Lady Dufferin’s godson: ‘What Lindy did at Clandeboye was astonishing, and she did it for the people of Ulster’
When I last saw the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, my dear, dear godmother, in September, there was no sign at all that she would, so very sadly, die this week, aged 79.
I was staying at Clandeboye, her Georgian, delicately classical house between Bangor and Belfast, as I had every year since I was a teenager 30 years ago.
Together in September, we walked and drove round the 2,000-acre estate for hours on end — her energy and fitness supremely greater than mine, despite her being 30 years older.
How Lindy loved Clandeboye. And how she loved Ulster.
When she wasn’t painting the ever-changing landscapes of County Down and her prize-winning cows, she was working out ways of making Clandeboye ever more useful – not for her benefit, but for that of Ulster and the people of Ulster and beyond.
Born a Guinness, she married the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and so felt an affinity with both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
She was completely blind to sectarian divisions.
All she wanted was for Clandeboye to have a strong, vital purpose for as many people as possible.
And so, on that last visit in September, we went and looked at her beloved cows and met her devoted herd-manager Mark Logan. Over the last 10 years, those cows have produced over five million Clandeboye Estate Yoghurts, sold across Ulster and the Republic.
We then walked on to the forest school she has set up in recent years in the woods — where hundreds of local children have learnt about trees and wildlife under the canopy of beech and oak trees.
We looked at the trees she had recently planted with Fergus Thompson, the head gardener.
We drove across the estate to look at a film set that was being erected in a field below Helen’s Tower — the enchanted spire overlooking the estate, built by her late husband’s ancestor, the 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, in honour of his mother, Helen, and inscribed with poems from Tennyson, Browning and Kipling.
One of the many projects Lindy carried out was the tower’s renovation — you can now stay there with the Irish Landmark Trust. Whatever she had, she wanted to share.
Staying at Clandeboye always produced this whirl of activities.
Over breakfast, she would chat away and plan the day. If there were other guests, there would be visits to see the cows and lunches at Helen’s Tower.
When it was just the two of us, she would go off and paint — and have meetings: sometimes with the Conservation Volunteers, who set up their first branch at Clandeboye over 30 years ago; sometimes with local politicians.
She was always thinking, always trying to come up with new schemes to help Clandeboye and help Clandeboye help the wider world.
Then, at lunch and dinner, we would meet again to talk. Ever since I was a shy little boy, I noticed that Lindy — who sadly had no children with Sheridan, her husband — had an affinity for children.
I was never shy with her. When I was a nervous 14-year-old, she took me out to lunch in London just before my confirmation and got me to order the wine. It was something I’d never done in my life but she suggested it in such a matter-of-fact way that it seemed entirely normal I would do something so abnormal for me.
How she boosted my confidence – and the confidence of hundreds of others.
I noticed it again and again when she had guests at Clandeboye. If there was a shy or awkward soul there, Lindy noticed it in a second and she used all her exceptional, innate powers of empathy to bring them out of themselves and cheer them up.
In one of her obituaries, the Daily Mail made a sublime typo: they called her a conversationist rather than a conservationist. In fact, they were right: she was a conversationist like nobody else. She was extremely funny: a brilliantly skilled tease who could diagnose exactly what you thought and what you were like, and, in an affectionate way, joke about your characteristics.
I roared with laughter so often with her.
She could be very serious, too. Her seriousness was rooted in deep reading. Every night, after dinner, she would read the newspapers and books of a high philosophical and religious quality.
What she did at Clandeboye was astonishing. She did it for the people of Ulster, and also for her late husband, who she absolutely adored and often spoke of. She has left behind a monument to Northern Ireland and to Sheridan.
Her energy, style and selfless devotion were enormous. Her death has left me utterly bereft.
It leaves a huge hole, too, in County Down. Just off the road between Belfast and Bangor, my dear godmother did irreplaceable things for me – and all around her, for miles in every direction.
• Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie magazine
• The Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava died this week in hospital after a short illness. Born Serena Belinda Rosemary Guinness in Scotland on March 25 1941, she married the fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood) in Westminster Abbey in 1964, with royalty among the guests.
The fifth marquess was great grandson of the first marquess, who was born in 1826 and had a glittering diplomatic career —governor general of Canada, viceroy of India, and ambassador to Paris and Constantinople.
Sheridan died in 1988 of an Aids-related illness, and bequeathed the estate to his widow, advising her to sell it if it became a burden.
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