We were met at Belfast International Airport by Lady Dufferin's archivist, Lola Armstrong. Tiny, cheerful and ruddy, she looked like she'd stepped out of a Brueghel. She was about the least Lola-like person I'd ever encountered. It certainly wasn't easy to picture her in a Soho club doing any of the stuff that the Kinks sang about.
The three of us squeezed into her son's Nissan Micra, and as we queued at an RUC checkpoint she told us she was a maths teacher by training, but had given it up to work on the estate. The Marchioness, noting her keen interest in the history of Clandeboye, had entrusted her with what we would soon see was the considerable task of putting in order the family's eclectic assortment of colonial ephemera.
`It'll be a life's work, so it will,' she said cheerfully in what I supposed to be a broad County Down accent, `but Lady Dufferin is ever so understanding.'
It was slightly embarrassing that she referred to our hostess using this form of address, whereas we now on the other side of the feudal divide were expected to call her Lindy. It was no less jarring to find that Clandeboye's huge grounds lay so close to Belfast's rundown docks. Only ten minutes after passing the grim and deserted Harland & Woolf shipbuilding yard, we turned into an unmarked road which took us through the outskirts of what was clearly a substantial and well-tended estate.
Thousands of new trees sprung from protective plastic sheaths and, even before we could see the house, there were flower beds tended more carefully than afloral clock. On the horizon swayed the lofty greenery of what I later discovered was the largest broad-leafed forest in Northern Ireland. It was astonishing that this prominent outpost of British colonialism and its cumbersomely titled inhabitants had survived unscathed through thirty years of destruction on its doorstep.
We rounded a stable block and stopped in a small courtyard. `This is really the side entrance,' said Lola, indicating an unassuming porch. The door within it opened and a large, red-faced butler stripy trousers, tailcoat, the works greeted us with a tilted nod. `You're up in Simla, I believe,' he said in a Lurch rumble before leading us into a hall.
I say a hall. In fact it was like an annexe of the Museum of Mankind. The First Marquess's globetrotting CV was here in full, dangling from the beams, bolted to the brickwork, fixed to the floor. There were totem poles and tomahawks, a scale model of Mandalay, a pair of stuffed bears from Russia (Dufferin had shot the mother, Lola later told us, then found an orphaned cub which in a fit of guilt he took back to Clandeboye where it lived in a courtyard for several years), pikes, helmets, snowshoes, chain mail, daggers, hieroglyphic bas-reliefs and mummy cases, curling stones, bells and pistols. And there were countless items whose origin and purpose I could not even begin to guess at: long sticks with holes in, big round things with funny ethnic symbols painted on the side, triangular boxes with shaft-like handles.
Birna and I were speechless. Then I looked into a corner, and saw the original figurehead from the Foam, or at least the wooden dummy for it, beside a beautiful scale model of the boat itself. And beneath it, most arrestingly of all, a rug made from the flattened form of the polar bear the crew had shot at Spitzbergen, an event Dufferin describes in gloating detail.
Rubber-necking with open mouths, we wandered slowly after the butler, who, seeing our interest, flicked a finger at a framed photo fixed to a column. Dated 1902, the year the First Marquess died, it depicted the hall we were traversing, and confirmed what I had suspected. Nothing had changed. Here was Dufferin, here was I, here was the Foam. Things were coming together.
Our butler-following adventure assumed the epic proportions of a Terry Gilliam animation. On we tramped, along a landing dominated by the swinging length of driftwood Dufferin had brought back from Spitzbergen, past a dolls' house with what we later learned (at the pawnbroker's) was real silver crockery on its tables, beneath huge family portraits, back down stairs I was sure we'd already climbed.
We passed endless doors labelled with what I recognised were Dufferin's diplomatic postings: Rome, Paris and so on. Simla, I realised (in so far as looking something up in an encyclopaedia a week later can be described as `realising'), was India's summer capital during his ... viceroyalty? Viceregality? Viceroyalship?
