(CNN) – While the homes start, a three-story Georgian mansion in an 820-acre mansion is not bad.
When Neil Watt and his partner Chris Reed moved to the top floor of Castle Ward’s majestic home in Northern Ireland in March 2020, it was their first home together as a couple.
Watt had found a new job as a collector and housekeeper at the property owned by Britain’s The National Trust, and they were preparing, along with a large team of colleagues and volunteers, to welcome daily crowds of visitors.
In addition to the 18th-century house and landscaped gardens, people come to see the Victorian and corn mill, the waterfront where seals are sometimes roasted, and the 1
Then, of course, the pandemic happened. The mighty doors of the mansion had to be closed, the public turned.
This corner of Down County, which the Ward family made their home from the 1570s to the 1950s, has once again become – de facto – a private residence.
And as the new lords of the mansion, Watt and Reed decided to transform it.
Lords of the manor
Castle Ward is the two-faced Janus of country houses.
Approach from the landscaped gardens and this is an 18th century mansion in a classic palladium style. But go around the corner to where its sharp windows and loopholes face Strangford Lough, and that’s Georgian Gothic.
This bold fusion of styles separates this building from more than 40 rooms in the middle, inside and out.
“Whenever this house was built, it would be one of the greatest in Ireland,” said Neil Watt, Castle Ward’s collection and house manager. “And certainly in style and architecture it was the most avant-garde.”
Like many of us, when we found ourselves locked up in our homes last spring, the couple headed first to strange jobs around the house.
In their case, this meant tasks such as wiping hundreds of pots and pans, dismantling Victorian chandeliers and cleaning them piece by piece, and cleaning and cataloging about 2,000 antique books.
With a touch of CGI, Castle Ward was used as a venue for Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
“We want this house to shine”
“We kept saying to ourselves, when we’re allowed to reopen, whenever, we want this house to shine,” Watt said.
Both men are experienced conservationists – Reed is currently pursuing a doctorate in inheritance – so restoration work is nothing new to them.
Unusual, however, was how much time they were able to devote to repairs when they were usually busy with visitors.
A new humidification system has been installed, carpets and rugs have been beaten, floors have been waxed and silver and brass have been polished, from fireplaces to door knockers.
And when colleagues and volunteers were released in the summer, they rolled up their sleeves and also sank. “As a charity, we are nothing without people,” says Watt.
“We did a lot of tasks that were really time consuming, but it was very careful to do and give us something to work on,” says Watt.
In parallel with the conservation activities, Watt used the locking period to further study the history of the mansion and to reconsider the way it was presented to the public.
“Fresh blood is so important,” Watt says, “because sometimes we tell stories because it’s been said before.”
Castle Ward was built in the early 1960s by Bernard Ward, First Viscount Bangor, and his wife Lady Ann, a well-connected descendant of the Stuart royal family.
The two had traveled extensively around the world and co-organized their ambitious, modern home.
Watt’s Dr. is for women from an Irish country house, and Lady Anne’s story is one he especially enjoys reviewing.
“She showed independence of spirit, which may not have been obvious at the time,” he said. She was rich, aristocratic, and “really did what she wanted.”
She was very sexually liberated, “he added.” Before marrying Bernard, she had a (long-term) love affair with a woman, Leticia Boucher. ”
The boudoir is on the Gothic side of the house.
Courtesy of Neil Watt
Lady Anne, her brother Lord Darnley and her son Nicholas face accusations from their peers that they are being subjected to “family madness”. It is not clear whether any of this is due to what we can recognize today as a mental health condition, or simply to the fact that their behavior is contrary to the social norms of the time.
One of the loudest claims about Darnley, whose home in London’s Berkeley Square was the legendary Annabel’s nightclub until 2018, was that he considered himself a teapot and feared a sexual congress so that his spout would not fall out at night.
Bernard and Anne’s eldest son, Nicholas, was a British MP, but was eventually declared insane. The estate would later pass to his nephew, after the intervention, Watt said, by “the very enterprising brothers of Second Viscount Bangor, who thought the Viscount would be better in their hands.”
It was also rumored that his brothers had loosened the railing at Castle Ward to hasten his brother’s death, but Nicholas had lived to a ripe old age, and this idle gossip was unfounded.
“Open and honest”
“History is revisionism; the story is a discourse, ”says Watt, who uses the time in conclusion to create a new story about the house to accompany the tours.
This revisionism is part of a broader trend in the National Trust, which sparked controversy last fall by publishing a report on the links between its estates and colonialism and historical slavery.
John Orna-Ornstein, director of the trust’s culture and engagement, told CNN in September: “Our role is to be as open and honest as possible, to tell the full story of the places and collections we care about.”
Today, the island of Ireland is divided into the Republic of Ireland, an independent state, and Northern Ireland, which is part of Great Britain. Before the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), however, the island was under British rule.
The Big House
This chandelier greets visitors in the reception area of Castle Ward.
Courtesy of Neil Watt
The “big house” was a powerful symbol of the British establishment in Ireland, and these large homes of elite families were sometimes targeted during the civil unrest of the 20th century, known as the “troubles.”
Although there are relatively few “big houses” left, especially in the republic, “not as many houses were burned during the disasters of the 1920s as people think,” Watt said.
The cost of subsistence in the 20th century, when the days of huge households with many servants disappeared, meant that “many more were simply destroyed.”
While those kept in private families are often in a miserable condition, “Castle Ward was really lucky because it was donated to the nation,” Watt says.
“We’re really around the corner.”
“The big house was just part of a bigger structure,” he explains. “All these big houses were attached to a mansion, like their sister houses in England, Wales and Scotland. There was society in these places and there were a lot of connections.”
Watt regularly receives letters from people whose ancestors worked at the mansion in Castle Ward.
And while the legacy of the “big house” has sometimes been a politically sensitive topic in Northern Ireland, Watt says: “I think we have really turned. I think people are starting to appreciate these places as the shared spaces they were. “
While Castle Ward managed to reopen part of 2020, it is now re-closed indefinitely as part of the latest findings in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Watt says that while it was new in the beginning, walking around the big empty rooms, “by the second weekend, you really want to open the doors and let people in. I think that really shows how important people are to historic sites.”
Both men are natives of Northern Ireland – Wat is from Tyrone County, while Reed is from the nearby town of Balinahinch – but have barely seen their families this year due to restrictions.
But Watt says they calm down as they watch from the top floor of the house’s Gothic façade, over the waters of the low, where boats sail and people walk and ride horses along its shores.
Looking at Portaferi, the town on the other side of the exit, at night, “you never feel alone,” Watt says. “Every night the lights flash.”