The last of the lineage, the late Hazel Dolling née Staples of Lissan House recorded at the beginning of the 21st century, “It is very quiet in the house at night but I know all the creaks. Visiting grandchildren scare themselves with ghost stories. None of them like to sleep in the Heffalump’s old room. My mother said she once had a visitor in the night, an old lady whom she saw clearly. She held a candle in her hand and she was peering at her face as she woke up. Visitors talk of people walking around in the night when no one is astir. I have a friend who has seen Lady Kitty here, Sir Thomas’s widow, who made off with all the Lissan Plates. She said she was wearing a beautiful pink silk dress.”
On a recent visit to Polesden Lacey in Surrey the lawns resembled a scene from a Baz Luhrmann movie. In the sweltering heat, a jazz band serenaded hordes of picnickers, sightseers and sunbathers on the lawn. All that was missing was Gatsby romancing Daisy in the loggia. Another recent trip was to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, once England’s least known country house. On a misty day, not only was the car park full but the fields had been turned into an overflow. Tours of the house were timed to avoid overcrowding.
A visit to Lissan House in Tyrone earlier this summer couldn’t have been more different. On a bright Saturday afternoon, the place was as deserted as when the last owner Hazel Dolling née Staples lived there alone. Wuthering Heights with neither Heathcliff nor Cathy at home. Is it a general Irish malaise about the gentry while across the water, brown sign hunters in their Hunters queue to see how the other 0.1% lived? Admittedly both National Trust houses mentioned are close to conurbations while Lissan House is miles from anywhere. The nearest town is Cookstown which reputedly has the widest street in Ireland. Population circa 11,000.
“I hope you felt privileged to have it all to yourselves,” begins Nicholas Groves-Raines. His architectural practice was responsible for the recent restoration of the house. “Lissan is a hidden, secret place and that is part of its great charm. It is well off the main tourist routes, the M1 and M2, and away from the tourist centres such as the north coast and Belfast, making it harder to entice visitors. However it is used by the local community and on a number of occasions they have even had to employ overspill parking for events.”
He explains, “The works recently completed at Lissan are only a first phase of a larger scheme to redevelop the demesne and bring all of the derelict buildings back into use as funds allow. In the next few years, it is hoped that Lissan will become a much more lively place whilst retaining its unique character. It would be good to firmly place Lissan House on the tourist map of Northern Ireland.” Lissan had its 15 inches of fame back in 2007 when Mrs Dolling fronted the campaign to win funding on the TV programme Restoration. In the end it lost out to Manchester’s Victoria Baths. Again a case of population density influencing situations.
Witnessing early on in his career the needless destruction of historic town centres and buildings in the name of progress persuaded Nicholas to specialise in conservation. “I am now an accredited conservation architect but work on a variety of projects including new builds,” he says. Nicholas puts his money where his mouth is: Lamb’s House to be precise. That is his Grade A listed office, an early 17th century Scottish baronial pile in Edinburgh.
“Newhailes, just outside Edinburgh, is like Lissan,” Nicholas continues. “Now run by the National Trust for Scotland as a visitor attraction, it too was used as a family house until recently. Newhailes is a time capsule from the 18th century, having changed little from that period. Like much of Lissan, it remains pretty much as it was when the Trust acquired it. The house hasn’t been ‘restored’ as such, having only had essential repairs carried out to preserve it for the future.”
The exterior of Lissan House has changed, though. Out, mostly, went the casement windows. Gone is the one shade of grey of the walls. Nicholas relates, “Early photographs show the house had sash and case windows until the late 19th century. A few sashes had been reused in the buildings, so we did have good examples of the original detailing to work from. The modern casements were constructed from inferior quality timber and were not weatherproof due to poor workmanship and rot. They were crudely fitted into the former sash boxes that were still built into the walls. The majority were beyond repair and so a decision had to be made about what form the new windows should take. Sashes were installed to match the originals. The few windows that are not now sashes were part of a late 19th century extension.”
The cement based render also dated from the late 19th century. “It was in poor condition and holding dampness in the walls,” he says. “There was ample evidence of the original lime render and off-white limewash remaining in sheltered areas, backed up by early photographs that confirmed the house had previously been lighter in colour. The new lime render and limewash allow the walls to breathe and should protect the house for many years to come. Limewash helps to prolong the life of lime render.”
Despite its size, the 28 bedroom Lissan House is somewhat vernacular rather than grand in nature. Davis Ducart may have been responsible for the ornamental bridge but not the house. “The Staples family were originally industrialists rather than landed gentry,” says Nicholas. “Early visitors to the house mention a noisy forge nearby where locally mined iron was worked. Lissan started out as a much smaller house that was extended again and again over the centuries as money and tastes dictated. Unlike many mansions it was not built in a single phase to the designs of a professional architect or master builder. It is an accumulation of its varied history.” Lissan House Trustees now look after the house and estate.
Nicholas ends, “Lissan is unique and contains relics and remnants from all of its past, some of which are probably still hidden.” Visible charming quirks and quirky charms include the suspended glazed corridor to the rear resembling a train carriage mid air. The standalone bow fronted coachman’s room linked only to the front of the house by the arched canopy of the porte-cochère. The amber paned double glazed bay window bulging out of the side elevation. Best of all is the staircase which consumes all three-and-a-half storeys of the cavernous main hall with more dog legs than Crufts.