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Architecture Country Houses

Holy Hill House Strabane Tyrone + Ballymena Castle

The Big White House | Relics of the Old Decency

Holy Hill House Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”

Holy Hill House Strabane © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”

Holy Hill Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.

Holy Hill House Bay Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.

Holy Hill House Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.

Holy Hill Outbuilding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.

Holly Hill House Rear Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”

Holly Hill House Ballymena Castle Stained Glass Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.

Holy Hill House Kitchen © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’

Holy Hill House Landing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architects Architecture Art Country Houses People

The Durdin Robertsons + Huntington Castle Clonegal Carlow

Carlow Sweet Chariot

Huntington Castle Peacocks © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.

Huntington Castle Pig © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”

Huntington Castle Walk © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.

Huntington Castle Woodlands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert, Edmonde and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.

Huntington Castle Vista © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.

Huntington Castle Bridge © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.

Huntington Castle Donegall Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?

Huntington Castle Bust © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.

Huntington Castle Taxidermy © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”

Huntington Castle Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:

Huntington Castle Dining Room Detail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Huntington Castle Posset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.

Huntington Castle Sitting Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Ned Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?

Manning Robertson @ Huntington Castle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.

Alexander Durdin Robertson © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1