When Neil Watt and his partner Kris Reid moved to the top floor of the stately Castle Ward mansion in Northern Ireland in March 2020, it was their first home together as a couple.
Watt had landed a new job as the Collections and Home Manager at the property owned by UK heritage organization The National Trust, and they were preparing, alongside 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-era saw-and-corn mill, the shore where seals sometimes bask, and the 16th-century tower house better known as Winterfell’s name in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”.
Then, of course, the pandemic happened. The mighty doors of the mansion had to be closed, the audience turned away.
This corner of County Down, where the Ward family made their home from the 1570s to the 1950s, has become – de facto – a private residence again.
And as the mansion’s new lords, Watt and Reid decided to give it a makeover.
Lords of the mansion
Castle Ward is the two-sided Janus of country houses.
Approach the landscaped gardens and it is an 18th century mansion in the classic Palladian style. But walk around the corner where its pointed windows and battlements look out over Strangford Lough, and it’s Georgian Gothic.
This daring fusion of styles divides this building of more than 40 rooms in the middle, inside and outside.
“Anytime this house was built it would have been one of the most majestic in Ireland,” says Neil Watt, Head of Collections and House at Castle Ward. “And certainly in the era of style and architecture, it was the most avant-garde. ”
Like many of us when we found ourselves locked in our homes last spring, the couple first turned to odd jobs around the house.
In their case, that meant tasks like cleaning hundreds of pots and pans, dismantling Victorian chandeliers and cleaning them room by room, and cleaning and cataloging around 2,000 old books.
With a CGI twist, Castle Ward was used as the location for Winterfell in “Game of Thrones.”
‘We want this house to shine’
“We kept telling ourselves that whenever we are allowed to reopen, when it can be, we want this house to shine,” says Watt.
Both men are seasoned conservationists – Reid is currently studying for a PhD in heritage – so restoration work is nothing new to them.
What was unusual, however, was the amount of time they were able to devote to the renovation, when they were normally busy with visitors.
A new dehumidification system was installed, carpets and rugs were torn down, floors were waxed and silver and brass were polished, from fireplaces to door knockers.
And when coworkers and volunteers were allowed home in the summer, they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck. “As a charity, we are nothing without people,” says Watt.
“We did a lot of tasks that really take a lot of work, but it was very careful to do and it gave us something to work on,” says Watt.
Along with curatorial work, Watt has used the lockdown period to further research the history of the estate and reconsider how it is presented to the public.
“Fresh blood is so important,” says Watt, “because sometimes we tell stories because that’s what’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 they co-architected their ambitious and modern home together.
Watt’s doctorate is on the women of the Irish country house, and Lady Ann’s story is one he particularly enjoyed revisiting.
“She displayed an independence of mind which may not have been appropriate at the time,” he says. She was rich, aristocratic and “she really did what she wanted”.
She was sexually very liberated, ”he adds. Before marrying Bernard, she had a love affair (lasting several years) with a woman, Letitia Bushe. ”
The Boudoir is on the Gothic side of the house.
Courtesy of Neil Watt
Lady Ann, her brother Lord Darnley and her son Nicholas have all been accused by their peers of being victims of ‘family madness’. It is not clear whether this was due to what we might recognize today as mental health issues or simply because their behavior contravened social norms of the time.
One of the more sinister claims about Darnley, whose home in Berkeley Square in London was until 2018 Annabel’s legendary nightclub, was that he believed himself to be a teapot and was afraid of the sexual congress. lest its beak fall in the night.
Bernard and Anne’s eldest son, Nicholas, was a British MP but was ultimately declared insane. The estate will later pass to his nephew, after the intervention, says Watt, of the “very enterprising brothers of the 2nd Viscount Bangor who thought that the Viscount would be better in their hands”.
It was also said that his brothers had loosened the ramps at Castle Ward to hasten their brother’s end, but Nicholas lived to a ripe old age and this empty gossip is unfounded.
‘Open and honest’
“History is revisionism; the story is a talk, ”says Watt, who used the lockdown time to create a new house story to accompany the tours.
This revisionism is part of a larger trend within the National Trust, which last fall sparked controversy by publishing a report on its properties’ links to colonialism and historic slavery.
John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told CNN in September: “Our role is to be as open and honest as possible, to tell the whole story of places and places. collections we care about. ”
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. However, before the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), the island was under British rule.
The big house ‘
This chandelier greets visitors in the Castle Ward reception hall.
Courtesy of Neil Watt
The “big house” was a powerful symbol of the British establishment in Ireland and these big houses of elite families were sometimes targeted during times of 20th century civil unrest known as “unrest.”
While relatively few “big houses” remain, especially in the Republic, “fewer houses were burned down during the unrest in the 1920s than people think,” says Watt.
The cost of maintenance in the 20th century, when the days of huge households with many servants were over, meant that “many more were just demolished.”
While those kept in private families often fell into disrepair, “Castle Ward was very lucky because it was donated to the nation,” says Watt.
‘We really turned the corner’
“The big house was only part of a bigger structure,” he explains. “All of these great houses were attached to an estate, like their sister houses in England, Wales and Scotland. In those places, there was a society, and there was a lot of interconnection.
Watt regularly receives letters from people whose ancestors worked on the Castle Ward estate.
And while the ‘big house’ legacy has at times been a politically sensitive topic in Northern Ireland, Watt says, “I think we’ve really turned the corner. I think people are starting to appreciate these places like the shared spaces they once did. ”
While Castle Ward may have opened for part of 2020, it is once again closed indefinitely amid the latest lockdowns in the UK and Ireland.
Watt says that although it was a novelty in the beginning, walking around the big empty halls, “the second weekend you really want to open the doors and let people in. I think it really shows how important people are to historic places. ”
Both men are from Northern Ireland – Watt is from County Tyrone while Reid is from the nearby town of Ballynahinch – but they have barely seen their families this year due to the restrictions.
But says Watt, they take comfort in looking from the top floor of the house’s Gothic facade, out to the waters of the lake where boats sail and people ride and ride along its shores.
Looking at night towards Portaferry, the town across the lake, “you never feel alone,” says Watt. “Every night, the lights twinkle. “