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922.)
Harry is extremely busy. He is the CEO of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing and of the Royal Ascot Racing Club as well as the co-ordinator of the Cartier Racing Awards.
Clodagh says that her mother, who is 74, "loves Harry. He's been over to Cork about three times. He loves Cork".
When she is not cooking at Broadspear, Clodagh says she "always has music on around the house", everything from U2 to Queen, to her dance-partner's band The Rolling Stones.
"Music is my passion, along with food.
"And Harry," she adds, "plays the piano really well."
Jerry Lee Lewis or Bach?
"Everything. He plays by ear, so he can play everything.
I love routine. I quite like the same things every dayCloadgh McKenna
"And he is really good. What were we playing last week? We play every evening. He plays everything from Jack Johnson to Andrew Lloyd Webber. And he is so bashful about it that he will never talk about it. Everyone will be egging him to go on the piano and he'll be like, 'Oh, okay'. And then he goes on and everyone is like, 'What the?', because he is so good."
Equally impressive is Clodagh's impersonation of Tina Turner singing Proud Mary. "It is my party piece. I'm not shy."
Does Harry back you on the piano?
"Yeah. We have done that a few times," she says of the duo that sounds not unlike Princess Margaret in The Crown singing Red Hot Momma while her young lover Roddy Llewellyn accompanies her on the piano.
Asked about her heroes, Clodagh immediately mentions Hillary Clinton "She is so strong and she is so disciplined. I love discipline. I think it is one of those virtues that is not really looked upon enough. Discipline is so important. It gives you so much freedom."
Do you have discipline?
"I think I have discipline," she says. "I think I have learned more discipline as I am getting older."
"I love routine. I quite like the same things every day," she says, referring to getting up at 6am every morning, taking the dogs for a walk, getting breakfast ready. "I go to bed early and I rise very early. It is supposed to be very good for your mental health to be up just before the light comes up."
Does Harry lie on when you get up at dawn for a walk around the estate?
"Harry gets up early too. We are both the same and maybe I took it up from him. I have learned from him to go to bed early," she says.
"I used to like staying up until about midnight or 1am, but ever since I moved in with Harry, I have begun going to bed at 9pm."