Peek inside this house which dates back to 1720 and sleeps 23 people
Bella Huddart loves cars, while Christopher Bielenberg admits he’s no petrolhead. That didn't stop them getting together at a rally, and now they share a passion for houses
When people get together nowadays, it can happen in a whole raft of ways, particularly through internet dating sites, but for Christopher Bielenberg and Bella Huddart, things happened in an old-fashioned manner; they met accidentally at an event.
It was a car rally in Italy; both were driving cars, and they totally fell for each other. Serendipitously, it's as if they're made for each other, not least because Christopher has a lovely house in Carlow that needed sprucing up, and English beauty Bella is an interior designer who is fast making a name for herself in the world of interiors in London.
Like all great romances, neither was particularly looking for love, both just wanted a bit of adventure.
Christopher is the son of the renowned writer Christabel Bielenberg, who published bestselling books about her experiences in war-torn Germany, when her German husband, Christopher's father, Peter, a lawyer, was imprisoned there by the Nazis. Christopher grew up in Carlow and from there, boarded at St Columba's College, followed by studies at Trinity. He then did an MBA at INSEAD in Paris. He worked for large American companies before starting his own business, a "mini global consultancy company" in the 1970s that expanded all over the world, advising large corporations on structuring their finances. "I did that for 30 years, then, fortunately, just before the economic disasters of 2007/2008, a firm from America came along, and said they wanted to buy the company, so I sold it in 2006," Christopher says, indicating that he got out at a good time. Over the years, he married and divorced twice, and has four children - Alexander, who runs a software company, and Katharina, the publisher at MacLehose Press, who are both in their 40s; and Freya and Clementine, who are in their 20s, and are both Ballymaloe-trained cooks. He also has six grandchildren, all living in London.
Since he sold his company, he's been involved in venture-capital-type projects, with mixed success, all with an environmental or healthcare angle. The warm yet reserved businessman currently works with an organisation called New Food Entrepreneurs.
Christopher is particularly enthusiastic about another of his projects - a school in Ghana, in which his daughter Freya and her boyfriend, James, convinced him to invest. "James is an overseas-development guy. He built one school in Ghana and then came to me and said he was thinking of building another school. Now we've got a fully fledged secondary school, Alma Mater Education, running alongside an organic farm, so the idea is to promote the production of food, which will feed the school, and to teach kids to learn how to grow a wider selection of produce than they would otherwise. It's wonderful," Christopher enthuses.
The project is a registered charity, administered by James. Christopher and his friends and other contacts funded quite a lot of it, with some additional funds from an educational trust set up by Christopher's mother from the royalties of her books. "We're in the third year. There are over 200 pupils; it's totally staffed by Ghanaians." Christopher explains, "We're trying to create a self-funding model. If 50pc of the kids pay modest fees, the other 50pc will get in free. So that will be enough to manage the running costs. We collect the capital cost to build the school, thereafter it is fast becoming a self-sustaining entity, using the farm and the fees to carry the thing forward," he says.Christopher adds a note of caution, "We still have a lot of work to do, to ensure the concept model will work out as well as we think it will."
Bella has, of course, visited the school with Christopher, and she is equally enthusiastic about it. She has a particular interest in education, as she still has a child at school.
The bubbly Bella has six children in all, and was virtually a full-time homemaker until her marriage ended suddenly. Originally from Sussex, her family moved to London when she was 14, and she went to work at Vogue magazine when she was 16. "I was one of that generation that mostly didn't go to university. My education was a disaster. I went to work in Vogue in 1980 under the famous Grace Coddington. She was fabulous - my education, really," Bella volunteers.
She stayed in Vogue for six years, until she married at 22. The marriage ended when she was 44, after 22 years. "When my marriage collapsed, I went through such a grieving process. I think most people flounder, and I felt like such a useless person. I had all these children to look after, and I thought, 'What am I going to do now?'. Fortunately, the network of people I met at Vogue have been my lifeline since my marriage ended," Bella explains. "Then my whole life started again."
Though from a privileged background, Bella is evidently something of a free spirit, willing to make the most of her circumstances. She has a little tattoo on her wrist depicting an open heart, and you sense that openness has stood her in good stead, particularly since her marriage ended. To make ends meet, she took tours travelling all over the world, particularly to India, Ethiopia and Iran; she did some interior design, and she ran a jewellery business and had a stall on Portobello Road. "It was a bit hand-to-mouth, really," Bella says. "For my first few years after my marriage ended, I carried my house around on my back, in a long-wheelbase Land Rover, like a snail."
Her six children - Georgie, Joe, Augusta, Flora, Johnnie and Ed - range in age now from 31 down to 16, but Ed was quite small when she separated, and it was imperative to provide stability for him. She managed to buy an ex-council flat in Notting Hill to live in and did it up. That was so successful that she bought a second, in Trellick Tower, and turned that too into another delightful dwelling. "I got my first mortgage at 50, can you imagine? God knows why a bank offered it to me," she notes with glee, adding with a laugh, that the area where the first council flat is was not exactly salubrious at the time. "It was quite brave, really. In the beginning, some of my friends wouldn't come to tea, but it was such a great place to move to, and became the hub for my family," Bella says.
