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Sion House Sion Mills + Celia Ferguson

We’re Marching to Sion

Sion House Entrance Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Daphne’s, South Ken: voluminous pneumatic crowns all round at Astrid Bray’s moliminous blown up festive dinner party. ‘Twas the season. A party out of the top drawer, as F Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh would’ve said. Grilled squid with caponata at Princess Diana’s old haunt was impossible to resist. Equally irresistible, grilled squid with garlic for lunch at 8 Mount Street was a surprising success. Nope, the reviews aren’t correct. Marble ain’t cold, it’s classy. The menu’s been sorted. End of. Sociability then solitude, Derek Hill style. Southeast to northwest.

Sion House River Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

County Tyrone sure isn’t the most obvious location to come across an overblown Tudorbethan mansion. This half timbered affair would look more at home in the Surrey Hills. Southeast England, not northwest Ulster. A Cyclopean scaled forerunner to Stockbroker’s Tudor semi d’s. The landscaped gardens are an attempt to tame the wildness of this rainswept region. It’s not surprising, then, to learn the architect of Sion House was an Englishman.

Sion House Garden Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The original early 19th century house, which would later be engulfed through rebuilding, was a much more typical country house of this region. It was a mildly Italianate three bay wide by three bay deep stone faced two storey house built in 1846 to the design of the illustrious Sir Charles Lanyon, a starchitect of his day. A 19th century John O’Connell. Less than four decades later, William Unsworth designed a replacement house. With gusto.

Sion House Bridge Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

William Unsworth is famed for designing the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps that’s where he developed his penchant for all things half timbered. He was mates with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned also knew his jettied projections from his mullioned multi diamond paned canted bay windows. William just happened to be the son-in-law of his client James Herdman. He was also brother-in-law of the celebrated Missionary of Morocco, Emma Herdman.

Sion House Grounds Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Herdmans arrived in Ireland from Ayrshire in 1699. This Plantation family swiftly established itself as big time farmers. At the time of the first potato famine of 1835, the Herdman brothers James, John and George upped sticks to the sticks, moving from Belfast to the district of Seein in County Tyrone. Adopt a broad Ulster country accent and saying it aloud you can hear how Seein evolved into Sion. Those were the days when spelling – for those who could actually write – was idiosyncratic at best.

John Herdman had gone into partnership in 1833 with Thomas, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland who owned York Street Linen Mill in Belfast. The Herdman brothers brought this expertise to the development of a new spinning mill at Sion. Not content with just building a country house and mill, the Herdmans philanthropically added a model village, Ulster’s answer to New Lanark. Soon there was a shop, cricket club, fishing club and cottages fitted out with – ta dah! – newfangled gas as soon as it became available. William Unsworth also designed a gatehouse to frame the main entrance. Again, he discontinued the tradition of single storey demure vaguely neoclassical gatelodges. Instead a Hansel and Gretel version of the black and white three storey gatehouse of Stokesay Castle appeared.

And so the glory days began. For 70 years the new Sion House happily played host to generations of the Herdman family. Celia Ferguson née Herdman is one of the two last direct descendants living in Ireland. Her daughter is a neighbour of Lavender’s Blue HQ. Celia still lives in the village and founded the Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust in 1999. In an exclusive, Mrs Ferguson reminisces,

“Sion House was my grandfather’s home. I lived there after the Second World War. It was such a busy house! As well as my relatives and Welsh nanny, there was a cook and four or five parlour maids. A dairy maid, washer maid and four under gardeners came during the day. The head gardener lived in the gatelodge. It was very self sufficient. In fact the whole of Sion Mills was like that. When we needed a plumber, he came from the mill.

The Italianate gardens were designed in 1909 by Inigo Triggs of Hampshire. Inigo was in partnership with William Unsworth and a friend of Gertrude Jekyll. I was recently asked to go along to Glenmakieran in Cultra which I’m quite sure is another Unsworth house. In 1955 a fire threatened to destroy Sion House. Such a huge house. Nevertheless my grandfather rebuilt all 50 rooms exactly as they were before. I remember the oak panelling in the dining room and linen wall covering in the drawing room.

In 1967 it took just one day for Ross’s to auction the house and its contents, even the books. The house went for only £5,000 and the contents £3,000. Fortunately Sion House is well documented. My grandfather wrote daily letters from 1934 to 1964 chronicling life in the house. At the moment I’m writing a book about my mother Maud Harriet Herdman MBE JP, a fascinating person.”

