Last week, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended a garden party at Hillsborough Castle, The Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. Since the manor house is little used in comparison to the residences in London, it often slips under the radar of royal watchers, but is well worth a visit.
Originally built in the 1770s for the Hill family, Hillsborough was initially a modest country home, situated 13 miles outside of Belfast, opposite the original Fort, and adjacent to the Court House. The Georgian creation was that of Wills Hill, first Marquis of Downshire, of the powerful Hill family, who were the largest landowners in Ireland in their prime.
The Marquis held numerous offices close to the Royal Family: he was Secretary of the American Colonies during the 1770s and Comptroller of the Royal Household during the 1750s. It is thought he spent time at Kensington Palace during the reign of George II.
Wills was also responsible for the village of the same style, and it was a royal decree which saw the village of Hill become a ‘borough’, hence the name Hillsborough.
In the early 1800s, the Hill family expanded a little, creating a grand country pile. They added a Library, a Billiards Room, offices from which to run the estate, a Muniments Room, and improved servants quarters.
The century saw the castle used less and less, and by 1900, Hillsborough was rented out privately. In December 1924, the British Government’s Imperial Office bought the house for £25,000 (somewhere in the region of £1.3 million today), from the 6th Marquis, as Viceregal Lodge in Dublin now lay in the new Irish State, not part of the UK.
Following the Irish Free State Act of 1922, the position of Lord Lieutenant became ‘Governor’, and so Hillsborough Castle became Government House. The then-Governor, The Duke of Abercorn, had the State Rooms improved and modernised, with some extension in the form of new apartments built for him and his family.
After a fire in 1934, much rebuilding took place, leaving Hillsborough as we see it today. Earl Granville – uncle to The Queen – took over the position as Governor in 1945, and so Her Majesty, The Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret spent many holidays at the house, before the position was abolished in 1973, when direct rule from London came into force.
Hillsborough became a centre for peace talks in the late 1960s and 1970s, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed here in 1985, followed by decommissioning talks in 1999, and the negotiation of the devolution of policing and justice powers (The Hillsborough Agreement) in 2010. Elements of the informal negotiations leading up to the ‘Good Friday’ agreement were also held at Hillsborough.
Today, the castle is also the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, currently Theresa Villiers, who holds a garden party each year, usually attended by a royal guest.
Royals may turn up to the house at any time, perhaps for a private weekend in the beautiful Northern Irish countryside, but it is usually used for official purposes. When they visit, the usually sign the visitors book – which one cheeky guest (a certain ‘Bob’) and a US President, decided they also wanted to sign…
Much like Clarence House (see our peek inside Charles & Camilla’s home here), there were few cordons and ropes to stop visitors from getting too close to furniture, or inspecting items. We were allowed to sit in each room (save the Chairs of State and the set place at the dining table) and linger to take photos. I was impressed at the detail the guide went into.
The grand entrance hall in the country pile features a ceremonial shovel (silver plated, of course), and portraits of those linked to Hillsborough. Portraits, many of which come from the Royal Collection, include Wills Hill, Queen Anne and King William III, all giving an insight into the past of the house.
You may notice the Royal Coat of Arms above the fireplace sits on a blue background. Blue is, in fact, the true colour of Ireland, not green – even the Irish Guards have blue plumes in their bearskins. The Queen Mother would often wear blue, St Patrick’s if she had an outfit of that shade, to hand out shamrocks to them when she was Royal Colonel, as Prince William is now.
Through to an ante-room is the desk with the visitor’s book upon it, which then leads into the Red Room, furnished with a round table and fabulous chandelier. It looks out onto the back gardens, which extend around the side of the house, and down to a large, secluded lake.
Much of the furniture is on loan, with plenty of period pieces to fit the house, but since HRP only took over the property in 2014, it is still being dressed.
On one of the commodes to the side, sits a Chinese bowl, which was valued when the Antiques Roadshow visited the castle a few years ago. The figures were never revealed to the public, but it is thought this piece is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not a few million.
Through to the State Dining Room, a contrast in pale blue, the space is generous. Holding a small rectangular table, with one place setting for visitors to see how Royals might dine. This is set in Her Majesty’s seat, which is always with her back to the fire as the most senior diner.
You may notice the carpet, which was made by Ulster Carpets. They have now been commissioned to create numerous pieces for Buckingham Palace, a contract which will be in place for years.
Through the corner door in the Red Room leads to the Throne Room – which, in fact, contains no thrones, but Chairs of State. Gold gilt, all the same, but not quite as regal as thrones…
A suntrap if ever there was one, the long room captures the sun’s heat with its large windows looking out onto the gardens, which slope down gently, before opening out into a large lake.
Receptions and dinners often take place in this room – though weddings are tightly controlled, so they often remain in a marquee in the garden. On the walls hang a number of paintings from a private American collection. Our tour guide told us they were some of the paintings the collector’s wife was not find of… and you can see why. Most of them are dark toned, with some unusual depictions.
Prince Charles conducted the first investiture at Hillsborough in 2014 in this room.
The penultimate room open to the public is the State Drawing Room, another long room, functioning as a formal sitting room. Another pale blue room, this feels homely despite the grandeur of the house.
Here, you are allowed to sit on the sofa – which The Queen herself uses when there – so of course, I had to have a seat….!
Hilary Clinton was a regular guest here and so her photo stands on one end table. It was also in this room that Prince Philip attended a Duke of Edinburgh reception, and that Margaret Thatcher greeted the press following the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1985.
The desk at the far end of the room holds family photos; it is as if The Queen is simply away for the weekend.
It is from this room that the terrace extends out into the garden, and where William and Catherine stood for the National Anthem at the garden party.
It is tradition that Royals plant a tree on each visit to Hillsborough, and one spot in particular gives great photos for this event. Sadly, people caught on that the location was the same each time, so now different spots are used throughout the gardens for these saplings.
A private staircase, in the hall where Royals enter, marks the beginning of the end of the tour. The final room is a small sitting room, filled with cabinets of knickknacks, where Tony Blair and George Bush met secretly for security talks in the early 2000s. Here they are in the Red Room during their stay.
The stairs bear the Northern Irish Coat of Arms, and our guide told us a little about the rooms upstairs, which visitors are not allowed to see. He said they were generously proportioned, much like downstairs, with en-suites and antique furniture. No doubt a few of these rooms overlook the pleasant gardens.
While we were not told this, it seems apparent that Ms Villiers, current Secretary of State, has her rooms to the right of the castle. The doors in the dining room were cordoned off, and we were not shown any of that side of the house. The style also seems to be more old-fashioned and office-like, as opposed to traditional decor as seen in the State Rooms.
Historic Royal Palaces took on the day-to-day running of the castle in 2014, and has recently received £20 million funding to maintain the residence. Buy tickets or membership to HRP here.