The Full Monty

With extensive parkland, some of the most beautiful formal gardens, an elegant yet somewhat understated house that simply oozes wealth, position, and history, Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula in Co. Down has everything (map).

The Mount Stewart estate (then known as Mount Pleasant) was purchased in 1744 by wealthy merchant Alexander Stewart. His son became the 1st Marquess of Londonderry in 1816. Mount Stewart is the family home.

If I mentioned the name Robert Stewart, this would probably just evince a shrug of the shoulders. Mention Viscount Castlereagh, however, and the reaction would probably be very different, as he was one of the most influential politicians and diplomats of his age, Foreign Secretary in the British government, and a visionary of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 that sought to re-establish peace and order (and national borders) to post-Napoleonic Europe. Castlereagh became the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry in 1821 on the death of his father, the 1st Marquess. Yet he had committed suicide just a year later, and the title passed to his half-brother, Charles, who married (as his second wife) one of the wealthiest heiresses of the age, Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest. Her wealth gave the impetus for expansion and refurbishment of Mount Stewart. Charles had served as one of the Duke of Wellington’s generals in the Peninsula War, and was Ambassador to Austria at the time of the Congress of Vienna. After this marriage, the family name became, and continues as, Vane-Tempest-Stewart.

Mount Stewart became the principal home of the 7th Marquess and his wife Edith. She was a great socialite and political hostess, and much of today’s decor and the impressive formal gardens are due to her influence and creativity. Their youngest daughter, Mairi, their only child to be born there, was bequeathed Mount Stewart in the 7th Marquess’s will. One of Mairi’s daughters, Lady Rose Lauritzen, still has an apartment at Mount Stewart, and while we were touring the house, I saw her describing some ‘Congress chairs’ to one of the National Trust volunteers in the dining room.

There’s so much to see at Mount Stewart. It must be the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the National Trust in Northern Ireland. I’ve read that the Mount Stewart is counted among the world’s top ten gardens!

So let’s start with the grounds, followed by the formal garden, and then a tour of the house.

We took the lakeside walk, about a mile and a half, encountering the White Stag of Celtic legend, and visiting the family burial plot, Tir n’an Og.

To the south of the house, and up a slight hill about 10 minutes walk, you can find the Temple of the Winds, built in the late  18th century (before the house was even built). There are wonderful views over Strangford Lough to the west, and Scrabo Tower, just south of Newtownards on the other side of the lough. Scrabo Tower was constructed in 1857 as a memorial to Charles, 3rd Marquess. It has now been re-opened in partnership with the National Trust.

On the west side of the house, which faces southwest, there is a Sunken Garden and the Shamrock Garden, with a topiary Irish harp, as well as the Red Hand of Ulster planted with bright red salvias. Along the top of the hedges, there are other topiary figures.

You enter the larger garden through an impressive black and gilded gate. What a feast for the eyes, with lots of mythical animals, extinct ones like the dodo for example, and one clearly male fox!

You can explore the house on your own, but there are very knowledgeable and friendly National Trust volunteers in each room, ready and able to fill in the detail.

The entrance hall is quite unexpected, as you first pass through a modest vestibule, with the hall opening out into a sea of light.

Passing from the hall, towards the dining room, there is a very large portrait of the 3rd Marquess above an arch. To one side are some cabinets with articles of the family’s wealth and connections on display. In the room itself, there is a fine portrait of Castlereagh (the 2nd Marquess), and the ‘Congress chairs’ lining the wall beneath a portrait of a familiar figure: Napoleon Bonaparte.

From the dining room, you can enter the study of the 7th Marquess, and through to a Saloon-cum-breakfast room. The ceiling rose is mirrored in the beautiful inlaid woodwork on the floor. The table standing in the middle of the room is a so-called Irish coffin or wake table.

Lady Edith developed her own drawing room, luxuriously furnished, but homely at the same time. There’s a portrait of her on the wall.

At the bottom of the staircase, there are cabinets on either side displaying the family china. The cantilevered staircase divides halfway up, beneath a huge painting of a racehorse, that’s clearly out of proportion: in the horse itself, the length of the groom’s legs, and the right arm of the other boy.

Finally, in a large and very grand drawing room the walls are covered with portraits of family members, and lined with other objets d’art.

It’s no wonder that Mount Stewart is one of the National Trust’s most popular destinations. The history of the house and the family is almost unparalleled. And if you are ever in Northern Ireland, the trip out to Strangford Lough and Mount Stewart has to be high on your list of attractions. We were not disappointed. You won’t be either.




Fermanagh’s finest . . .

The National Trust manages three properties in Co. Fermanagh in the southwest of Northern Ireland: Castle Coole; Florence Court; and Crom. Florence Court is the Trust’s furthest west property in the United Kingdom. We took in all three on our recent tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland, but not on the same day.

Castle Coole and Florence Court and  are elegant 18th century mansions, just a few miles apart near Enniskillen. Crom is a little further south, on the east shore of Upper Lough Erne, close to the border with the Irish Republic (map).

Interior photography is not permitted inside Castle Coole and Florence Court. The interior images included in this blog post are provided courtesy of, and used with permission, from the National Trust, to which I am most grateful. Access to both houses is through a guided tour.