After much ado involving a collapsing clock tower and the first Compulsory Purchase Order of a Building at Risk in Northern Ireland, Hearth Preservation Trust restored the roadside stables block. It’s now a tearoom and education centre. But something is awry at Sion House. The gatehouse is boarded up; the river overgrown; the façade butchered; the lean-to fallen over. It’s as if the struggle to combat the barrenness of its far flung location has proved too much. The tall neo Elizabethan chimneystacks have been lopped off; the veranda has vanished like the lost ‘h’ from verandah. Worst of all, the back of the house looks like it’s been struck by a meteorite. There’s a gaping hole in the centre in its centre. A spiffingly watchable tragedy. Another Irish country house bites the dust. And then there were none. Less of a whodunit and more of a whodidn’tdoit. Ulster says so.

The Irish Builder flatteringly recorded the rebuilt Sion House in its December 1884 publication. Even then, the country house halcyon days had less than half a century to go. Sion House, besides being almost unique in style, was one of the last country houses to be built between the Gael and the Pale.

“Sion House, the residence of E T Herdman Esq, JP, which, for some time past, has been undergoing extensive alterations, is now completed, and as the building and grounds are singularly picturesque and pleasing, a short description of what is unquestionably one of the most unique and remarkable examples of domestic architecture in the North of Ireland, will be read with interest. The approach to the grounds is on the main road from Strabane to Baronscourt, about three miles from the latter place, and is entered through a delightfully quaint Old English gatehouse of striking originality, containing a porter’s residence and covered porch carried over the roadway.

Winding down the graceful sweep of the avenue, through the wooded grounds which appear to have been laid out with considerable judgment many years ago, we catch a glimpse of the house, reflected in the artificial ponds formed in the ravine that is crossed by a two arch stone bridge of quite medieval character.

As we approach the house, the general grouping of the house is most pleasing, and the full effects of the rich colouring of the red tiled roof is now apparent, diversified with quick pitched gables, quaint dormers, the beautifully moulded red brick chimneys, the skyline being covered by the Tyrone mountains and the village church in the distance. The style of the building is late Tudor of the half timber character, which, though it has been described as showing a singular and absurd heterogeneousness in detail, yet gives wonderful picturesqueness in general effect. The principle entrance is on the north side, through a verandah, supported on open carved brackets, in which is placed an old oak settle, elaborately carved and interlaced with natural foliage in bas-relief. On entering through an enclosed porch we are ushered into a spacious panelled hall, with its quaint old fashioned staircase, open fireplace, and wood chimneypiece, with overmantel extending to the height of the panelling.

The screens enclosing the entrance porch, as also that from the garden entrance to the southeast side, are filled in with lead lights, glazed with painted glass, and emblazoned with national and industrial emblems, monograms and coats of arms. The billiard room, which is in a semi-detached position, and entered from the east side of the hall, is very characteristic of the style of the building, having the principal roof timbers exposed, and forming the pitched ceiling into richly moulded panels. The walls are wainscoted to a height of five feet in richly moulded and panelled work. The fireplace is open, and lined with artistic glazed earthenware tiles of a deep green colour and waved surface, giving a pleasing variety of shadow, and is deeply recessed under a quaint panelled many centred architectural, freely treated, forming a most cosy chimney corner with luxurious settles on each side. On a raised hearth, laid with terra-metallic tiles in a most intricate pattern, are some of the finest examples of wrought iron dogs we have ever seen. There is also in this chimney nook a charming little window, placed so as to afford a view of the pleasure grounds. The reception rooms are on the south side. On entering the spacious drawing room we notice particularly the panelled arch across the further end, which forms a frame to the beautiful mullioned bay window, enriched with patterned lead glazing.

From the recess of the bay a side doorway leads to a slightly elevated verandah, enclosed with balustrade, extending the full length of the south façade, and leading to the beautiful conservatory on the south side, with a short flight of steps giving access to the tennis lawns. The dining room is enclosed off this verandah by a handsome mullioned screen, having folding doors and patterned lead glazing similar to the drawing room bay. The walls of this room are panelled and moulded in English figured oak, enriched with carvings, the arrangement of the buffet being an especial feature, as it forms part of the room in a coved recess and designed with the panelling. The fireplace is open and lined with tiles, in two colours, of the same description as the billiard room, with chimneypiece and overmantel of carved oak, having bevelled mirrors, and arms carved in the most artistic manner in the centre panel. The mullioned screen masked by a gracefully carved arch, made in oak, and capped (as is also the panelling over the buffet and mantel) with a moulded cornice, supported with artistically carved brackets and richly dentilled bed mouldings. Here and in the drawing room the ceilings are of elaborate workmanship, enriched in fibrous plaster, with moulded ribs in strong relief, and massive cornices, with chastely enriched members. The floor, like those of the principal rooms and halls, is laid in solid oak parquetry.

