17 Mar Exploring Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland
I’ve always been drawn to old buildings. I love immersing myself in the design and decor of a bygone era, pretending I’m a character out of an Austen novel, whiling the days away in a large manor house, in a perpetual state of luxuriant boredom.
From the Keats-Shelley house in Rome to the caverns that lay beneath the streets of Edinburgh; wherever I travel I always end up soaking in some local history. Being between walls that have bore first-hand witness to times gone by that we can only imagine, it ignites a particular kind of gleeful fascination that since childhood I’ve never quite grown out of.
So, when I was invited to see an old building closer to home – Hillsborough Castle – for its grand reopening as an event space for the public, I was excited to step into history once more.
Hillsborough Castle is the royal residence in Northern Ireland. It’s where the Secretary of State resides and where any visiting royal family members stay when they visit Northern Ireland. In fact, parts of Hillsborough town were cordoned off on the evening of the grand reopening as Will and Kate themselves were making a visit the very next day!
The castle itself was built in the 1770’s. It has a late Georgian architectural style and is surrounded by stunning gardens which I have previously visited. Apparently the gardens are home to Europe’s largest rhododendron, which is slightly random but alright.
The Grand Re-opening
Hillsborough is a pretty small town so you can find the castle very easily, at the top of the main street, on the right hand side. This entrance brings you through the tourist office.
As we walked through the grounds, towards the front door of the building itself, the sun had almost set and the sound of a uniformed guard playing the trumpet echoed through the grounds, I believe this is called a “royal piper” and it signalled the doors had opened and guests were arriving. It was a very royal welcome!
The entrance hall has a large fireplace and introduced us to the first of the building’s many pieces of art. The exposed stone walls and flagstone floor really emphasised the 18th century feel from the onset. It’s hard to choose, but this was probably my (second!) favourite room, it just felt like such a warm, welcoming space. I would have loved to have sat by that fireplace for an hour or two with a book and a cup of tea, bliss. Probably would have been a bit weird given the context though.
So, champagne in hand we moved onwards into the next room where we could hear the gentle sounds of the harp being played. I don’t get to hear the harp played live too often but when I do it’s an absolute treat.
Maps adorn the walls in this second room and a mahogany writing desk overlooks the grounds.
The next room, The Red Room, is my favourite! I love the rich crimson wall paper and the gilded gold of the ceiling and doorways. It reminded me of one of my favourite art galleries, The Frick, in Manhattan as almost every inch of the walls are adorned with striking pieces of art. We thought that one of the paintings was an original Rembrandt and got very excited however after enquiring with the knowledgable staff it turned out to be a painting in the style of Rembrandt’s self portraits. Ooops.
In the dining room adjoining The Red Room however there was an original Hogarth painting and I had a moment of geeking out when I noticed it. Known for his depictions of debauchery in London in the 18th Century, a Hogarth piece is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek choice for the dining room where I’m sure many a glass of wine has been, and will be, drank in good spirits.
There were also many paintings of food and animal hunting. We learnt from one member of the events team that it was normal for dining rooms in the 18th Century to display the food guests were soon to eat. Slayed or cooked, didn’t seem to matter.
As we perused the art in The Red Room and munched on delicious canapes (the chorizo was a particular highlight) a door beside us opened up an adjoining room and another royal piper played the trumpet.
Everyone seemed to clear a path as though the royal piper was announcing a royal entrance. It could have been the Queen herself I thought momentarily with anxiety as I definitely don’t know the protocol for meeting a royal. The events staff gestured for us to go ahead into the next room and as we were the closest to the door we went in first, with trepidation and excitement, to The Throne Room.
To the right, by the royal piper were two thrones and beside these thrones on a raised platform, a band (The Nooks) started to play Harvest Moon by Neil Young. On the left there was the most exciting looking spread of food, all prepared by Yellow Door catering. The chef greeted us and signalled towards the spread. I didn’t know where to start and it all looked so pretty it was almost a shame to dig in. And if ever there was an acceptable time to take an Instagram food photo it was now!
There was a definite “local” element to the mammoth culinary spread, with black pudding and local seafood as options, however this was balanced out with other cuisines such as hummus, pita bread, charcuterie meats and Asian style gourmet prawn crackers.
The Nooks performed acoustic covers such as “Your Song” and “The River” enhancing an extremely mellow but intimate atmosphere.
The next part of the evening was when I really started to feel like I was in an Austen novel. Doors opened and everyone filed through a hallway and into to an expansive lounge area. This is the point in the novel where the ladies would join the men (who had finished smoking their cigars together) to enjoy some evening entertainment.
There was gin fizz on the go from local gin brand Shortcross and local band, The Swing Gals were performing some easy listening, jazz infused covers.
Having gin, teas, coffees and desserts in the lounge areas was the perfect way to round off the evening. Despite being a royal palace it didn’t feel stuffy and my initial worry that I was going to trip and spill my drink on a precious piece of art finally started to melt away. It was such a warm, welcoming and relaxed atmosphere. We even got to peruse a few royal family photos…
Thanks to the Hillsborough Castle Events Team for inviting me to the reopening. Hillsborough Castle will be opening its doors to visitors on April 10th. You can find out more about Hillsborough Castle and other historic royal palaces here.