Hillsborough Castle is one of those castles that is not really a castle, and those hankering for a keep or a moat will be disappointed. It is also not a royal palace in a truly historic sense, despite now being part of Historic Royal Palaces, as its connection with the royal family only began in the 1930s. What it is, however, is arguably far more interesting.
Hillsborough takes its name from the wealthy Hill family, who owned the estate from the early 17th century. Their wealth came from land, a staggering 115,000 acres in total, stretching from just north of Belfast Lough to south of Dublin. Wills Hill, the first Marquess of Downshire, built Hillsborough Castle as a townhouse, and it is surprising to learn that a public road once ran right outside its windows.
The house remained in the ownership of the Hill family until 1925, when it was purchased by the British government for use as the official residence of the governor of Northern Ireland, a new post required following the partition of Ireland in 1921. In total, five governors served between 1925 and 1972, when the Troubles led to direct rule from London and negated the need for the role.
But the conflict did bring about a new sense of purpose for the castle. With its heightened security and role as the official residence of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland (as it continues to be today), it became a key venue for some of most historic and defining political meetings and negotiations of our recent past.
It was here that the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, and 13 years later politicians would debate what would take form as the Good Friday agreement, bringing a fragile peace to the six counties and establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. The royal presence at the castle – it is the official residence for the royal family when they are in Northern Ireland – seems minor and mundane in comparison.
Most visitors’ first experience of Northern Ireland’s newest visitor attraction will not be the castle itself, but the stunning grounds and gardens. Though impressive, and evidently tended with great skill and care, these spaces can seem rather daunting, especially as the castle cannot even be glimpsed on the horizon.
Thank goodness then for the confident projection of a woman in period dress, drawing a small crowd at the top of the walled garden. She turns out to be none other than Lady Annie Hill, who was a composer, one of six charming vignettes that animate the space.
First-person interpretation may be a case of love it or loathe it, but here it is a winner and though officially only programmed for the spring season, I hope it will be a regular feature of the Hillsborough experience. There are even knowing winks to Northern Ireland’s current political situation, with the assembly in abeyance and the main parties unable to find common ground.
Continuing up the hill towards the castle it is wonderful to see grounds that were once the preserve of the elite being enjoyed by the public, something the good-value annual memberships will surely continue to encourage.
And there is recognition that the site may pose accessibility issues for some, with mobility transport provided to whisk visitors from the lower entrance to the castle and a detailed access guide giving information on step-free routes and ramps.
On reaching the castle I joined a timed, guided tour with a group of around 15 others. Our guide was knowledgeable and personable, and more than once acknowledged the vital contribution of all visitors in supporting the work of Historic Royal Palaces. It is front-facing staff like this who make or break any visitor experience.
And despite the castle and gardens having been open for less than a week when I visited, all the people I encountered working there were excellent and a credit to the venue. In his introduction to the castle, the guide shared its wide-ranging VIP connections – from the US founding father Benjamin Franklin to Princess Diana and the singer Gary Barlow – but stressed that it has primarily served as a family home.
Work in progress
It cannot have been the easiest house to conserve and interpret, with challenges ranging from the sale of its contents in 1924 to a 1934 fire that destroyed much of the building. It also represents a patchwork of histories, including those of the Hill family, the royal family, the Troubles and the no-less-fascinating story of the conservation project. These are all given a chance to shine in both the tour and the presentation of the nine publicly accessible rooms.
Miniatures commissioned by Prince Albert sit opposite photographs of historic moments between the former British prime minister Tony Blair, the Irish politician Mary McAleese and the Queen.
A portrait of Lady Evelyn Downshire is encountered close to a framed photograph of the English Labour MP Mo Mowlam. The curators, craftspeople and conservators who have worked on the conservation project are rightly lauded by our guide, and the craftsmanship and attention to detail are exquisite.
I notice information files in each room and wanted to read them, but the tour moved so quickly that it was not possible. As a result, I left with as many questions as answers – a good sign of interest healthily piqued. History buffs have much more to explore beyond the castle, including the 18th-century courthouse and, my personal favourite, an ice house hidden away in the glen. These are interpreted effectively with a deft, light touch.
Most exciting of all is Pineapple Yard, still tantalisingly under development. Here, the project team found the remains of early 18th-century glasshouses, where then-exotic pineapples were cultivated to impress guests.
A return visit to see them restored to their former glory will be a must and the work here shows this is still very much a live project. In recent years, Northern Ireland has seen lots of positive news stories, rather than being defined by conflict and political tensions in the media.
The heritage and tourism sectors continue to boom – Derry/Londonderry was a triumphant UK City of Culture in 2013; Titanic Belfast was named the world’s leading tourist attraction in 2016; at National Museums NI we have just welcomed more than 900,000 annual visitors for the first time; and only last month HMS Caroline was announced as a finalist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019. Hillsborough Castle is a welcome addition to these offerings and I look forward to seeing it flourish.
Hannah Crowdy is the head of curatorial at National Museums Northern Ireland
- Cost £24m
- Main funders National Lottery Heritage Fund; Mark Pigott; Garfield Weston Foundation; Clore Duffield Foundation
- Architect Consarc
- Visitor centre main contractor F3
- Graphic design All Creative Branding
- Lighting TM Lighting
- Admission Adult £11.40; child £5.70