Lola had already told us that Clandeboye's current incarnation had been largely built to the First Marquess's own design during his retirement. As we trooped up hidden spiral staircases and crouched through low, semi-abandoned corridors, the touch of an enthusiastic but muddled amateur made itself apparent. He'd had a passion for natural light, and glazed ceilings and skylights looked down on every hall. No wonder the roof had cost £350,000 to fix.
On the half-landing of a forgotten staircase lined with Dufferin's architectural sketches, the butler stopped and dropped our bags. `I think I'm lost,' he quietly boomed, before looking round with a wink. Just as our journey was reaching refugee-exodus status, we ducked down a low annexe and arrived outside a room marked `Simla'. Our luggage was deposited and the butler withdrew.
`Should we have tipped him?'
`No!' squeaked Birna. `Not now. We're supposed to give a collective tip to the staff at the end of our stay.'
The phrase `collective tip' has the same resonance for me as `The dam has broken!' does for valley-dwellers. `What? Are you sure? How much?'
`I don't know ... £20?' (After Birna revealed her source for this practice as a Georgette Heyer novel, I ultimately insisted we left nothing.)
The far wall of our otherwise mercifully unstately room was dominated by a peculiar hemispherical fanlight, which we later saw was the genuine part of a false window at the left edge of the house's splendid, chalky grey Georgian facade. On a dressing table beneath it was an old guidebook to the house, presumably published for house guests as Clandeboye is not open to scum like you. It kicked off with an introduction by Lindy's Sheridan. `To most guests, Clandeboye would appear to be an extremely large house,' it began. Appearing to be extremely small people, we went down for tea.
`I'll tell you what,' piped Lola, interrupting my meek facsimile of a proprietorial hands-behind-back stroll by the main library's blazing fire. `While we're waiting for Lady Dufferin, I'll show you around.' If I had imagined our trek to the lost kingdom of Simla had included an exhaustive tour of the house, I was now to be proven wrong.
`... and this is the third library,' she wheezed, half an hour later. Some parts of Lola's sprawling archival domain, like the `third library' were well ordered; others she had barely begun to tackle. My crash course in Dufferin Studies was bewildering but, as in the hall, there was a time-warp, shoved-up-in-the-attic-last-Christmas quality to the haphazard archives that brought the First Marquess closer. Piled up in her cellar den was an endearingly shambolic heap of pith helmets, puppets, trays of Victorian printing type and, of course, correspondence in all its forms: household ledgers, letters, poems. My favourite object was a beautifully made octagonal box. Neatly chalked on it in ancient copperplate was the single word `Empty'.
I'd also found a little handbound book of crayon caricatures. `They're by the First Marquess's mother,' said Lola. `As you might have discovered she was the real love of his life, so she was.' I had. The letters in High Latitudes are nominally addressed to Dufferin's mother, Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin. Married at seventeen to Price Blackwood, the Fourth Baron, she'd given birth to her only child a year later. After the baron died, Lady Dufferin, still only thirty-three, developed an almost claustrophobically close relationship with her son.
In some ways they were more brother and sister. `Not every son can remember his mother's twenty-first birthday,' Dufferin said later, going on to record `her loving, radiant face, which was my childhood Heaven, as indeed it never ceased to be'. They painted together and laughed together and doubtless strolled hand in hand together through the largest broad-leafed forest in Northern Ireland.
From her Dufferin acquired his artistic abilities and wit. In 1859, following the probably unexpected success of his book, she wrote a spoof account of a Mediterranean cruise with her son entitled Lispings from Low Latitudes. Lady Helen also bequeathed him a sense of studious self-deprecation. Speaking of her sisters to Disraeli (with whom she was once linked), she said, `Georgy's the beauty, and Carry's the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not.'