Her daughter Georgie, a creative designer and co-founder of clothing label Hunza G, lives in one of her flats, Augusta lives and works in Australia. Joe, Gussie's twin, has just completed his higher diploma in ecology and is working in London; Flora is a fashion stylist in London; and Johnny is teaching English in Barcelona while learning Spanish, having completed his master's out there. Ed goes to an international school in Barcelona. "Ed is my youngest child and still in education. I feel passionately about language, and we went to Barcelona on a whim for new year's four years ago - we loved it, and we decided to move there," she explains.
No sooner had Bella found a home in Barcelona, than she was offered an enormous interior design job, doing up a 5,000 square feet apartment in central London. The client was happy for her to commute, and Bella's daughter Georgie helped her with work on the ground. The job was a huge success, and has led to lots of other work.
Quite soon after getting that interiors commission, she met Christopher on the rally in the Dolomites. Bella had started with one car - that broke down, and so did its successor. Meanwhile, during the rally, she and Christopher got to know each other, as rally drivers do. Because her cars broke down, she started to hitch lifts with Christopher. "At one stage, I said, 'Do you want me to get out?' And he said, 'I hope you don't!' We'd become really, really good friends on this rally, had we not?" Bella asks Christopher, who agrees. He adds, "It was all very serendipitious, because my daughter Clemmie and her then boyfriend sort of persuaded me that I was kicking my heels and not doing very much in London, and they persuaded me to go on this rally. I had no interest in cars, I'm not a petrolhead, but I started looking for a car. To cut a long story short, I bought a low-mileage BMW in the west of Ireland and took off."
The rally took them through the Alps, the Dolomites, Venice, Florence, and Bologna. "We did massive chatting. We nattered and nattered about life, failed marriages and our fabulous children, our huge love of music and travel," says Bella. In the end, they joined forces. "At one stage I had a bike, and I'd go off for a ride. He'd ask me where was I going, and he'd meet me there," says Bella. "I hound-dogged her," Christopher jokingly admits.
They've been together ever since, moving around their various homes in London, Barcelona, Tuscany - where Christopher also has property - and, of course, Sandbrook House in Carlow.
Christopher bought Sandbrook, which dates from the 1700s, in 1997. "I bought this place because my parents, who lived nearby, were getting quite old. I thought it would be nice for my younger girls to get to know them and go to school locally, which they did." Christopher explains, "It so happened this house was available, and less than seven miles from my parents."
Fortunately the last owner had done massive work in the 1970s, so Christopher was spared the usual reroofing and other renovation jobs. "She didn't replicate the original Georgian windows, which was a shame," he says. "All I've had to do was look after windows, heating systems, insulation and modernising the kitchen. The beauty of the house is the sun rises in one corner and sets in another, and the house is lit all day long with sunshine."
The house is set on 25 acres with mature trees on its rolling lawns. It has four reception rooms and 11 bedrooms, yet it doesn't feel too rambly, and while it's very elegant, it's also extremely cosy with lots of roaring fires; the fireplaces are all original. It's beautifully furnished with lots of antiques, but these are pleasantly offset with Christopher's collection of mainly modern paintings.
Bella loves textiles, and she has put her own stamp on much of the house, with old rugs from Iran, and new curtains and blinds. She had frosted glass removed from some of the windows where it impeded the beautiful views. She has created a large en suite bathroom for the main bedroom, and has also upgraded all of the bedrooms, as well as moving the large sitting room into the music room at the end of the house, which is flooded with all-day sunshine. "We have just completed the widening of the door to the garden from the kitchen, which has let so much more light into this room and given us the ability to look at Mount Leinster, a view we both adore," Bella says.
The couple love to spend time together in the house, but because of their peripatetic lifestyle, they let it out for house parties when they're not using it. Because of the 11 bedrooms, large groups can come and stay, whether for relaxing weekends or for private house parties. "The house sleeps 23 comfortably and is a wonderful party house," says Christopher. There's a comprehensive library with a wide choice of literature, a piano and a great sound system. For outdoor activities, there's croquet on the lawn and a riding club near." According to Christopher, a typical family group could be multi-generational, often aged eight to 80.
Christopher and Bella are full of praise for the local butcher in Ballon, and the Carlow farmers' Saturday market, with its excellent cheese and vegetable stalls. There's also a fabulous kitchen complete with Aga for cooking, but if guests prefer the luxury of having meals served, Christopher's daughter Freya, who looks after all the bookings, can organise a chef.
"We have a local yoga lady who loves to come here, so guests can book her too. The house is run by a wonderful housekeeper, Jackie, who, together with her team, looks after everyone's needs beautifully." While they love to see groups coming, they block off much of the time for themselves, as they both adore the house and its environs.
Looking back on the end of her marriage, the years she spent grappling with her situation and, more recently, her relationship with Christopher, Bella says happily, "Now I have a really lovely life". Christopher echoes the thought, saying, "You do have a terrific life. So do I."
Sandbrook House, tel: (059) 915-9247, or email email@example.com, or see sandbrook.ie
Bella Huddart Design, tel: (00447768) 511-755 (mobile), or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see bellahuddart.com
Alma Mater Education, see almamatereducation.org
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin