Great second chance as northern estate slowly reveals her secrets

Montalto House in Co Down is a magical place for visitors with its trails and woodland paths and gracious spaces for parties


When June and Gorden Wilson from Lisburn met up with Montalto House near Ballynahinch in Co Down they were just looking around. They were not searching for an estate, not even for a house to live in. But in 1995 that’s what they bought: an 18th-century mansion surrounded by a demesne of 400 acres. “It was pretty dilapidated by then,” recalls their son David, now managing director of Montalto Estate. “I think they just felt they could do something about it, and something for it.”

A culmination,but not a conclusion, of what the Wilsons felt they could do was formally opened to the public in late September. From the beginning of this multi-million enterprise they worked with John J O’Connell Architects on the restoration and refurbishment of the house.

In the years since then, their passionate commitment to the demesne evolved in a succession of individual developments which, like the artfully-crafted trails and pathways tracing through the parkland, have led to a splendid reassertion of an ancient landscape now accessible to all.

While the house is open only for private hire, some elements of the estate have been available as event and conference venues; their early success allowed the transformation of the 19th century courtyard buildings of carriage house, flaxmill and sawmill as a wedding location presented as The Carriage Rooms. Since this opening in 2012 the accumulating awards national and international include Conde Nast Brides’ Top 100 Venues Worldwide earned within three years of start-up. These old stone buildings have a grace all their own, traditional in function and style but now with a contemporary glamour incorporating an immaculate parterre along with the old-fashioned profusion of the walled gardens. There are five of these incidentally, from Alpine to Orchard.

Among the estate’s buildings are whimsical introductions such as the Summer House or the lakeside Boathouse, arranged to charm the eye or, in the case of the Witch’s Cottage, to enhance the hints of fairy-tale. Most alluring of all perhaps, especially to the juvenile appetite for adventure, is the tree house, a skein of timber looping up to aerial platforms among the branches.

The spread of heritage landscape is in the care of head gardener Peter Harris and has been rejuvenated with the clearing of decayed woodland and the planting of 30,000 native broadleaf trees, newcomers to a formality which dates back to the 1750s.

In that era Montalto came into the hands of Sir John Rawdon, grandson of Sir Arthur Rawdon whose collection of exotic plants, trees and shrubs at Moira Castle was rated as the most remarkable collection of living plants ever held in Ireland. Sir John moved many of these items to Montalto, where over 100,000 trees were planted during the 1770s and those survivors - including several ‘Champion’ trees - give the entire estate its historic horticultural importance as well as its breadth of beauty, variety and interest.

The walks through the estate are planned as tracks and trails; the wildlife is encouraged (the introduction of pine martens has assisted in the banishing of grey squirrels and the return of the reds) and there is a keen educational approach which already involves all the local schools in a year-long programme of activities.

As with so much else, the detail tells much of the design story: the great Tree House has a space for smaller climbers; dogs must be on a leash in the parkland but there is also a paddock where they can be let loose. And as the Battle of Ballynahinch was fought here on Ednavady Hill in June 1798 a print of Thomas Robinson’s fine painting of that tragic conflict (now in the National Gallery) hangs in the Welcome area.

A guiding environmental sensitivity combining harmony with function influenced such necessary contemporary elements as the entrance, shop, interpretive centre and café.

So given that the Wilson family have been leading members of the business community of Northern Ireland for many years it is no surprise that David Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Montalto enterprise is grounded on the practicalities of developing and managing a public engagement on this scale.

‘Without being specific we have invested a very significant amount of money over the last 20 years.. We employ 30 full-time and part-time staff, and have provided 40 jobs in construction so far. But we invested because we wanted to. It’s not our intention to step back. Our admission fees go to ensuring the sustainability of what is a life-long project for other, future lives beyond ours. It doesn’t stop here.’

The Wilsons first saw Montalto overgrown and run-down. It has been splendidly retrieved from that condition but, as David Wilson reflects on the past 23 years, it’s not very likely that there will be another recovery after this or on this scale. In other words this is Montalto’s great second chance.

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