During the Great War, the Londonderry family’s residence in Park Lane, London, was given over for use as a military hospital. The family retained the top floor with very few staff, and the 7th Marquess became used to answering the door himself. However on Wednesdays Lady Edith hosted in her “Ark” of Londonderry House, an eclectic gathering of friends involved in war work such as politicians (of all persuasions), society hostesses, odd relations, king’s messengers, service personnel, artists and writers.

Her idea of providing a refuge for relaxation and enjoyment was to include conversation and refreshments in a convivial atmosphere removed from the pressures of the office, studio, or barracks. Later, when at Mount Stewart, guests enjoyed sailing regattas, golf, riding, swimming and might even be taken up for an aeroplane ride by Charles, 7th Marquess.

Being invited to be a member of the Ark meant that anyone attending adopted, or was given, an animal or mythical creature themed name that reflected their personality or perhaps an alliteration or rhyme of their initial or first name. Medals were struck in the shape of the Ark, with a rainbow striped ribbon, signifying a symbol of hope. You can see one in a showcase in Mount Stewart House, and a representation of Noah and the Ark in the gardens. Open Sesame was the password for admittance to the top floor.

The Ark - Noah's Ark

Lady Edith became Circe, that character from Homer’s Iliad who lured men to her forested island and plied them with a potion that turned them into swine. The 7th Marquess, became Charlie the Cheetah. Lord Arthur Balfour, the Albatross, arrived from the Admiralty in June 1916 with news of the Battle of Jutland in which Prince Albert, the Unicorn, (later George VI) saw action on board HMS Collingwood. Other members had appropriate monikers and the story is represented by figures in the Italian gardens at Mount Stewart. The Dodo, in reference to a caricature of Lady Edith’s father, Viscount Chaplin, became the Society Bird.

Other concrete statues represent some of those who attended the Wednesday soirees. War artist Sir William Orpen was the Ortolan. Frederick, Lord Dufferin, was Freddie the Frog, Edith’s cousin, Alastair Sutherland-Leveson-Gower was Ali the Alligator. Sir Philip Sassoon, secretary to Earl Haig and fellow enthusiastic gardener, the Fox, and David Lloyd George, Great Great Grandfather of broadcaster Dan Snow, was the Griffin. Ramsay MacDonald was Hamish the Hart. Princess Diana’s grandfather, Earl “Jack” Spencer, the Jackdaw. HM Edward 8th was, as befits a former Prince of Wales, David the Dragon. Introducer of the Highway Code, Belisha Beacons and the driving test, Major Leslie Hore-Belisha became the Lion.

The Ark - Alligator

Youngest Londonderry daughter, Lady Mairi, the Midge, sat on the knee of Brock the Badger, alias Edmond Brock, the artist whose painting of Circe and the Sirens (Lady Londonderry and daughters) can be seen in the mansion house. Secretary of State for War, Lt Colonel John Cyril Gifford Alers Hankey could have had his pick but settled on Cyril the Squirrel.

After the war, the Ark Club continued with the Londonderry’s ever expanding society circle meeting regularly. The entire Park Lane house was reclaimed by the family and entertainment now included dinner but with formal dress optional to facilitate those coming straight from work. As younger members joined, dancing was added to activities enjoyed by all.

And after 1921 when Mount Stewart became the primary family home, Ark members visited there too and enjoyed the ambience of an Irish Country House, family friends, artists and authors mixing with current or former prime ministers. Neville (The Devil) Chamberlain was one, and you can imagine Londonderry cousin Winston Churchill (the Warlock) trading insults with Lady Astor (Nancy the Gnat).

Important connections were made, Sean (the Prawn) O’Casey met Harold (the Hummel) Macmillan and had his entire body of work published by the Macmillan family firm. Beautiful Lady Lavery who featured on the old Irish punt as Katherine Ni Houlihan, was Hazel the Hen and her artist husband, Sir John, became John Dory. Benefactor of Great Ormond Street Hospital and creator of Peter Pan, JM Barrie was nominated The Bard. Margaretta Countess of Winchelsea, sister-in-law of Denys Finch Hatton of Out of Africa fame, was Mermaid of Mahee. Scottish novelist and Governor General of Canada Sir John Buchan signed himself “The Buck” in the visitors’ book. Edward Carson was Edward the Eagle, his wife Ruby the Rabbit, and Quintin Hogg, known at Eton as Piggy, appropriately the Wild Boar.

The Ark - Mermaid

The old visitors’ books that used to be on display in the entrance hall of Mount Stewart contains many interesting signatures; one can only guess at the intriguing conversations between guests who had escaped wheelbarrow trundling, wood chopping or other useful tasks directed by a boiler-suited Lady Edith in the gardens!

The Mayfair house was demolished in the 1960s and was replaced by a modern hotel but Mount Stewart, administered by the National Trust, remains a place of entertainment and relaxation with upwards of 200,000 visitors per season finding enjoyment and solace in its wonderful gardens. References to myths and legends add to a sense of adventure and magic at Mount Stewart. Tir na nOg is the Irish mythological Land of the Ever Young; the White Stag, who accompanies spirits to Tir na nOg, stalks the woods above the lake, while the animals of the Ark Club, inhabiting the Dodo Terrace and Italian Garden keep alive the spirit of all those involved in the Londonderry’s rich literary, artistic and political world.

The Ark - Squirrel

From his vantage point on the Dodo Terrace a little concrete Noah gestures from the deck of the Ark towards the south facade of the long low grey mansion house where the erstwhile animals had gathered. And now red squirrels continue to find a haven here in the Mount Stewart Ark, one of their few remaining strongholds in the UK.

Ellen (The Emu)