The library and morning room are situated on the north side. These rooms are complete in arrangement for comfort, most of the required furniture and fittings being constructed with the building and in perfect character. The culinary departments are situated on the west side, on the same level with the principal rooms. They are of the most perfect and convenient description, containing every modern appliance for suitable working.

Here also the evidence of artistic design is to be observed, more especially on a wrought iron hood, constructed over the range for the purpose of carrying off the odour from the cooking, to flues provided for that purpose. The hood is a very intricate piece of wrought iron work, which, we learn, was manufactured at the engineering works of the Messrs Herdman and Co. The upper floors contain 16 spacious bedrooms and dressing rooms. Several of the bedrooms are obtained by the judicious pitching up the main roof, and obtaining light through the quaintly shaped dormers, which form so marked a feature on the roofline. There is a spacious basement extending under the entire area of the building, which contains the usual offices, and in which are placed two of Pitt’s patented apparatus, now so favourable known for warming and ventilating, by which warmed fresh air is conveyed to the various apartments and corridors.

Sion House Side Elevation Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

One of the great features of the exterior elevations is the balconies, of which there are several, whence views of the varied scenery and charming surroundings can be obtained. There is also easy access to the leads of the roof, from which more extended views of the beautiful and romantic valleys of the Foyle and Mourne, together with the picturesquely grouped plantations of the Baronscourt demesne, and the far-famed mountains of Barnesmore, Betsy Bell, and Mary Gray, can be seen in the distance. From this point a magnificent bird’s eye view can be obtained of the village of Sion and of the palatial buildings which form the flax spinning mills and offices of the Messrs Herdman and Co, which we are pleased to observe are so rapidly extending their lines and improving under the enlightened policy of the spirited owners.

Sion House Rear Elevation Sion Mills Tyrone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The gardens and grounds are laid out in terraces, with low red brick walls, in character with the house, which give great effect when viewed from the several levels. It is noticeable throughout the perfectness and richness of all the detail, which has been carried out with great care, from special designs. The architect has succeeded in giving an individuality and picturesqueness of outline, due proportion of its parts and beauty of the whole, to the buildings and grounds, which have not been heretofore obtained in this part of the country.

Sion House Sion Mills Tyrone Old Photos @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The execution of the work throughout was entrusted (without competition) to Mr J Ballantine, builder, of this city, who has carried it out in a style of workmanship maintaining his high reputation as a builder, and reflecting credit on the skilled tradesmen associated with him in the work. The entire building, gate entrance, bridge, grounds, fittings, and principal furniture have been carried out according to the designs, and under the superintendence of Mr W F Unsworth, FRIBA.”

Sion House Sion Mills Tyrone 1900 @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Carriage Rooms + Montalto Ballynahinch Down

Building It Up

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Developed by an early whim of nature, Montalto is imagined to mean ‘high hill’. A sloping driveway rises past brick huts, a hazily remembered transition of the estate’s occupation by American soldiers during the Second World War. A breath of golden haze hovers idly above the sweep of lawns and lake and gardens. Here and there clusters of oaks form delicate groves of shade.

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Ahead, beyond a car park sensitively planted with semi-mature trees, are The Carriage Rooms, a complete, quite perfect thing of beauty, flowing in an even line. This new-born riot of dreams evolved from the keen minds of the clients, Gordon and June Wilson, and the confident logical voice of the architect, John O’Connell. It all began with the 1850s mill, special in a building of special events. Three of the Wilsons’ offspring held their weddings in its unconverted splendour. An idea was born.

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Once it was a one stop shop serving the 11,000 hectare Montalto estate and adjacent town of Ballynahinch. A saw workshop occupied the undercroft with a threshing mill overhead. Now it is a one stop shop for wedding ceremonies, suppers and dancing. The beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces, provide quick sensory impressions against the tapestry of charcoal grey cut stone and burnt red brick walls.

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Like Montalto House itself, the semi-basement level of the mill was excavated during conversion to increase penetration of natural light into the interior. As a result, the front arched window overlooks the chiselled wonder of rocks. “That view acts as a reminder to bridal parties that marriage should be built upon rock solid foundations!” jests David Anderson MVO OBE, manager of Montalto House. A wall has been constructed behind the outcrop to prevent glimmering parallels of light from vehicles in the car park roaring across the room.

