When the Big House becomes a guest house

‘Every room in this house is stuffed with memories of a forgotten era’

 

In its heyday, the Irish country house was much more than a sanctuary for the privileged. At a time when State benefits were unheard of and so many were dying from sub-standard living conditions and lack of medicine, the perks of working at a “big house” – free accommodation, fine clothes, proper beds, square meals – meant that despite the long hours, the position was deemed a lucky one.

The recent Downton Abbey television drama series sparked particular fascination with life “downstairs”. It was a community with its own hierarchical tiers, from housekeeper and head butler through to the laundry maids and under-gardeners. Interest in those in service has also been boosted as people trace their family histories to such workplaces, applying to access the archives of estates that were once the hub of local employment in rural areas.

These days, however, the sight of a rosy- cheeked butler opening the front door of an Irish country house is as rare as the kingfisher. After two world wars and a global recession, a lack of funds hit the landed gentry hard and staff numbers were hugely reduced. However, some great Irish houses are still run as efficiently as if there were a full fleet in situ.

One example of this is Temple House, Co Sligo, winner of the 2016 Georgina Campbell Country House of the Year. One of Ireland’s finer country mansions, Temple House was built in 1825 and overlooks a 200-acre reed-fringed lake. This vast Georgian abode, with 97 rooms spread over four floors, once employed a myriad of local people.

Roderick and Helena Perceval, both in their 40s, are the 15th generation of Percevals to live there. Looking back through their archives, they marvel at what it must have been like to have an employee to attend to every conceivable task.

“I often look at the fireplaces and think of the one person whose sole responsibility was to clean out fires, relay them and light them and then start the whole process all over again,” muses Helena, while concocting wild garlic soup for lunch.

“Every room in this house is stuffed with memories of a forgotten era. We’ve found diaries in the archives that talk about daily household routines, documenting a strong sense of closeness between the Perceval family who called this house ‘home’ and the staff who supported them and who also considered Temple House to be their home.”

Globetrotting

Having met at Aberystwyth University in Wales, Roderick and Helena enjoyed a year of globe-trotting and a decade of careers in the UK before Roderick’s parents were ready to hand over the reins in 2004. They returned to Roderick’s childhood home, with two small children, to develop the guesthouse started by his parents.

Twelve years on, guests now sleep in one of six bedrooms, including the Castle Room, with its distant view of the 5,000- year-old megalithic Carrowkeel tombs, and the appropriately named Half-Acre room.

Key to the smooth running of Temple House as a guesthouse and wedding venue is an energetic team of 10 part-time and full-time staff, including a farm manager, housekeeper, chef and gardener. The hierarchies of the old order have been dispensed with; Roderick and Helena view the members of this tight unit as their colleagues.

This immense building was once filled with a large army of household employees. One corridor is known as “Bachelor’s Walk” because it was where the male servants slept; the housemaids had their quarters in a corridor at the other end of the house called “Maiden’s Lane”.

“In my great-grandmother’s day, the housekeeper was the undisputed head of the female staff,” says Roderick. “She was a force to be reckoned with, no doubt, but she would also have been an expert at balancing managerial duties with keeping an eye on social interaction within the household staff and making sure her ‘girls’ behaved appropriately.”

At Temple House, guests are urged to treat the place as if it were their own and to freely roam the farm buildings, lush meadows, fine gardens and ancient ruins of a Knights Templar retreat by the lake.

Helena is a talented interior designer who has orchestrated a series of improvements to the house, including the restoration of a Victorian ballroom for wedding parties. For such parties, the Percevals take in extra staff, making sure to seek support locally. They also make a point of commissioning local craftsman for any renovations.

“Creativity and determination,”

“Running Temple House requires strength, imagination, creativity and determination,” Helena says. “These places almost have to justify their own existence in the modern world and managing them definitely cannot be done alone. We are hugely fortunate to share the running of the house with a team of people who love the place and that makes life for us, living and working in our home, an amazing experience.”

The Atlantic Ocean draws surfers to its shores just nine miles away and the verse of WB Yeats echoes through the evening light when Temple House’s stately trees appear at their best. Roderick regularly plants new saplings on his lands. “Every generation has to leave its mark and so we roll up our sleeves and lay the groundwork for future generations to enjoy.”

stay@templehouse.ie or visit templehouse.ie

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