The legacy of an eccentric man

BENONE beach is undoubtedly one of the most scenic in all of Ireland. Breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, Inishowen and the cliffs at Downhill provide a backdrop so spectacular it is almost shocking on first sight.


Atop the cliffs at Downhill - overlooking the ocean and flanked by Portstewart, Portrush and Castlerock on one side and Benone and Magilligan on the other - is the place chosen by one of the 18th Century’s richest and most vivid characters as home.

It was here that the Earl-Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, decided to live. He built perhaps the most impressive place of residence in the long history of County Londonderry.

The Mussendun Temple was his library and Downhill Manor was his home. Mussendun Temple is still there and is a world famous monument and Downhill Manor is largely gone – perhaps forever.

The National Trust took over Downhill Demesne, with its Lion’s Gate, Bishop’s Palace, Mussendun Temple and spectacular landscape in the 1980’s.

They are currently working hard to prevent what is left of the decadent, extravagant and at one time luxurious estate of the Earl-Bishop Hervey from falling further into ruin.

The Bishop’s Palace fell into a state of severe disrepair from the 1940s onwards, and was almost totally destroyed when the roof was removed by a farmer who was being asked to pay rates for the structure.

Author of a book on the Earl-Bishop, Stephen Price explained: “The valuable paintings were sold off piecemeal by the Bruces in the late 1800s-early 1900s.

“The house was cleared of furniture and the remaining artwork by the 1920s but all through the 1930s it was basically maintained. Fires lit the rooms etcetera. It was billetted during World War Two, then after that, abandoned.

“It would have been a process of gradual decay from then on in, with petty vandalism and people stealing lead from the roof. Some roofing and floors etcetera, would also have been sold. Once the roof went, that was it - by the time the Trust got it in the 1980s it was a dangerous ruin. A single fireplace from the house sold at auction about ten years ago for £400,000.”

An archaeological survey has been underway for four years, and local academics have also been working with modern technology in an attempt to digitally re-create what the estate would have been like in its heyday.

Here the Sentinel looks at the life and legacy of the eccentric man who made his abode at Downhill, the work and plans for the site of the National Trust, and the innovative digital imagery project by students and lecturers at the Northern Regional College.

A Digital Restoration

WHILE the National Trust are busy working to maintain the beautiful structures at Downhill, students from a nearby college have been hard at work to restore the structures to their former glory – using technology to produce a digital image.

Featured on the BBC series Countryfile, which has since been broadcast throughout the country, the digital recreation works being carried out at the Ballymoney campus of the Northern Regional College (NRC) has been estimated to be worth at least one hundred thousand pounds to the National Trust.

The NRC’s students have been undertaking a meticulous reconstruction, illustrating the interior and exterior of the now ruined 18th Century palatial home of the Earl-Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey.

The research and reconstruction is undertaken by Stephen Price Head of School and authority on the Earl Bishop and Peter McMullan senior lecturer working with NRC students studying interactive media at the Ballymoney campus.

Stephen Price, who has penned a book on the life of the owner of Downhill Demesne, has been heavily involved with the historical research used to ensure the digital recreations are accurate and authentic. He explained the project to the Sentinel: “The thing is when you go to Downhill at the minute, if you are new to the site it’s very difficult to imagine what went on there. All you really have are the information boards with a small picture – they are fine in themselves and they do a very good job.

“We wanted to re-create what the building would have looked like at Bishop Hervey’s time. That house would have had an expected life of about 250 years, but what we wanted to do was re-create what it would have been like in its heyday.

“I’m interested in the historical research – going into the archives and that type of thing – and my colleague Peter McMullan uses computers to re-create the images of what it would have looked like. They have modelled the inside of one of the biggest rooms of the house, the inside of the Mussendun Temple and the outside of the Bishop’s Palace.

“Maybe some day it will get used by the National Trust as a resource for people. They tell me that once they get settled down after all the work with the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, the next thing on their list is Downhill.”

The media students who worked with Mr Price and Mr McMullan enjoyed meeting with the BBC team behind the Countryfile episode focussing on Downhill, despite being more used to working behind the camera.

Senior lecturer Peter McMullan explained: “John (Craven, Countryfile presenter) was keen to understand the accuracy of the reconstruction and we explained the research process behind the walkthrough experience.

“Working on the project is part of the student’s Extentive Media, a two year programme which gives them first hand knowledge of the 3D modelling process. It’s meticulous work and they take part in research, produce concept sketches, and input to the final model.”

While filming National Trust owned Downhill House and Mussenden Temple the BBC’s Countryfile presenter John Craven previewed a 3D computer graphic model of the buildings by NRC’s Media department for the Trust. The model is a meticulous reconstruction illustrating the interior and exterior grandeur of the 18th century home built by the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey.

