Couple use lockdown to make over Castle Ward

Couple use lockdown to make over Castle Ward

6 January 2021

THE pandemic has provided an invaluable period to further beautify and improve the historic mansion at Castle Ward on the shores of Strangford Lough.

Work during the imposed closure for most of last year has been carried out by the National Trust property’s new collections and house manager, Neill Watt, and his partner, Kris Reid.

Neil had just taken up the appointment last March when the first lockdown was announced.

Instead of welcoming thousands of visitors over its doors last spring and summer as normal, the stunning house was treated to some well-deserved care and attention.

With both men having a strong interest in conservation — Neil has a PhD in Irish country houses and Kris is studying for a PhD in heritage — they set about giving everything from the chandeliers to the kitchen utensils a new lease of life.

First there was the installation of a new dehumidifying system to address a centuries-old damp problem.

Then they set about cleaning and cataloguing the house’s collection of 2,000 books, most dating from the 18th century.

Castle Ward also boasts one of the finest sets of cooking pots and pans on the island of Ireland, but over the centuries it had become blackened and tarnished.

The couple polished the 100 pieces one by one. They did the same with many other fixtures and fittings, including all the brass door handles.

The good weather in the early summer allowed them to clean the antique window blinds and beat down the luxury carpets and rugs.

There was also the delicate job of cleaning the crystal Victorian chandeliers.

All of the work would not have been possible had the house been open to the public, according to Neil.

“You only have so many hours in the day and if the house is open from 11am until 5pm you can’t do all this work in front of the public, because it would detract from their experience,” he said.

Castle Ward – highlighted in the BBC Antiques Roadshow in December 2019 – is known for its distinctive half and half architectural style  — one front Classical, the other Gothic.

While it has been referred to as a”Frankenstein house” of two halves as the result of a bitter row between the then Lord and Lady Bangor, with neither willing to give ground on their design preference for their new home, Neil took the time to re-imagine the tale of its origins.

“There’s no way this was born out of an argument, nothing so trivial could have created this house,” he said.

Neil has created a narrative to accompany tours that instead explained the contrast as a deliberate fusion of the Classical style so fashionable in the 18th century with a Gothic element to acknowledge the family’s storied history.

“One good thing to come out of lockdown is that we’ve reimagined ourselves; we are not a Frankenstein’s monster, we are a sublime piece of architecture,” he said.

When restrictions allowed, Neil and Kris, who is from Co Down, were helped by National Trust colleagues and a small band of volunteers from the local area.

They valued the time that they had to really appreciate the property without visitors, as the house was opened just briefly in last summer.

“If you get bored in the evening, to come down and see 18th-century landscapes of Strangford Lough, to stand under beautiful Victorian chandeliers and walk through big Marmorino marble columns and that sort of thing is really amazing,” Neil said.

“And something that we both love living here is the view, because from our sitting room window we can see the town of Portaferry across the lough.

“And that’s actually one reason why we haven’t felt lonely, because even when we were in full lockdown, we could always see the twinkling lights of Portaferry across the lough.”