Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple
The romantic ruins
Offering breathtaking cliff-top walks and iconic scenery, it is the location of one of the most photographed scenes in Ireland.
Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple
Downhill Demesne was the home of the Earl Bishop, an 18th century mansion, set against the surroundings of Downhill Strand and Castlerock. It is also the location of the Mussenden Temple, one of the most photographed scenes in Ireland. With work starting on the house in 1775, it took almost 20 years to complete, with the temple built as a summer library in 1785.
Offering breathtaking cliff-top walks and iconic scenery, visitors are given the chance of explore the 18th century ruins of the Earl Bishop’s home, as well as visit Hezlett House, one of Northern Ireland’s oldest buildings.
Downhill is a house “built where only a romantic would expect to find one and only a lunatic would build one.” This observation by a contemporary of the Earl Bishop`s indicates just how extraordinary Downhill really is. Built at huge expense, it was normal when commissioning a mansion to site it where it might enjoy a view, but also some shelter from the elements. Downhill is all view and no shelter.
On its exposed headland, the house is battered mercilessly by wind and rain; when it was still occupied, a guest observed how the servants practically crawled on hands and knees across the courtyard during a storm. However, it was not the weather that reduced Downhill to the ruin you see today, rather the more mundane forces of declining family finances that levelled so many great houses in Ireland and Britain.
Frederick Hervey began building Downhill in the 1770s; if its location seems remote now, it must have felt like the ends of the earth in those days. He often rode across this headland on his journeys to the Giant`s Causeway and may have drawn some inspiration from Dunluce Castle, further to the east. The land belonged to the Church of Ireland, and since Frederick was a Church of Ireland bishop, he was able to appropriate it and create what surely must have been one of the most extraordinary demesnes, or estates, anywhere in the world.
One wing of Downhill housed a stunning art gallery. It is really hard to believe that paintings by Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto and many other masters once hung on these shattered walls – but they did, because on his frequent travels around Europe, Frederick spent a fortune collecting art. He also loved archictecture, so besides the house, Downhill contains other extraordinary buildings. In front of the house stands a half-ruined monument to his brother George, but the most extraordinary building of all perches on a cliff-edge behind the house: Northern Ireland`s most iconic building, The Mussenden Temple.
The Temple is named after Frederick`s cousin once removed, a beautiful young woman with whom he allegedly had an affair (although no firm proof exists of this). It was created by Frederick`s architect, a Corkonian called Michael Shanahan, and was modelled on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. The building acted as an overflow library for the house and the large niches that you can still see in the interior walls contained book cases. The interior was once ornate and very pretty, not the bare brick visible today.
Like the Giant`s Causeway, Downhill is now cared for by The National Trust. It is a fabulous place and worth setting aside a day to visit fully, for besides the romantic ruins, there are forests, lakes and glens to explore.
Downhill Reconstruction Videos
These videos, which are the work of lecturers Peter McMullan and Stephen Price and their students at the Northern Regional College, use computer animation techniques to show us what the buildings at Downhill looked like in their heyday.
DOWNHILL MAIN HOUSE
This video, which has sound, explains the origins and ultimate fate of the great house at Downhill
This video, which does not have sound, shows what the Mussenden Temple looked like when first built.
This video, which has sound, tells the story of the Mausoleum in the grounds of Downhill.
Interesting Places Nearby
Whilst these locations are not specifically linked to the Earl Bishop, they are close to Downhill and Mussenden, and you might also find them interesting.
DOWNHILL STRAND AND BENONE
This view from the west side of the Mussenden Temple shows first of all Downhill Strand, then Benone, stretching off into the far distance. You can walk for 11km or 7 miles from Downhill along this beach, before you reach the end at Magilligan Point.
Often used for windsurfing and horse riding, the beach is popular during the summer and is a great place for a long, moody walk in the winter!
HEZLETT HOUSE, CASTLEROCK
Hezlett House is one of Ireland`s oldest still-functioning buildings.
A thatched farmer`s cottage, it is over 300 years old and stands on the coast road close to Dowhill; like Downhill, it is cared for by The National Trust.
Castlerock is a village below Downhill, to the east. It did not exist during the Earl Bishop`s time, rather came into being during the later Victorian era, as a speculative development by the family who inherited Downhill (the Bruces, who had been cousins once removed of the Bishop). In 1851, almost 50 years after Frederick`s death, Downhill was damaged by a fire, which appears to have started in Frederick`s former bedroom.
The Bruce family more or less abandoned the house for 20 years, but returned in the 1870s, borrowed a large sum of money, restored Downhill, and used some of the mortgage to buy the land upon which Castlerock now stands. Seaside bathing was all the rage in those days, and with an eye to how well the neighbouring towns of Portrush and Portstewart were doing, the Bruces tried to develop Castlerock as an exclusive enclave of seaside villas, some of which still stand and are very charming.
Unfortunately, the scheme did not pay the dividends that had been hoped for; thus began the decline in the Bruce family fortunes that caused them to abandon Downhill after the First World War. They emptied the house of its valuable contents but the building remained intact and served as a billet for U.S. airmen and Women`s Royal Air Force personnel during the Second World War. However, after that, it was a case of slow decline, and the house was pretty much a ruin by the end of the 1950s.
THE OLD CHURCHYARD OF DUNBOE
The old churchyard at Dunboe lies opposite Downhill House across the main road although, with the extensive wooded glen beyond, is part of the original demesne. Dunboe is an ancient Christian site; Saint Patrick is reputed to have founded the first church here in the 5th century. A medieval church, built on the same site in the 13th century, was in a state of disrepair when the Clothworkers, a London Company, arrived in the area in 1613; they provided £112:14:0 for its renovation. It continued in use until 1689, when it was destroyed by the Earl of Antrim’s army, retreating from the Siege of Derry.
The Earl Bishop assimilated Dunboe into the Downhill estate when he created it in the 1770s; he intended to build a spire on the site of the church but didn`t get around to it. During the 1780s and 90s, Frederick fell out with his immediate family and eventually bequeathed Downhill to a cousin once removed, the Reverend Henry Bruce. The curiously octagonal Bruce family tomb is at the rear of the cemetery, although much overgrown. Dunboe also has an interesting monument to the McBlain family; stonemasons James and his son David carried out all the decorative stonework on the buildings of the Downhill estate, between the mid-1770s until the mid-1790s.