The research and reconstruction is undertaken by author, lecturer and broadcaster Stephen Price, Head of School and authority on the Earl Bishop and Peter McMullan senior lecturer working with NRC students studying interactive media at the Ballymoney campus.

The students themselves are putting the work they have been doing to good use. Ruth McCallmont and Jenny Doherty outlined their media career plans following their NRC course. Ruth is aiming for a career in TV and film production following a degree course at the University of Westminster, who are leaders in film and TV production.

Jenny Doherty is specialising in creative production for interactive media and hopes to work as a film animator following her degree course at Ravensborne University, who are renowned for innovation in digital media and design.

The Downhill and Mussenden Temple reconstruction project has been underway for three years and will continue when the academic term resumes in September.

Site manager of Downhill Demesne at the National Trust, who are tasked with car e of the site, said: “The work being put in by the students at the Northern Regional College is fantastic for all parties. The work they are doing with the digital restoration would probably cost us tens of thousands of pounds if we were to try and commission a private firm, while the students are able to add the experience and skills to their CV. To be able to say that they have worked on such a large and important project with the National Trust will do them a lot of good. We are all getting something out of it, and aside from that it will help people get a glimpse into the life of the man himself – it is such a colourful story.”

National Trust – hard at work

ATOP the cliffs at Downhill sits the well known and spectacular Mussendun Temple, a round adornment balanced delicately on the edge of the horizon itself.

Directly behind the Mussendun Temple stands the ruins of a structure which at one time would have outshone even the neo-classical Roman Temple of Mussendun – Downhill Manor.

This was the palatial home of the Earl-Bishop Frederick Harvey.

Now in the care of the National Trust, the whole estate at Downhill Demesne, while still an outstanding vista providing an enticing glimpse into a period of decadence and extravagance in Ireland’s troubled history, has been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that is almost unrecognisable from what it would have looked like in the full bloom of its majesty.

The National Trust have taken over the maintenance of Downhill Demesne, and the cement mixers provide something of a reminder of the difficulty in keeping a structure so large as Downhill Manor from falling further into disrepair.

The building has no roof. It is exposed to the elements and, as a site open to the public 24 hours of the day, 365 days of the year, it is exposed to the usual problems associated with anti-social behaviour and vandalism.

Just last week, a group of young people had camped out within the Manor’s interior and left the former ‘Bishop’s Palace’ strewn with empty bottles and the remnants of a smouldering fire.

Site manager for the National Trust, Toby Edwards, spoke to the Sentinel about some of the work being carried out for maintenance, the problems associated with keeping a ruin of the size of Downhill Demesne free from vandals, ongoing archaeological work and the Trust’s plans for the site in the future.

He said: “We have work going on right now in a number of places. We are working towards being able to secure the whole building at the Downhill Manor, with the fact that there is no roof on the building it becomes very important that we do not allow it to deteriorate any further. It is open to the elements right now, and the work that you see going on at the minute is simply to secure what we already have.

“There is some work going on inside the domestic quarters of the building, the walls and the arches to have it secured. Long term, we would like to be able to open up some portions of the site which we are not able to do at the moment. We hope to have that work completed by the end of August.

“If we were able to allow people access to the domestic quarters, it would be excellent. The story of Hervy himself is so colourful that allowing people into the domestic quarters it would allow people to imagine how the man would have lived and some of the things going on there.

“This has been helped by an archaeological dig that has been going on for the past four years under a man called Malachy Conway.

“In the present condition of the house it’s hard to put it into prespective what it might have been like. Another problem we have is anti-social behaviour – that’s one of the challenges of having the site open 24 hours of the day.

“Our long term aims are to put some sort of pre-fab structure inside the building where people would be able to come in and look at what it would have been like. A lot of that is probably down to the work down at the Ballymoney Northern Regional College. It is a real credit to them with the work they have been doing over the past three years.”

The Bishop’s Palace, as it is known locally, is currently in a severe state of dis-repair. One local stone-mason, Phillipe Moison, who teaches one of Ireland’s only stone-masonry classes at the North West Regional College has previously used the example of the Bishop’s Palace as an example of why it is so important to look after the built heritage of Northern Ireland. He said that with the roof now removed, it would be close to impossible to restore the building to its former glory.

The edifying bishop - Frederick Hervey

FRENCH philosopher Voltaire is generally credited with the phrase: “When God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys”.

While this quip is thought to have been made in reference to another member of the aristocratic Hervey family, it is no less fitting when applied to the man who was to have such a potent influence on the landscape and people of County Londonderry.

Frederick Hervey – Fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry – came from a highly original and unconventional family.

The man himself toured Europe, collected some of the greatest artwork ever produced, granted a form of asylum to locals persecuted for their religious beliefs, and left an indelible mark on the landscape itself of Northern Ireland.

While it is the Mussendun Temple, perched on top of the cliffs overlooking the beach at Downhill like a delicate, round adornment on the horizon itself, which is the most famous legacy of Frederick Augustus Hervey – the life and character of the man is among the most colourful in Londonderry’s history.