Castle Coole was built by Armar Lowry-Corry, 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1798. He was the grandson of Belfast merchant John Corry who had purchased the estate in 1656. A fine Queen Anne house used to stand on the estate, to the north of the present mansion. The current and 8th Earl still lives in a cottage on the estate, and the family still has access to the south wing. It became the property of the National Trust in 1951 (from the 7th Earl), although the family still own most if not all the contents.

Castle Coole is a very grand, somewhat austere, Neo-Classical mansion with Portland stone façades, built to impress. It appears to have just been placed in the middle of a parkland. Nothing to soften the exterior. But that belies a delight for the eyes inside.

The rear of the house, from the north at the site of the Queen Anne house

There are no formal gardens at all close by. Irish architect Richard Johnston was originally commissioned to design Castle Coole, but got no further than the basement, after which renowned English architect James Wyatt was handed the brief to redesign and complete the building. He also designed some extremely elegant interiors, especially the Saloon, and the furniture to fill it. In fact, the Saloon is one of the most elegant rooms I have seen in my many visits to National Trust properties, and it’s a pity that I’m unable to share any images here.

The entrance hall has four massive scagliola columns, and beyond an impressive double cantilevered staircase, there is another saloon on the first floor, also with scagliola columns.

There is an impressive State Bedroom, decorated in a deep red, on the first floor that was prepared in 1821 for the expected visit to Castle Coole by King George IV. He never got much further north than the outskirts of Dublin, having encountered one of his many ‘lady friends’ there. Obviously he must have found a visit to Castle Coole (and the long journey that would have entailed) less attractive than the charms of M’Lady. Apparently the bedroom has never used on a regular basis subsequently.

All around the outside of the building is an underground passage way, that permitted servants to move about unseen from the residents above. This passage connects, through an impressively wide tunnel (wide enough to accommodate a carriage and four, apparently) to a large stable yard to the north east. Supplies for the house, coal in particular, could be brought right up to the house and stored for easy access in underground storage rooms.

Florence Court sits well in its landscape, the estate nestling below Benaughlin Mountain in the Cuilcagh Mountain range, that straddles the border between C. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and Co. Cavan in the Republic.

Home to the Earls of Enniskillen, the exact architectural history of Florence Court is somewhat of a mystery. Its central structure is flanked by two pavilions connected by colonnaded passages.

Like at Castle Coole, there is an underground passage that allowed servants to move around without being seen.

The decor of the rooms is defined by stucco plasterwork of the highest quality. When a major fire gutted the entrance hall and rooms immediately above in 1955, the National Trust was faced with a major challenge to repair the damage to the same standard. It is remarkable what they achieved. It’s somewhat ironic that Florence Court had no electricity supply until 1954, and it was an electrical fault that caused the fire! Fortunately, the fire itself did little damage to the rooms either side of the central section, apart from water damage that, at one point, threatened to bring down the ceiling in the drawing room. This was quickly rectified by the judicious drilling of several holes (two of which can still be seen) to allow the water to drain. What is also remarkable is how many of the original pieces of furniture, paintings and other objets d’art were saved. In the entrance hall, there is a rather fine bust of King William III. His travelling trunk is also in the hall, and that of his wife, Mary II, is on display in one of the bedrooms. The nose of the bust has clearly been damaged. Apparently, in the haste to remove artefacts from the burning building, King Billy was unceremoniously thrown on to the lawn outside, and the end of his nose broke off. The butler found it a few days later and glued it back on!

The outbuildings include a laundry with the highest ceilings I think I’ve seen in such a room, just appropriate for hanging out the drying linen.

There are extensive trails to explore throughout the estate, with views of the surrounding mountains. Because of the weather, and wanting to take an early tour of the house in the afternoon, we only took a short walk. There is a working water-wheel-driven sawmill, as well as a smithy in the grounds.

A large walled garden was developed by Charlotte, wife of the 4th Earl in the 1880s. The National Trust is working hard, and with results already, to restore this garden to its former glory.

Florence Court is well worth a visit. It had been high on my list of Trust properties in Northern Ireland. We had to dodge some pretty serious showers (as we did throughout our week in Northern Ireland), but we enjoyed about four hours walking around the estate, and taking the house tour. We learned that the title went to Andrew John Galbraith Cole in Kenya, who became the 7th earl in 1989, and who still resides in Kenya on his 40,000 acre estate!

There is privately-owned castle (not open to the public) on the Crom Estate, home to the Creighton (or Chrichton) family, Earls of Erne, built in 1820. The family acquired the estate in 1609, and there is also a ruined castle on the estate, on the shore of Upper Lough Erne. The estate is managed by the National Trust.

Leaving Florence Court by mid-afternoon, we reached the Visitor Centre by about 4 pm, and apart from two other couples we were the only visitors. The Visitor Centre closed at 5 pm. In any case, we wanted to take the short walk (less than a mile) to the ruins to take in a view of the lough, and the Creighton Tower on Gad Island, about half a mile offshore. Near the ruins are some impressive yew trees said to be about 1000 years old.

Following this visit, and closer to 6 pm, we headed back to our base on Mid-Ulster, via Co. Monaghan in the Republic and along one road, the A3/N54, that almost imperceptibly crisscrosses the border in just a few miles, and will be a complex situation to resolve during the Brexit talks.