Couple spend lockdown making over Irish stately house

(CNN) – A three story Georgian mansion on 820 acres isn’t bad.

When Neil Watt and his partner Kris Reid moved to the top floor of the Castle Ward mansion in Northern Ireland in March 2020, it was their first home together as a couple.

Watt had got a new job as a collection and property manager on the UK heritage site, The National Trust, and was preparing with a large team of colleagues and volunteers to welcome the daily crowds.

Aside from the 18th century house and landscaped gardens, people visit the Victorian sawmill and flour mill, the shoreline where seals sometimes bask, and the 16th century tower house better than featured in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” Winterfell is known.

Then of course the pandemic happened. The mighty doors of the mansion had to be closed, the public turned away.

This corner of County Down, where the Ward family lived from the 1570s to 1950s, became a de facto private residence again.

And as the new masters of the manor, Watt and Reid decided to redesign it.

Lords of the manor

Castle Ward is the two-sided Janus of the country houses.

Approach the landscaped gardens and it is an 18th century mansion in the classic Palladian style. But go around the corner where the pointed windows and battlements look out onto Strangford Lough, and it’s Georgian Gothic.

This daring amalgamation of styles divides this building with more than 40 rooms in the middle inside and outside.

“Whenever this house has been built, it has been one of the largest in Ireland,” says Neil Watt, Castle Ward collections and property manager. “And certainly in times of style and architecture it was the most avant-garde.”

Like many of us when we felt trapped in our homes last spring, the couple first turned to doing odd jobs around the home.

In her case, it meant chores like scrubbing hundreds of pots and pans, disassembling and cleaning Victorian chandeliers piece by piece, and cleaning and cataloging around 2,000 antique books.

With a touch of CGI, Castle Ward was used as the filming location for Winterfell in “Game of Thrones”.


“We want this house to glow”

“We kept telling ourselves that whenever we were allowed to open again, whenever that might be, we wanted this house to shine,” says Watt.

Both men are seasoned conservationists – Reid is currently studying for a PhD in cultural heritage – so restoration work is nothing new to them.

What was unusual, however, was how much time they could spend on the renovation if they would normally have been busy with visitors.

A new dehumidification system was installed, carpets knocked down, floors waxed, and silver and brass polished, from chimneys to door knockers.

And when colleagues and volunteers were allowed to go back over the summer, they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck. “As a charity, we’re nothing without people,” says Watt.

“We did a lot of tasks that are very labor intensive, but it was very attentive and gave us something to work towards,” says Watt.

Royal connections

In addition to the maintenance work, Watt took advantage of the embargo to further research the history of the property and reconsider how it will be presented to the public.

“Fresh blood is so important,” says Watt, “because we sometimes tell stories because that’s been said before.”

Castle Ward was built in the early 1760s by Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor, and his wife Lady Ann, a well-connected descendant of the Stuart royal family.

The couple had traveled extensively around the world and had designed their ambitious, modern home together.

Watt received his PhD in Irish Country House Women, and he was particularly fond of repeating Lady Ann’s story.

“It showed an independence of spirit that might not have been at the time,” he says. She was rich, aristocratic and “she really did what she wanted.”

She was very sexually liberated, “he adds.” Before she married Bernard, she had a love affair (for years) with a woman, Letitia Bushe. ”

The boudoir in Castle Ward

The boudoir is on the Gothic side of the house.

Courtesy Neil Watt

“Family madness”

Lady Ann, her brother Lord Darnley, and their son Nicholas were accused by their peers of “family madness”. It is not clear whether this was due to what we might now recognize as mental illness, or simply because their behavior went against the social norms of the time.

One of the more garish claims about Darnley, whose home in London’s Berkeley Square was Annabel’s legendary nightclub until 2018, was that he thought he was a teapot and was afraid of sexual conventions so his spout wouldn’t fall off at night.

Bernard and Anne’s eldest son, Nicholas, was a British MP but was eventually declared insane. The property would later pass to his nephew after the intervention, says Watt of the “very enterprising brothers of the 2nd Viscount Bangor,” who thought the Viscountcy would be better in their hands.

It was also rumored that his brothers loosened the railings at Castle Ward to hasten their brother’s end, but Nicholas lived to old age and this idle gossip is unfounded.

“Open and honest”

“History is revisionism; history is a discourse,” says Watt, who used the time of the lockdown to create a new house narrative that accompanies tours.

This revisionism is part of a broader trend within the National Trust that sparked controversy last fall by publishing a report on its properties’ links to colonialism and historical slavery.

John Orna-Ornstein, the Trust’s director of culture and engagement, told CNN in September: “Our job is to be as open and honest as possible and to tell the full story of the places and collections we maintain.”

Today the island of Ireland is divided into the Republic of Ireland, an independent country, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Before the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), however, the island was under British rule.

The big house ‘

Chandelier in the lobby of Castle Ward

This chandelier welcomes visitors to the Castle Ward lobby.

Courtesy Neil Watt

The “big house” was a powerful symbol of the British establishment in Ireland, and these grand houses of elite families were sometimes targeted during what was termed the “troubles” riots of the 20th century.

While relatively few “big houses” remain, particularly in the republic, “not as many houses were burned down as people think during the riots of the 1920s,” says Watt.

The cost of maintenance in the 20th century, when the days of huge households with many servants were over, meant “many more were simply demolished”.

While those housed in private families often fell into disrepair, “Castle Ward was really lucky because it was given to the nation,” says Watt.

“We really went around the corner”

“The big house was only part of a larger structure,” he explains. “All of these big houses were connected to an estate, like their sister houses in England, Wales and Scotland. In those places there was a society and there were many connections.”

Watt regularly receives letters from people whose ancestors worked on the Castle Ward estate.

And while Northern Ireland’s ‘big house’ legacy has been a politically sensitive issue at times, Watt says, “I think we really went around the corner. I think people are starting to appreciate these places as the common spaces that they used to be. “

While Castle Ward was able to open for part of 2020, it has been closed again indefinitely as part of recent lockdowns in the UK and Ireland.

Watt says that while walking through the large empty rooms was initially a novelty, “on the second weekend you really want to open the doors and let people in. I think it really shows how important people are to historical places.”

Both men are based in Northern Ireland – Watt is from County Tyrone while Reid is from the nearby town of Ballynahinch – but they barely saw their families this year due to restrictions.

But says Watt, they console themselves with a view from the top floor of the house’s Gothic facade over the water of the lake, where boats sail and people walk and ride along the coast.

At night with a view of Portaferry, the town across the lake, “you never feel alone,” says Watt. “The lights twinkle every night.”

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