Couple use Covid lockdown to revitalise historic stately home4 min read
A couple who found themselves living in a stately manor during the pandemic used the time to revitalise its historic interior.
Neil Watt, 36, moved into the top floor of the Castle Ward mansion in County Down, Northern Ireland, with his 29-year-old partner Kris Reid in March after being appointed collections and house manager of the National Trust property.
Mr Watt, who has a PhD in Irish country houses, was preparing to welcome thousands to the 18th century attraction, but those plans were upended by coronavirus. Instead, Mr Watt and Mr Reid, who is himself studying for a PhD in heritage, spent most of 2020 with the huge house to themselves.
The conservationists did not put the time to waste, using the unexpected closure to breathe new life into some of the mansion’s spectacular features. As the months wore on, they tackled project after project, restoring parts of Castle Ward’s interior to their former glory.
First came the installation of a new dehumidifying system to address a centuries-old damp problem. Then they set about cleaning and cataloguing the house’s 2,000 books, most of them dating from the 18th century.
Castle Ward also boasts one of the finest sets of cooking pots and pans on the island of Ireland, but over the centuries the pans had become blackened and tarnished. The couple took on the job of polishing the 100 pieces one by one and did the same with many other fixtures and fittings, including all the brass door handles.
Good weather in the early summer enabled them to clean the antique window blinds and beat down carpets and rugs. There was also the delicate job of cleaning the Victorian crystal chandeliers.
Mr Watt, originally from Tyrone, said that the jobs would not have been doable in any other year, adding: “You only have so many hours in the day ,and if the house is open from 11am until 5pm you can’t do all this work in front of the public because it would detract from their experience.”
Mr Watt also took time to reimagine the story of the house’s contrasting architectural styles – one front Classical, the other Gothic.
The long-standing story was that this “Frankenstein house” was the result of a bitter row between the then Lord and Lady Bangor, with neither willing to give ground on their preferred design for their new home.
This tale never sat well with Mr Watt, who said: “There’s no way this was born out of an argument, nothing so trivial could have created this house.”
So he created a narrative to accompany tours which instead explained the contrast as a deliberate fusion of the classical style so fashionable in the 18th century with a Gothic element to acknowledge the family’s storied history.
“One good thing to come out of lockdown is that we’ve reimagined ourselves – we are not a Frankenstein’s monster, we are a sublime piece of architecture,” he said.
When restrictions allowed, Mr Watt and Mr Reid were helped by National Trust colleagues and a small band of volunteers from the local area.
“The people of Strangford are wonderful, they really are,” said Mr Watt. “They’ve been so welcoming to myself and my partner. We’re a gay couple who moved into a big old country house and really, without exception, even during the trials of Covid, they couldn’t have been more welcoming, more wonderful.”
Castle Ward was able to open briefly to the public in the late summer, with tight restrictions in place, but it was not long before the doors had to close again.
Mr Watt hopes all the hard work will pay off when the house can finally welcome back the public, and he said that even among all the projects there had been time for the couple to stop and take in their remarkable lockdown surroundings.
“If you get bored in the evening, to come down and see 18th-century landscapes of Strangford Lough, to stand under beautiful Victorian chandeliers and walk through big Marmorino marble columns and that sort of thing is really amazing,” he said.
“Even when we were in full lockdown, we could always see the twinkling lights of Portaferry across the lough.”