He was a man of many contradictions. As Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Derry in a time of extreme religious persecution, he granted refuge to local Catholics, an act for which some believe he may have been risking imprisonment or even death.

As a man of considerable status and reputation, he ordered potential curates on a naked, drunken run across the marshes at Downhill and in other accounts, around the city walls in Londonderry.

In charge of one of the most profitable sees in Ireland, he opposed the collection of tithes. As a religious leader, he commanded a Volunteer force which effectively became a personal army.

He was a married man who provoked scandal when he dedicated a beautiful neo-classical library to another woman – who went by the name of Mussendun.

His family history is almost as colourful. Ickworth Estate in West Suffolk still stands to this day and is currently in the care of the National Trust.

The Hervey family owned Ickworth as early as 1467, and were important in local politics from these early days, maintaining a controlling interest in the English borough of Bury St Edmunds. It was in 1714 that the family made their real fortune, however, when John Hervey became Earl of Bristol. He married two immensely wealthy heiresses and became a staunch ‘Whig’ during the beginnings of one of the defining moments of British history – the Glorious Revolution.

The Earldom of Bristol was passed on to John, Lord Hervey, whom a Public Records Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI) text describes as “the brilliant and mercurial figure whose Memoirs of the Court of George II and Queen Caroline have become a classic.” He went on to become Lord Liutenant of Ireland, and it was probably this influential position which help his brother gain the position of Bishop of Derry.

John, Lord Hervey was briefly succeeded by his brother Augustus as Earl of Bristol before the man who was to build the famous Downhill Demesne and leave such a vivid legacy took over the earldom. Frederick Augustus Hervey, was henceforth known as the Earl-Bishop.

The Earl-Bishop was renowned as an art lover, possibly something which had spilled over from his travels to the continent – particularly Italy.

He adorned his beautiful Downhill home with works by many of the Grand Masters of the Renaissance. Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and others were hung in pride of place at his palatial home.

Perhaps it was his travels to the continent which also bred in Hervey the more enlightened view he took towards his Catholic neighbours, and indeed his Presbyterian neighbours. He campaigned relentlessly, when he decided to take an interest in the politics of the day, on behalf of the downtrodden Catholic population of his time. Penal Laws outlawed saying a Catholic Mass, but Hervey defied these laws and gave refuge to local people beneath his library, which is now known as Mussendun temple. He was said to have had a great affinity for Christian people of all faiths, while others attribute this somewhat rebelliousness to a general apathy towards religion itself – in spite of his position as Bishop.

He fell in love with the natural beauty of Ireland’s North Coast and decided to construct his home atop the cliffs at Downhill. The building itself was said to have had “more windows than there are days in the year”. It was his industry in building, landscaping and developing the area around the city of Londonderry and further east towards and throughout the Roe Valley which is most apparent today.

He planted Ballykelly Forest, he constructed small lakes which are still here to this day and he built the ‘Bishop’s Road’ from Downhill to Londonderry. He restored St. Columb’s Cathedral and a host of other Churches, with many gaining a magnificent spire that would not otherwise have been constructed, and he built quite a few new Churches. He developed coal mining and agriculture throughout his see – all of which earned him the moniker of the “edifying Bishop.”

Hervey completed these works mostly from his vast personal wealth. It may be difficult to envisage how a man of such wealth would compare to the richest people of the modern era – probably in the same category as Roman Abramovich, Richard Branson or Bill Gates – however it is more difficult still to imagine one man being responsible for such an extensive scheme of works in today’s era. Burdened by planning permission restrictions and issues over land ownership it is doubtful that even a structure as beautiful as the Mussendun Temple would be given the go-ahead if it were proposed today. His annual income has been estimated to exceed what King George paid for Buckingham Palace.

His legacy to the Roe Valley areas of Downhill and Magilligan where he lived, as well as Londonderry where he invested such vast quantities of his personal wealth, is undoubtedly immense.

His contribution to cultural life in Londonderry was equally impressive – with his tolerant treatment of the Catholics of his time setting a standard which would not be equalled by the majority of society in Ulster for an age, his collection of works of art bringing the spirit of the Renaissance to the very edge of Europe, and with his personal wealth and industry he brought a level of economic development to Londonderry which had never before been witnessed. Aside from the physical mark he left on the landscape, his romanticism and sheer force of personality and character is something which will live on through the decades.

It is difficult to look at the Mussendun Temple, the Earl-Bishop’s library with its Latin inscription, and fail to conjure an image of the edifying Bishop inside, contemplating the enlightened ideas and morals contained within the many great works housed therein.

“How pleasant it is, when the waves of the Great Sea are tossed by the wind to watch the struggles of others from the safety of dry land” - translation of the Latin inscription on the Mussendun Temple.