Putting Our Feet Up in Hillsborough Castle

We’ve been in our share of big houses in the past month, but we’d never been invited to actually sit on the furniture. So thanks, Queen Elizabeth!

On Sunday, we took a short bus ride from Belfast to Hillsborough to visit Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland royal residence. It’s only been open to the public on a regular basis since 2014, but the castle is a definite must-see.

Unlike the other big houses we visited, the castle (actually an 18th-century Georgian mansion) sits just off the main drag instead of 12 miles down a winding country lane. In fact, the first marquess of Downshire, Wills Hill, purposefully situated the building so he could see the goings-on in the town. The road out of Hillsborough once wound right outside the back of the mansion, until a later owner paid to relocate the buildings (including a Quaker meeting house) and road farther away. The Quaker burial grounds couldn’t be relocated, so they remain on the property.

Wills Hill was the Secretary of the American Colonies near the time of the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin visited Hillsborough. Hill was blamed for “losing” the American colonies in the ensuing struggle. Fact: Hillsborough County, Florida (where I was born), and the various US towns spelled Hillsborough or Hillsboro are named for this Hill.

A nearly hands-on tour

OK, we actually didn’t put our feet up anywhere within Hillsborough Castle. But we were invited by the docent, Elizabeth, to sit on the furniture in the foyer as she explained the history of the building and also to sit in various other parts of the house. Certain furniture was off limits, but there wasn’t a rope barricade in sight. We wandered freely around each room as she explained more about the history of the building.

The castle was purchased by the monarchy as a residence for the Northern Ireland governor after the partition of the island in 1921. These days, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland lives in the castle, as do some junior ministers. But when the royals visit, they stay there, too. Prince Phillip visited Hillsborough just last month, as evidenced by his signature on a large, elegant note pad in one room.

Like other big houses, Hillsborough suffered a catastrophic fire during its history, this one linked to a Hindenburg. Following the death of the German President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, the warden (who was smoking a cigarette at the time) lowered the castle flag to half-staff, then unknowingly set the flag on fire. The spreading blaze devastated the building, with all ceilings falling save a small round one in a rear foyer.

Declan particularly liked the Irish elk rack over the entry way and the replica tiara (bling, he calls it) on a table in the throne room. Marilynn and I were taken by the portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II painted by Lydia de Burgh, the first resident Irish artist to paint the queen. On a side note, her nephew is Christopher John Davison, a singer of some renown who took his mother’s surname when he began performing. Too bad Elizabeth wasn’t wearing red in the portrait.

Overall, we were taken with how ordinary the house was. Sure, the rooms are big and the furnishings are exquisite. But there are homey touches throughout, including a table loaded with royal family portraits in the same room where the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985. One expects the queen herself to saunter in and put her feet up on a table (she’s allowed).

One final story: in the banquet hall, there was a fake pineapple on a sideboard. Elizabeth (our docent, not the royal) talked about the parties the Hill family threw that lasted deep into the night. A single pineapple would have fetched 5,000 pounds in today’s money, so a pineapple was prized as a symbol of wealth. Not that anyone ate it, however. Rich families would rent a pineapple, with the same fruit appearing at all the big parties that season, until it finally fell upon itself, spent and worthless at last.