But in fact she was. All I could find in her son's writings were more and more non-specific glorifications of her goodness `one of the most loving and lovable human beings that ever walked upon the earth'; `her passionate ecstasy of affection' (steady); `the gift of self-sacrifice which enabled her to surrender everything to those she loved'. Before setting off for the Arctic he wrote in his diary that `no one will love me like her', which must have been a bit of a kick in the teeth for the eighteen-year-old bride (sound familiar?) he married when he was thirty-six.
Dufferin turned Clandeboye into a maternal shrine. He built a nearby railway station on the line from Belfast and gave it the name it still bears today, Helen's Bay. The four-floor Gothic folly he erected in the woods a couple of miles from the house was called Helen's Tower; on each wall of its octagonal top storey hung golden tablets bearing poems dedicated to her. As well as one she wrote to him when he came of age (`My love a thing not rare or strange/But yet eternal, measureless Knowing no shadow and no change') there are others he commissioned specially from Robert Browning and Tennyson: `Son's love built me, and I hold/Mother's love in lettered gold.'
What's especially odd about the tower dedicated to her memory was that it was completed six years before her death. Maybe his mother's line about her love being `a thing not rare or strange' masked a slight worry that it actually was, particularly in the light of all that `passionate ecstasy'.
After she died, the slavish personality cult gathered in intensity. I later read that her death in 1868 `wrenched from his living body with forceps of steel his whole youth and childhood', and that even thirty years later her name could only be uttered `with a lowering of the voice'. Certainly, when he buried his mother he also buried the aimless adventuring of his early adulthood. Five years before she died he'd been a workshy fop; five years after he was Governor-General of Canada.
Lola led us back to the main library via the kitchens, where introductions to the staff were effected. The cook and sundry junior female domestics lined up to nod shyly. I wasn't sure whether to respond with supercilious disdain or by saying, `Very good ... er, as you were, carry on,' so in the end I got them all pregnant then pushed them out into the snow to face the shaming wrath of the villagers.
It was Lindy. She sat us down by the fire in the library, where an immense tea awaited. `If you don't like it, don't eat it that's the way here,' said Lindy briskly as she shovelled sandwiches into a waiting spaniel's mouth.
Other guests began to arrive, flopping louchely into squat leather armchairs, making me aware of the ridiculous buttock-clenched uprightness of my posture. Soon we had an earl and a countess, a property millionaire, and four other possibly titled, certainly wealthy intellectuals. After a few sentences of learned banter, it was clear that if any of them had more money than sense, it was a close-run thing.
I tried to rationalise the situation with my grandfather's advice on meeting anyone eminent: `Just imagine them crapping on the bog.' When this produced only dangerously comic imagery, I willed myself into Tim Knox mode, preparing an outrageous anecdote about the Foam's nubile figurehead. I didn't get far before a small inner voice warned me that the phrase `Get your tits out for the lords' might strike a false note.
In any case, the game was up already. The guests' initial probings had left me hopelessly exposed. The property millionaire, on hearing our claim to live on Strand-on-the-Green (`off' rather than `on' would have been a wiser choice), instantly brightened. `Oh! Which house? Zoffany?' Zoffany House, a huge mansion on the river, was until recently the home of sitcom queen Carla Lane and her vast menagerie of stray animals. I spoke to her once through her intercom after we lost a cat. She sold it for a million (the house, that is). `God, no!' I said, far too contemptuously. `No,' said Birna, more thoughtfully, `but not far from there.'
`Spitzbergen?' said another guest after somehow understanding a mumbled account of my itinerary. `Well, you'll know of Evelyn Waugh's visit there.' This was accurate in that it placed my acquisition of this knowledge in the future. `As I recall, it was the only journey Waugh made in the Thirties that he didn't find stimulating enough to make a book of.' Cheers for that.
