(CNN) — As starter houses go, a three-story Georgian mansion on an 820-acre property’s not unhealthy.
When Neil Watt and his accomplice Kris Reid moved into the highest flooring of Northern Ireland’s Castle Ward stately residence in March 2020, it was their first residence collectively as a pair.
Watt had landed a brand new live-in job as collections and home supervisor on the property owned by UK heritage physique The National Trust, they usually had been making ready, alongside a giant staff of colleagues and volunteers, to welcome day by day crowds of tourists.
As nicely because the 18th-century home and landscaped gardens, individuals come to see the Victorian noticed mill and corn mill, the shoreline the place seals generally bask, and the 16th-century tower home higher often called Winterfell in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Then, in fact, the pandemic occurred. The mansion’s mighty doorways needed to be shuttered, the general public turned away.
This nook of County Down, which the Ward household made their residence from the 1570s to the 1950s, turned — de facto — a personal residence as soon as once more.
And as new lords of the manor, Watt and Reid determined to provide it a makeover.
Lords of the manor
Castle Ward is the two-faced Janus of nation homes.
Approach from the landscaped gardens and it is an 18th-century mansion within the Classical Palladian model. But stroll not far away to the place its pointed home windows and battlements look onto Strangford Lough, and it is Georgian Gothic.
This daring fusion of kinds splits this constructing of greater than 40 rooms down the center, inside and outside.
“Whenever this house was built, it would have been one of the grandest in Ireland,” says Neil Watt, Castle Ward’s collections and home supervisor. “And certainly in times of style and architecture it was the most avant garde.”
Like many people once we discovered ourselves locked down in our houses final spring, the couple turned themselves first to odd jobs round the home.
In their case, this meant duties like scrubbing tons of of pots and pans, dismantling Victorian chandeliers and cleansing them piece by piece, and cleansing and cataloging round 2,000 vintage books.
With a contact of CGI, Castle Ward was used as the placement for Winterfell in “Game of Thrones.”
‘We need this home to shine’
“We kept saying to ourselves, whenever we are allowed to open again, whenever that might be, we want this house to shine,” says Watt.
Both males are skilled conservationists — Reid is at present finding out for a PhD in heritage — so restoration work is not new to them.
What was uncommon, nonetheless, was how a lot time they had been in a position to dedicate to refurbishment, when ordinarily they’d have been busy with guests.
A brand new dehumidifying system was put in, carpets and rugs had been crushed down, flooring had been waxed, and silver and brass had been polished, from fireplaces to door tits.
And when colleagues and volunteers had been allowed again in over the summer time, they rolled up their sleeves and bought caught in too. “As a charity, we’re nothing without people,” says Watt.
“We did lots of tasks which are really labor-intensive, but it was very mindful to do and and gave us something to work towards,” says Watt.
Alongside the conservation work, Watt used the lockdown interval to additional analysis the historical past of the property and rethink the way it’s introduced to the general public.
“Fresh blood is so important,” says Watt, “because sometimes we tell stories because that’s what’s been told before.”
Castle Ward was constructed within the early 1760s by Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor, and his spouse Lady Ann, a well-connected descendant of the Stuart royal household.
The pair had traveled the world extensively they usually co-architected their formidable, fashionable residence collectively.
Watt’s PhD is in ladies of the Irish nation home and Lady Ann’s story is one he notably loved revisiting.
“She showed an independence of spirit that maybe wasn’t seemly at the time,” he says. She was wealthy, aristocratic and “she really did as she pleased.”
She was very sexually liberated,” he adds. “Before she married Bernard she had a (years-long) love affair with a girl, Letitia Bushe.”
The Boudoir is on the Gothic side of the house.
Courtesy Neil Watt
Lady Ann, her brother Lord Darnley and her son Nicholas all faced accusations from their peers that they were subject to a “household insanity.” It’s not clear whether any of this was due to what we might recognize today as mental health conditions, or merely that their behavior contravened the social norms of the time.
One of the more lurid claims about Darnley, whose home in London’s Berkeley Square was until 2018 the legendary Annabel’s nightclub, was that he believed himself to be a teapot, and was afraid of sexual congress lest his spout should fall off in the 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, says Watt, of the 2nd Viscount Bangor’s’ “very enterprising brothers who thought the viscountcy can be higher of their palms.”
It was rumored also that his brothers had loosened the bannisters at Castle Ward to hasten their brother’s end, but Nicholas lived to a ripe old age and this idle gossip is unfounded.
‘Open and honest’
“History is revisionism; historical past is a discourse,” says Watt, who used the time in lockdown to create a new house narrative to accompany tours.
This revisionism is part of a wider trend in the National Trust, which last autumn provoked controversy by releasing a report into its properties’ links with colonialism and historic slavery.
John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told CNN in September: “Our function is to be as open and sincere as we are able to, to inform the complete historical past of the locations and collections that we look after.”
Today, the island of Ireland is divided into the Republic of Ireland, an independent country, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. However, before the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) the island was under British rule.
The ‘big house’
This chandelier greets guests in Castle Ward’s reception corridor.
Courtesy Neil Watt
The “huge home” was a potent symbol of the British establishment in Ireland and these grand homes of elite families were sometimes targeted during the 20th-century periods of civil unrest known as “the troubles.”
While relatively few “huge homes” remain, particularly in the Republic, “not as many homes had been burned throughout the troubles within the ’20s as individuals assume,” says Watt.
The cost of upkeep in the 20th century, when the days of huge households with many servants were gone, meant that “many extra had been merely demolished.”
While those kept within private families often fell into disrepair, “Castle Ward was actually fortunate as a result of it was gifted to the nation,” says Watt.
‘We’ve really turned the corner’
“The huge home was just one half of a bigger construction,” he explains. “All of those huge homes had been connected to an property, like their sister homes in England, Wales and Scotland. In these locations, there was a society, and there have been plenty of interconnections.”
Watt regularly receives letters from people whose ancestors worked on the estate at Castle Ward.
And while the legacy of the “huge home” has sometimes been a politically sensitive subject in Northern Ireland, Watt says, “I believe we have actually turned the nook. I believe individuals are beginning to admire these locations because the shared areas that they was.”
While Castle Ward was able to open for part of 2020, it is now once again closed indefinitely as part of the latest lockdowns across the UK and Ireland.
Watt says that while it was a novelty at first, walking around the grand empty rooms, “by the second weekend you actually wish to open up the doorways and let individuals in. I believe it is actually proven how necessary individuals are to historic locations.”
Both men are local to 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 looking out from the top floor of the house’s Gothic facade, over the lough’s waters where boats sail and people stroll and ride horses along its shores.
Gazing out at night towards Portaferry, the town across the lough, “you by no means really feel alone,” says Watt. “Every night time the lights twinkle.”