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Brick piers and beams conceal air vents in the main space. To one side, a vaulted passageway leads to the crisp darkness of the plant room. The air vent above this streaked artery is exposed to create a more contemporary look. On the other side, a little vaulted bar is lit by a trio of lunette windows. The gradual gradient of a disabled access ramp doubles as a standing area. Candle niches are carved out of the walls.

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“Everything is right, purposeful and has a practical use,” remarks David. “It’s all about delivery of the product. Storage is cleverly incorporated throughout to allow events to flow unhindered.” He confirms The Carriage Rooms are not just for weddings but are also aimed at the conference and performing and visual arts markets. “It’s all about creating an elegant lifestyle,” David adds. “We’re offering a very high end pre-finished product, right down to carefully chosen silver and glassware.”

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He continues, “Quality at every angle is what sets us apart. We have a tried, tested and trusted relationship with our recommended catering partner Yellow Door.” Guests can stay over in the gorgeous quarters of Montalto House, the former residence of the Wilsons. Their market research included jaunts to other top notch locations like Ballywalter Park, Belle Isle and Crom Castle. Grandson of Fred, the great FG Wilson, managing director David Wilson’s accountancy skills and venue manager Keith Reilly’s organisational acumen add to the equation equalling success. The Carriage Rooms have become a race apart. There are no plurals.

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Attached to the former mill is a smart new two storey rendered block portraying a pleasing preponderance of wall over window. A glazed door opens noiselessly into the magnificence of the entrance hall. Fresh and vigorous, this hall derives its resonance from its very articulateness. The yellow glow and blue shadows of an open fire flicker across its symmetrical features.

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The conference room links the entrance hall to the 1850s building. It is a radiantly imagined intervening parlour of politeness. The ceiling is formed of rows of brick and tile vaults. “You won’t find wall to wall Colefax and Fowler here!” jokes David. Instead is a robustly rural neoclassicism – brick cornices, carriage lamps, steel capped beams and granite fireplaces surrounding chamfered cast iron insets – perfecting a brilliant, permeating symbolism.

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The double height staircase hall adjoins the entrance hall. Cantilevered granite flights of stairs climb in radiance, overlooked by the translucent feminine languor of upper level Juliet balconies. Accessed off the staircase hall is a discretely placed lift lobby.

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The threshing mill is now the banqueting hall: somewhere to lunch on trout, avocado and a pint of Californian wine. “It has a great view from every window,” observes David. Several of the brick arches were reopened, the barn doors downgraded to shutters. The difference in levels becomes apparent in this room which is first floor to the front but opens onto the stable yard at ground level to the side. An arrangement of interior lights at the top makes a sort of floating fairyland. Under the high ceilings the situation seems so dignified.

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Lunching together en masses, warmed with liquor as the afternoon begins, floats airy, inconsequential chatter and high-pitched laughter, above all the banqueting hall is another reminder of John’s love of the symmetric. Short hallways on either side of the ground level elevation lead to neat single bay single storey singular pavilions of projecting perpendicularity. One links to the kitchens; the other to the bride’s bathroom.

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Symmetry, harmony and balance reach an apex on a central axis in the brick faced orangery where indoors meets outdoors. Below the parapet, pairs of French doors surmounted by fanlights fragmented by umbrella spike glazing bars open gracefully onto a terrace. The wealthy, happy sun glitters in transient gold through the thick windows of this magical, breathless room. A curious lightness permeates the rarefied air. This is a room where the solid, soft gold of the walls yields to the greenery of the exterior. It dazzles the eyes. “This is The Carriage Rooms’ architecture at its most formal,” notes David.

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Beyond lies the walled garden, fragrant with a host of flowers, a place for promenaders on a protracted circuit to digest sandwiches and sundaes eaten for lunch. The troubles of the day can arrange themselves in trim formation in this civilised setting. Annexed off it, crowded with planets and nebulance of cigarettes, is the smoking area, half enclosed by a symmetrical sweep of fencing. A narrow path that winds like a garter round the building descends towards the entrance front for a few more gorgeous moments.

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Subtle and intricate, The Carriage Rooms exude a confident charm. A white radiance is kindled that glows upon the air like a fragment of the morning star. It is a place for débutantes, rakes and filles de joie to accept the wealth of high finance and high extravagance. The Carriage Rooms are a venue to deliver extreme happiness in the awakening of flowing souls.

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