Lindy did her best to shield us. I welcomed her repetition of the `lovely young man who knows nothing' speech. But even so, our failure to sparkle was conspicuous. Over the next two days a seemingly endless parade of society wits arrived to pay homage to Lindy, and their politeness almost succeeded in masking a confusion as to the purpose of our presence. Some treated us like winners of a `Be A Lord For A Weekend' competition. `Oh, I see!' they'd announce with relief after she bustled over to explain my quest. (`Oh, I see! You're social and academic irrelevances invited here as charity cases by Lindy because she's so kindhearted.')
Feeling fat and stupid, we retired to our room, having been ordered to dress for dinner. A surprise lay within. `Did you do this?' was Birna's blurt; `My pants!' was mine. While we had been downstairs, our overnight bags had been disembowelled and their contents laid out with scientific rigour. My liver-spotted desert boots had shoehorns in; my Fred Perry hung from a heavy wooden hanger in the wardrobe. My electric razor had disintegrated in transit; all the scurf-incrusted components were arranged in descending order of size on the dresser beneath the fanlight.
It was deeply unsettling. I suppose a true aristocrat would think nothing of a peasant wench staring into their skidmarks, but from then on we felt compelled to tidy away our shaming chattels every time we left.
Clad in my funeral suit and fortified by a pair of ill-advisedly generous Bloody Marys from the help-yourself aperitif trolley, I plunged into the dinner-table silverware and conversation with staunch toper gusto. Lindy had kindly seated me next to Birna, but feeling possessed by the spirit of Dufferin's uproarious Reykjavík bacchanal I ignored the refuge of her company. I loudly butted into a whispered cricket debate on the opposite side of the table, and said `Cheers!' to the uniformed staff busily occupied in replenishing my brace of wine glasses. The property millionaire was on my left, and I asked him where he was from. Lytham, he replied evenly.
`Nice one! We went to a wedding there a couple of years ago.'
I chose to interpret this innocent enquiry as symptomatic of the tiny, closed world of wealth and privilege in which he resided. Whose wedding? Honestly.
`Well, he's one of the Lancashire McGhees.' A blank face. `You know Lord Pete of Maine Road!' My lonely laugh waned, then died.
`No ... you really wouldn't know them,' said Birna quickly. She had just realised that conversation was being marshalled in strict rotation. During the first course you were to speak to the person on one side of you, during the second to the one on the other. Talking across the table, a practice I had warmly championed, was right out. She managed to whisper as much to me.
`Don't be stupid,' I hissed too loudly. `How does everyone know which side to start with?'
`I think the hostess starts off on one side and everyone else takes their lead from that.'
But of course it wasn't, and my drunkenness proceeded directly to the contrite remorse stage. I had gone for a Dufferin-style deep potation and blown it. My breeding had failed me.
We filed past the candelabra out of the dining room. As I stumbled cravenly through a long hall, Birna reminded me that at one point I had tried to get the property millionaire's attention by tapping his shoulder with a spoon. Almost in tears of shame, I looked up and was met by the soft, heavy-lidded gaze of the twenty-four-year-old Lord Dufferin. It was the original of the drawing I'd found on the Internet.
The young lord's feminine face beamed out a gentle forgiveness, a kindly beatitude that seemed to say, `Okay, son, you messed up. But stick with me and I'll see you all right.' Of course! None of this mattered, not in terms of my journey. Come on, Duffers, we've got a sea to sail! Rejuvenated, I gave him a discreet wink. And a less discreet belch.
There was a book by my bedside. The next morning, in a bid to dislodge some of the pickled gravel I had carelessly allowed to be rubbed into my pupils during the night, I began to read it. It was called Helen's Tower, and was the work of Harold Nicolson, aesthete, diplomat and my Dufferin's nephew. The year of publication was 1937. Flicking through it I came across an arresting statement, which I read out to Birna. `It is the tradition at Clandeboye that one's porridge at breakfast should be consumed standing up.'
`Well, we won't have to worry about that,' she assured me. `No one will be up yet. I heard people going to bed after two.' Indeed. And when I'd got up even later than that to ingest a dozen glasses of water, I'd seen Lindy out in the grounds walking her spaniel.
