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Country Houses

The Hidden Ireland + Hilton Park Monaghan

Powers Hilton

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“The air breathed in is soporific; the distances hold other-worldly gleam.”

Elsewhere erroneously attributed to the better known Irish architect Francis Johnston, the core of the current building was most likely designed by James Jones of Dundalk. The rebuilding followed a fire of 1803 which destroyed much of an earlier house. A letter from Jones to Colonel Madden dated 24 July 1838 refers to various works to be undertaken at Hilton Park. The stables and dovecote, the latter a romantic folly, are probably by Jones. He was also the likely designer of the ‘ride’ which adjoins the rear of the house.

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The ride is a distinctive cast iron colonnade erected at the rear of the house to allow the family to observe horses being broken-in away from the inclement County Monaghan weather. It’s now a handy car port.

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In 1874 County Cavan born William Hague (no, not him) was paid 100 guineas by the residing Madden to redesign the house. It was a surprising commission from an Orangeman to a Catholic ecclesiastical architect. One of his many churches is St Aidan’s in nearby Butlersbridge. Drawings by Hague line the walls of the vaulted breakfast room. “He provided my ancestor with a ‘pick and mix’,” says current owner Johnny Madden, “including ceiling designs for the main rooms.”

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While the campanile, bay window and dome weren’t executed, the Ionic porte cochère, parapet decorations and lower storey rustication were completed. Triangular pediments (without aedicules) float over the piano nobile fenestration. The most dramatic change was the excavation of the basement to form a three storey house. Montalto and Tullylagan Manor are two Northern Irish houses which have been similarly treated, most likely for aesthetic purposes. Johnny Madden believes many of the alterations at Hilton Park were for security reasons:

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“You can’t ram the reception rooms when they’re on the first floor. The porte cochère also acts as a barrier. The central rooms on the front elevation all have metal shutters. And the front door is lined with metal. Hague went on to design the west wing of Crom Castle.” Life is more relaxed these days. Below a sliding sash, handily placed steps provide a quick exit to the gardens.

“If you begin in Ireland, Ireland remains the norm.”

Hague was clearly versatile. Crom is neo Elizabethan. Hilton Park is Italianate. Most of his churches were French gothic. “The house isn’t particularly Irish looking,” observes Johnny.

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Hilton Park is now a large three storey stone block commanding views over 240 hectares of land. The entrance front is divided into four sections: a five bay breakfront framing the three bay porte cochère; three bays on either side of the breakfront; and a single bay wing to the right. “The house isn’t as large as it first seems,” says Johnny’s wife Lucy. “It’s long and narrow.” This is apparent on the side approach from the driveway which reveals the building is just three bays deep in some parts. Hilton Park appears much bigger when looking at the five bay garden front which is elongated by an ancillary wing.

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The entrance door opens into a small gothick hall decorated with polychromatic encaustic floor tiles, coral walls and ribbed vaults. Most of the ground floor rooms have vaulted ceilings, a reminder they were once in the basement. The estate office and morning room are accessed off the hall. A pair of double doors leads into the double height staircase hall which is panelled on the ground floor. The gothick theme continues in the first floor barrel vaulted dining room on the garden front. An enfilade of Italianate reception rooms is positioned across the entrance front.

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Stained glass windows add drama to the staircase hall; plate glass windows add light to the reception rooms. The upper section of the staircase is lit by a tall arched Georgian window. Two blind windows in the corner guest bedroom provide balance to the entrance front. All the guest bedrooms are grouped around an upper landing and corridor to the rear of the house. the corridor ceiling slopes under the slant of the pitched roof. The section of the house closest to the driveway is used as the family wing.

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“Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.”

Bold quotes by Elizabeth Bowen

Categories
Country Houses Hotels

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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