Lord it up in Down


HERITAGE:A Georgian estate in Co Down, once a family home, has opened as a luxury holiday let, with a former Hillsborough Castle household manager in charge, writes DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN

AN ESTATE IN Ballynahinch, Co Down, with a long and chequered history and once the fifth biggest in Ireland, has taken on a new lease of life thanks to an ambitious private restoration project. Montalto was built in the mid-18th century, and was bought as a family home in 1993 by Gordon and June Wilson who, without any prior knowledge or experience, set about its painstaking revival, a job that took them nearly 12 years to complete.

Now, with their children grown up and gone, the Wilsons have moved out and opened this fine Georgian estate as a luxury, five-star private holiday let. It will be a launch property in Ireland’s Blue Book in November.

Concealed from public view and reached through a long, winding avenue sheltered by mature trees, the mansion’s handsome natural setting, poised in front of a lake, is the stuff of dreams and romance.

“The moment we drove up the avenue and it came into sight, we thought this is it,” recalls June with a smile. “It became our passion.”

Gordon, the son of one of the North’s leading industrialists and entrepreneurs, opted out of the family engineering business after it was sold to a US company. “I didn’t want to be involved and June and I decided that we needed a project, a change of life, but we had no real fixed notion about what that should be,” he says. “We lived in Lisburn, we had a nice house and we were very happy there,” adds June, “but when we saw the house and the lake, we just fell in love with it.”

Montalto, on the edge of Ballynahinch and 25km from Belfast, was originally built as a family home by the earl of Moira John Rawdon. A keen botanist, he spent £30,000 planting more than 100,000 trees on the estate, which then extended to some 20,000 acres, a cost roughly equivalent today to around €5 million.

Montalto also features in military annals. During the decisive battle of Ballynahinch in 1798, Irish rebels camped on a hill just inside the front gates of the demesne before being mown down by the victorious British forces.

Alterations and extensions have been a feature of the house’s past. When David Ker bought the estate in the early l9th century, his daring excavation of the rock under the house created a third floor.

The imposing entrance hall with its Doric columns and sweeping double staircase are a major statement of Greek revivalism.

Attractive cut-stone farm buildings were also constructed. When Alfred Ker inherited Montalto in 1872 the estate comprised 27,850 acres and the Kers were one of the country’s largest landowners. Other family members and subsequent owners made their mark in different ways. Alfred’s spendthrift brother Richard sold the house to the earl of Clanwilliam in 1910 to pay off substantial debts that had accrued from the Famine years.

During the second World War, US soldiers stationed on the estate laid its meandering concrete roads, and in 1979 the house’s fortunes changed again when it was sold to a partnership which expanded the farming enterprise and planted more than 50,000 trees. A fire damaged the east wing of the house in 1985, and by the time the Wilsons bought it, the house had become the head office of a business, and had false ceilings, dry rot and other disrepair both inside and out.

“There had been a pheasant shoot on the estate and we had to clear the ravages of the pheasant pens. The gardens were seriously neglected but the bones were there, the trees were there and you could see the structure. But it was a huge job,” they recall.

Guided by local architects Hobart Heron and conservation architect John O’Connell – “a great support” – the Wilsons immersed themselves in every aspect of the extensive restoration of the house and gardens. They researched furniture and furnishings, travelled to Italy to see gardens and cascades, and to London with O’Connell to find furniture and paintings . “We put so much effort into it,” June says.

No expense was spared in the finer details such as the handmade Chinese wallpapers from de Gournay, gilding by Ruth Bothwell, the careful selection of paintings and fine furnishings and the meticulous restoration of the Robert West plasterwork. It was during a wedding reception in the house, for one of their children, that the idea of Montalto as a commercial wedding venue was first mooted. Now their son David, who is an accountant, runs Montalto, sharing his memories, with guests, of growing up there.

The manager of the nine-bedroomed house is David Anderson. He was household manager of Hillsborough Castle for 25 years, and so is accustomed to dealing with royalty, politicians and other special guests of the secretary of state.

So far, events at Montalto have included a 60th birthday party and dinner for 50, musical evenings, small weddings, and “lifestyle” days with cookery lessons and garden tours.

The Wilsons are now engaged with another project, renovating an old stable yard on the estate with the same level of attention to detail and standard of finish as the house. With its own separate entrance, this will be available for weddings, exhibitions or corporate events and is due to open next March, coinciding with the Titanic anniversary.

“Anything we have done, we have done without being brash,” June says. “We had a wonderful lifestyle in Montalto, now others can enjoy that experience. We feel proud of what we have done. We did it properly. It was a wonderful experience.”

See montaltoestate.com