After wrestling with the bath a terrifying beast the size of a skip with great brass faucets and a handle marked `WASTE' which let the water out through a Titanic-bilge-style grating I eventually found the breakfast room. In fact, at 9.15, everyone had already been and eaten and gone. The stamina of these people was phenomenal.
Andrew Gailey had warned me that Dufferin's journals had been bowdlerised by whoever typed them up, probably after his death, and what I read from them after Lola let me loose in the chilly `second library' cast little light on his character. There was no reference as to why he'd chosen to go to the Arctic, although I did find a letter from Fanny Russell (wife of the former Prime Minister Lord John Russell) asking where Reykjavík was and finishing, `I dare say you will enjoy the North Pole,' an ignorance which confirmed the perceived extremity of his quest.
That, of course, would have been another of his aims. Iceland had yet to be demythologised. Perhaps with Fanny in mind, Dufferin commented that `most educated English people firmly believe the Icelanders to be a blubber-eating, sealskin-clad race,' and 140 years on this image lingers. Before my first visit there, my mother enquired with a disturbing lack of irony whether Icelanders still lived in igloos.
The diaries' coverage of his Arctic voyage is sparse and sometimes surreally bland. Two consecutive days' entries as he prepares to leave Scotland read: `At 7 off Kyleakin, Capt Wood sent us off for some milk.' `Capt Wood sent me some milk; told me Spain had declared war with Mexico.'
Things pick up briefly when he resumes his journal after returning. Before assuming his diplomatic duties, he spent some years as a lord-in-waiting at Windsor Castle, and I found an intriguing account of a game of consequences there in February 1857:
Omer Pasha and the Duchess of Wellington
Singing a Duet
Mr Wellesly and Miss Byng
Washing each other's faces
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duchess of Sutherland
Consequence: They came to blows
Colonel Vyse and Miss Butteel
Flirting in a shower bath
Consequence: Not known yet
`Here come the young people!'
Lindy's ringing tones echoed down the hall. We had learned that half a dozen of Britain's more notable junior aristocrats would be visiting; in our trough of inferiority, mere mention of names like `Ned' and `Randall' had sufficed to build up a frenzy of paranoia. Birna honed a scenario of drunken, cowardly bullies in Flashman riding boots queuing up to thrash each other's servants. `No, Ned!' a frail beauty would implore before being pushed roughly away with a ragged cry of `Impudence!'
But of the six loafer-clad yuppies walking across the polar bear's back, only a couple betrayed the louche swagger that suggested an afternoon of knocking the heads off busts and braying around the grounds with a 12-bore for a crack at the Mick. Apart from one glance which had a whiff of the `Lindy, who invited that ghastly spastic?' about it, the intimidation we feared limited itself to swearing a lot in funny accents and smoking an enormous quantity of Silk Cut Ultra.
Inevitably, the most outré behaviour emanated from our hostess. Unfazed by anything, she clearly took relish in showing them how it should be done, or at least how it was done in 1969.
As we repaired to a freezing conservatory where an epic luncheon was laid out on salvers, she embarked upon a tale centring around a visiting rock star's cherubically tiny penis. (Sadly not Mick Jagger.) Then, as we filed out into the wind for pavlova on the lawn, she barged a hapless noble to the turf and straddled him with a triumphant yelp of `I am going to bounce the young Lord Durham!'
The young Lord Durham took the bouncing in good heart, smiling indulgently as Lindy and her spaniel flailed about on top of him in one of the more arresting spectacles of my adult years. I was very glad it wasn't me. I would rather remove contaminated sharps from a blocked hospital sink with my teeth than be on the wrong end of audience participation.
