(CNN) — As starter homes go, a three-story Georgian mansion on an 820-acre estate’s not bad.
When Neil Watt and his partner Kris Reid moved into the top floor of Northern Ireland’s Castle Ward stately home in March 2020, it was their first home together as a couple.
Watt had landed a new live-in job as collections and house manager at the property owned by UK heritage body The National Trust, and they were preparing, alongside a big team of colleagues and volunteers, to welcome daily crowds of visitors.
As well as the 18th-century house and landscaped gardens, people come to see the Victorian saw mill and corn mill, the shoreline where seals sometimes bask, and the 16th-century tower house better known as Winterfell in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Then, of course, the pandemic happened. The mansion’s mighty doors had to be shuttered, the public turned away.
This corner of County Down, which the Ward family made their home from the 1570s to the 1950s, became — de facto — a private residence once again.
And as new lords of the manor, Watt and Reid decided to give it a makeover.
Lords of the manor
Castle Ward is the two-faced Janus of country houses.
Approach from the landscaped gardens and it’s an 18th-century mansion in the Classical Palladian style. But walk round the corner to where its pointed windows and battlements look onto Strangford Lough, and it’s Georgian Gothic.
This daring fusion of styles splits this building of more than 40 rooms down the middle, inside and out.
“Whenever this house was built, it would have been one of the grandest in Ireland,” says Neil Watt, Castle Ward’s collections and house manager. “And certainly in times of style and architecture it was the most avant garde.”
Like many of us when we found ourselves locked down in our homes last spring, the couple turned themselves first to odd jobs around the house.
In their case, this meant tasks like scrubbing hundreds of pots and pans, dismantling Victorian chandeliers and cleaning them piece by piece, and cleaning and cataloging around 2,000 antique books.
With a touch of CGI, Castle Ward was used as the location for Winterfell in “Game of Thrones.”
‘We want this house 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 men are experienced conservationists — Reid is currently studying for a PhD in heritage — so restoration work isn’t new to them.
What was unusual, however, was how much time they were able to dedicate to refurbishment, when ordinarily they’d have been busy with visitors.
A new dehumidifying system was installed, carpets and rugs were beaten down, floors were waxed, and silver and brass were polished, from fireplaces to door knockers.
And when colleagues and volunteers were allowed back in over the summer, they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck 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 period to further research the history of the estate and reconsider how it’s presented to the public.
“Fresh blood is so important,” says Watt, “because sometimes we tell stories because that’s what’s been told before.”
Castle Ward was built in the early 1760s by Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor, and his wife Lady Ann, a well-connected descendant of the Stuart royal family.
The pair had traveled the world extensively and they co-architected their ambitious, modern home together.
Watt’s PhD is in women of the Irish country house and Lady Ann’s story is one he particularly enjoyed revisiting.
“She showed an independence of spirit that maybe wasn’t seemly at the time,” he says. She was rich, 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 woman, 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 “family madness.” 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 would be better in their hands.”
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; history 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 role is to be as open and honest as we can, to tell the full history of the places and collections that we care for.”
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 visitors in Castle Ward’s reception hall.
Courtesy Neil Watt
The “big house” 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 “big houses” remain, particularly in the Republic, “not as many houses were burned during the troubles in the ’20s as people think,” says Watt.
The cost of upkeep in the 20th century, when the days of huge households with many servants were gone, meant that “many more were simply demolished.”
While those kept within private families often fell into disrepair, “Castle Ward was really lucky because it was gifted to the nation,” says Watt.
‘We’ve really turned the corner’
“The big house was only one part of a larger structure,” he explains. “All of these big houses were attached to an estate, like their sister houses in England, Wales and Scotland. In those places, there was a society, and there were a lot of interconnections.”
Watt regularly receives letters from people whose ancestors worked on the estate at Castle Ward.
And while the legacy of the “big house” has sometimes been a politically sensitive subject in Northern Ireland, Watt says, “I think we’ve really turned the corner. I think people are starting to appreciate these places as the shared spaces that they used to be.”
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 really want to open up the doors and let people in. I think it’s really shown how important people are to historic places.”
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 never feel alone,” says Watt. “Every night the lights twinkle.”