A country retreat is the only thing for a perfect getaway
Edwina Gaisford-St Lawrence is proud of her home, Howth Castle, which has been in the family for 800 years, but she loves to escape to her retreat in the country.
Committees have a bad reputation. Someone famously said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee - the implication being the camel is ugly compared to the elegance and beauty of a horse.
Edwina Gaisford-St Lawrence has no such reservations about committees. Admire her newly renovated house in the Kilkenny countryside, and she says enthusiastically, "nothing to do with me; it was the committee".
It transpires the committee are actually a group of friends she made in Kilkenny, who not only encouraged Edwina to buy a bolthole in their area, but actually found the house and helped her to do it up. Fortunately, the group includes creative types like Michael Jackson and his wife Mary, both formerly of Stoneware Jackson pottery, and Catherine Gabbett who owns a delightful shop in Thomastown called Akobi. All used their considerable talents in helping her to create an inviting, elegant and comfortable home.
It's not that Edwina herself is lacking design skills - it's just she has her hands full running The Kitchen in the Castle, the renowned cookery school based in her family home, Howth Castle. The castle has been in the family for 800 years, and she still lives there part-time, though she finds she's spending more and more time in Kilkenny. Cosy is not a word she uses when describing her quarters at the castle. "I live 72 steps up, in the castle tower. Here in Kilkenny, I don't wander around, as I do in the castle, thinking it's warmer outside than in," she says with a laugh. "I can open the doors and let the dogs out, without going down the 72 steps again."
Edwina was born in the castle, but at the age of nine, she was sent to boarding school in England and then headed straight to London after finishing school. "I went planning to stay two years, I ended up staying 27," she says.
A fascinating job detained her - she had gone to Wingfield, which was the boarding version of the Cordon Bleu cookery school. It was probably more of a finishing school for posh girls - Edwina herself admits it was "for those whose parents didn't want you let loose on London too early" - but she wanted to use her newfound skills and got a job with a high-profile caterer called Justin de Blank. "It was the early 80s, when English food was fairly basic, and he introduced London to things like fresh herbs," Edwina recalls. When she was 27, she got married, but sadly her husband, Dominick - "everyone called him Dombo," she notes - died two years later of a liver disease. "I had a short marriage that was great fun," she recalls affectionately.
Edwina continued throughout to work with Justin, who had contracts for the restaurants at the National Gallery and the British Museum, and after some years, she became area manager, looking after ten museums and galleries, as well as catering events at the Orangery at Kensington Palace. "I cooked and managed meals for all the royals. I did a private lunch at the National Gallery for Princess Diana. I had to stand at the corner of the room for the whole lunch. It was protocol," she explains.
It wasn't feeding the royals that she particularly enjoyed - it was more exploring the world of food and developing new menus. She enjoyed her life in London, but towards the end of her time there she felt a constant pull towards home.
"My brother Julian runs the castle, and his wife Christine was always saying, 'wouldn't it be lovely to start a cookery school in the kitchen at the castle?'," Edwina says. "I loved the idea, but I was nervous. After about two years I bit the bullet and came home."
Edwina and Christine set up the school together six years ago, but after only a year, Christine was diagnosed with cancer and she died three years ago. "She was wonderful, and when she died it changed the school, but I kept going," Edwina says.
To be fair to Edwina, she has made a great success of it, changing and adapting the courses according to customer demands. She organises courses four evenings per week, and all day Saturday. Customers include men and women wanting to improve their culinary skills, as well as companies who use the courses as team-building exercises or corporate entertainment. And the variety on offer is huge, ranging from a classic dinner-party menu, to meals in minutes, to sushi and sashimi. She is also giving courses on gluten-free meals as a result of her own experience. "I went to the doctor because my eye specialist thought I had high blood pressure. The doctor did a blood test and I had low vitamin B12; it was most likely it was low because I was coeliac, and it turns out that I am," Edwina says.
Edwina also helps Julian with ideas for ways of making the castle pay for itself. She's very proud that she came up with their latest big idea - foot golf. "I was watching BBC one morning and they were doing a feature on it," she says. "It's basically the same as golf, except there are no clubs. You use a big ball, place it on a tee and attempt to kick it into the hole." One of the golf courses on the estate has been changed to a foot-golf course and it's taking off as a family pastime. "It's a great game, but not for a 50-something like me," she laughs.
Instead, the gentler pursuits on offer in Kilkenny - good restaurants, art and craft galleries - appeal more. Edwina started coming to Kilkenny five years ago when she had a brief courtship with a Kilkenny-ite. "I used to come down for weekends and became friends with his friends. When the relationship ended, he and I stayed friends and so did his friends. And much and all as I love my family, it's nice to get away from them," she adds with a laugh.
Edwina didn't rush into buying a house. She rented for a year, and then her friends started looking. What they found didn't initially have visual appeal, but it did have promise. "It had brown metal windows, very small rooms - the utility room had all the best views. But I could see the surroundings were magnificent - it has a plum and apple orchard, it was in good condition and had potential," she says.
Initially a five-bedroomed dormer bungalow, Edwina and the committee reduced it to three, making one of the bedrooms an en suite with a dressing room attached, while the fifth is now purely used as attic space -she had the stairs taken out, making the hall more spacious. The poky kitchen, utility room and living room were opened up and what's there now is a lovely, big, open-plan space with three very distinct areas - a warm, inviting kitchen, a dining area, and steps down to a relaxing lounge for kicking back. The kitchen is, of course, the heart of the house. Even though she works in The Kitchen in the Castle during the week, Edwina loves cooking at weekends, and of course, the guest list invariably includes members of the committee. This wily group knew well what their reward would be when the house was kitted out to the brilliant cook's specifications.
For details on courses, see thekitcheninthecastle.com See deerparkfootgolf.ie
Photography by Tony Gavin