Downhill Palace, The Lion Gates and Mussenden Temple

Downhill Palace, The Lion Gates and Mussenden Temple

Downhill, Northern Ireland.


The estate around the Bishop’s Palace at Downhill is something to be savoured. Now everyone can enjoy the walks and so many different views, which were originally created for the pleasure of the nobility. The estate was developed by the Earl Bishop or to give him his full title, Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. He used his immense wealth and great taste to create an estate of almost infinite variety from the wild cliff tops to pleasant gardens and leafy glades. The Palace has two main entrances. The first is at the Bishop’s Gates which are guarded by a private gate lodge and lead into a series of gardens (including a rare bog garden) and an arboretum with many rare trees. The gardens were very productive as well as beautiful. Old people remember baths in the house filled to overflowing with apples and the branches of the berry bushes and a damson tree bending under the weight of fruit. The paths meander for about two miles until Mussenden Temple and the Palace appear.

The second entrance, locally called the Lion Gates, are named for the two great statues above, but if you look closely at them, they are really statues of the great collared mastiff dogs that the Earl Bishop allowed to run freely in the palace.

The Lion Gates lead to a car park beside the walled garden which produced the flowers, fruit and vegetables for the palace.

Above the gardens there are two different kinds of food stores contained in a domed building that echoes Mussenden Temple. The top part is a dovecote, used for producing poultry and eggs and beneath it is an icehouse, which was filled with ice from the lakes and ponds in winter and used to preserve salmon in the summer, so the palace had fish all year round.

The estate was first administered from the agent’s cottage beside the walled gardens, which is still inhabited and the palace itself was built in the mid 1770s. Soon after, it was one of the most renowned houses of Ireland. There are accounts of its opulence in its heyday. Inside, the walls were painted with frescos and set off at the ceilings with gilded pink mouldings and cornices. It was decorated with many art treasures, paintings by Vandyke, Raphael and Tintoretto and Roman marble statues brought to Downhill by the Earl from his travels in Italy. The side of one corridor housed a great organ. It was a place full of light and music and the noise of feasting and drinking, while the great dogs ran from room to room unrestrained, knocking into the fine furniture and statues.

Beyond the palace, right on the very cliff edge and plain to see for miles around is one of the iconic buildings of the North Coast. The Earl built Mussenden Temple in 1785 as his summer library and its model was the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. He dedicated it to his cousin’s wife, Frideswide Mussenden. The inscription around the base reads, ‘Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar’. Inside, the Georgian windows from floor to ceiling capture the panorama. It was once decorated like the palace, extravagantly ornamented with marble statues. Although the walls between the windows have lost their bookshelves, it is easy to imagine the tranquillity and inspiration of the room for reading and writing. There can be few buildings anywhere that compare with Mussenden Temple or its setting. The views from the cliff top extend west over Downhill Sands and Magilligan Point to Donegal. To the east there is Castlerock, Portstewart, Portrush, Rathlin Island and Fair Head at Ballycastle and on good days to Kintyre and the Western Isles of Scotland. As far as the eye can see it has every coastal view on the north coast in miniature. How many paintings and photographs have been made here?

Hervey developed the estate across the Downhill Road too. He built the Bishop’s Road which begins at Downhill and rises steeply to the top of Binevenagh and he created lovely walks through the Bishop’s Glen. He landscaped the valley and changed the courses of the streams so they formed a small lake. The winding paths were carefully designed so that the visitor moves through arching shrubs in an enchanted grotto of exotic trees and flowers.

In springtime, the air of the Black Glen is filled with the scents of everything in bloom, mint, wild garlic and other herbs. Over the years, generations of children have called the Back Glen and the places behind the Bishop’s Gate, their secret gardens.

The cliff is tunnelled through and the passengers on the train pass underneath, oblivious to the treasures above.

Video produced by Ambient Light Productions

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