Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Murlough Walk

Murlough National Nature Reserve lies on the coast directly to the east of the main road between the village of Dundrum and the town of Newcastle in County Down. It has been several years since I last paid it a visit. It is a property of the National Trust.

The occasion on Easter Monday was a guided walk which began at the car park in Murlough. The weather was clement: dry, breezy, sunny intervals. Our guide was twenty minutes late, due to heavy tailbacks of traffic en route. This I can well understand, because there were tailbacks approaching every town and village from Belfast, particularly at Ballynahinch. Bank holiday woe!

Before I reached Murlough I stopped at Dundrum, an historic little village mainly developed by the Marquesses of Downshire in the early 19th century. Indeed, several notable buildings including the parish church and the former Downshire Arms Hotel were established with their lordships' funds.

Here is a splendid website I have found about the village and its facilities.

One booklet has described the 1886 parish church as "a handsome stone church with a pinnacled tower, set in an uncommonly attractive church-yard laid out like a gentleman's park with yews, monkey-puzzlers, bamboos, parkland trees and rhododendrons..."

I had a somewhat prosaic lunch of fish and chips at the Mourne Seafood Bar in the Main Street. I was more interested in the building, the former Downshire Arms Hotel emblazoned, rather aptly, with the heraldic coat-of-arms of Lord Downshire.

A brief word about the Downshires: they used to be one of the greatest landowning families in the British Isles, holding 115,000 acres in Ireland alone. Their main residence in Ulster was Hillsborough Castle; and they spent their summers mostly at Murlough House - pictured above - and Estate. The House is now a Christian conference centre. During the Georgian and Victorian eras, the Downshires' wealth was incalculable and virtually boundless; thus the largesse in patronizing with lavish expenditure such modest villages as Dundrum, which the then Lord and Lady Downshire wished to transform into a spa resort with a large harbour for the export of grain etc.

About our guided walk: there were about two dozen of us, and the tour lasted two hours. We were shown various flora and fauna, including sea buckthorn, Exmoor ponies and Galloway cattle. Back at base, the car park was busy with an estimated 80-100 cars.

The 9th and present Marquess of Downshire is about my age and his heir has the courtesy title, Earl of Hillsborough. If and when Lord Hillsborough eventually marries and has a son, he shall be known as Viscount Kilwarlin. To the best of my knowledge, any tangible links the family now has with Northern Ireland are tenuous; though their influence remains indelible at Dundrum and Hillsborough in County Down, where they are the Hereditary Constables of Hillsborough Fort. Their address in my Debrett is Clifton Castle, Ripon, North Yorkshire.

Hillsborough Castle was sold to the Government in 1922 by the 7th marquess; Murlough House was made available during the 1950s to the Church of Ireland for use as a conference centre and residential home for families and friends. Murlough lay empty for most of the year, at any rate. It was eventually sold to the Queen's University of Belfast; Project Evangelism bought the house in 1994 for £300,000.


Anonymous said...

The idea of developing an otherwise ordinary little village into a spa resort seems to have been a popular one at that time. The Ker family also wished to turn Ballynahinch into a fashionable spa resort, with some success, but needless to say it was short-lived boom.

Timothy Belmont said...

I didn't know that. Were the Kerrs ever associated with that other fine estate, Montalto? I know it was Lord Clanwilliam's seat till a few decades ago.