Afterwards she took us on a tour of the outbuildings, beginning with a stable-block newly converted into a corporate banqueting facility. Lindy seemed an unlikely entrepreneur, but her expensive hunches are apparently paying off handsomely. The estate now includes five golf courses and a Michelin-star restaurant, and a personal appearance is sold as part of the conference package. It was funny to think of her shaking hands with Mitsubishi UK's Sales Achiever of the Year (Light Commercials). `Even I couldn't have afforded to maintain the house unless we sorted out some business,' she said. But no one was really listening. When someone is rolling up a cigarette with a full wine glass balanced on their head your attention is not focused on their verbal output.
We went through the environmental conservationists' greenhouse complex and ended up at a tunnel alongside Clandeboye's own church. This was the entrance to the recently rediscovered ice house. A nonchalant comparison of ice houses ensued.
`Ours is less ovoid. Yours?'
`Had to knock it down a couple of years back.'
By now they knew better than to ask us. A freezer in a cupboard under the stairs probably doesn't count.
Birna tried. As part of a conversation on the land of her fathers, I heard her telling the previously bounced young lordling that Magnus Magnusson's brother had been her gynaecologist. He laughed, then said, `Well, I think I can trump that,' before relating how George Formby was once one of his grandfather's stable boys. I felt I should have taken him aside. `Nice story, son. But next time, try this: "Well, I think I can trump that I am the Earl of Durham."'
We set off on a tour of Clandeboye's grounds, taking in two huge lakes excavated by Dufferin. During the 1846 Potato Famine he'd found `dead bodies putrefying amidst the sick remnants of their families', a sight which moved him to spend £78,000 on bettering conditions on his farms. He instituted public works schemes on the estate in times of famine or unemployment, most notably the lakes and the building of Helen's Tower.
But as a keen supporter of the Union and the rights of landowners who also believed in compassion for Irish farmworkers, his political position was awkward. Moreover, Andrew Gailey had told me, his romantic sensibilities made him ill suited for the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.
As he approached thirty he appears to have accepted that his painting and poetry weren't quite good enough to pursue professionally. His cruises seem to have been devices to postpone a decision as to what to do with himself, an escape from social and political expectation which gave purpose to his dilettante lifestyle. Given that my own motivation in replicating his voyage encompassed a similarly vague desire to achieve something notable for once, this thought afforded a little pulse of empathy.
Two years before the Arctic voyage, aged twenty-eight, he'd taken the Foam (which, though run by a crew of twelve, was still a flimsy-hulled pleasure yacht) across the Baltic to check out the Crimean War. While there he almost died aboard a warship sent to `draw the fire of the Russian forts'. He sailed home to Clandeboye with two enemy cannon and a young walrus stowed on the Foam's deck.
On the Arctic trip, I supposed, icebergs and polar bears would have taken the place of Russian artillery as the challenges he aimed to pit himself against. Having somehow failed to damage his fragile craft in the Crimean War, he would cement his credentials as an enthusiastic amateur adventurer by piloting her through some of the most unforgiving seas on the planet. With Iceland only as far from the tip of Scotland as London, he could be an explorer almost on his own doorstep.
The youths yahed away in their BMW estates and we sat down to dinner. `You're in at the deep end now,' said Lindy, motioning me away from Birna to a seat by her side.
But she let me sink to the bottom gently by doing all the talking. She'd once been a photojournalist for Harpers (but of course), and had worked with Don McCullin, giving it up after she got married. `I was already quite grand, but when I became very grand, it was impossible to feel any pride in getting a story or a picture people would just let one do anything because of one's grandness, not one's talent.'
It was only later that I did more research and discovered just what a worthy Dufferin she is. She's everything that he was: patron of umpteen charities and artistic foundations, a keen watercolourist and photographer, a firm believer in nurturing homegrown talent on the estate (as well as installing Lola as the estate's archivist, she'd put a local lad in charge of her multi-million-pound golf courses after forming a favourable opinion of him as he cooked her lunch at a roadside café). And she's the one thing that her ancestor wasn't an astute business tactician.