A visit to Hillsborough Castle
I didn’t expect the Northern Irish residence of the British Royal Family and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to be a family-friendly attraction. But two adults (one pretty sceptical about my fascination with historic homes) and two children (under two) had a brilliant time at Hillsborough Castle.
Initial disappointment that it’s not actually a castle, and that there wasn’t an on-site cafe (we arrived at 11am on a Sunday – a dark hole for the unprepared in need of a coffee and sausage roll) was assuaged on approach to the gates. It’s a beautiful late-Georgian house, and accessed by an extraordinarily enthusiastic tourist information centre and very kind security guards who were at pains to explain that their office was being refurbished so they needed to bring the ‘magic wand’ (aka the hand-held scanner) out to us.
The grounds are lovely – and there are nearly 100 acres of them – kilometres of small stones for small children to rearrange.
We were lucky to visit on the morning of the first day of Spring – the sun wasn’t quite out and clearly people had decided to spend their Sundays elsewhere. It was just us on the 12 o’clock house tour. Our guide was great – full of information, responsive to questions, not remotely perturbed by a sofa-clambering 2 year old, and more or less pushed the pram round while chatting to us.
The Queen gives lots of notice, the notice from others is sometimes the sound of a helicopter landing in the grounds
In the scale of castles and palaces, Hillsborough Castle is small and the tour at present sticks to the ground floor i.e. the State Rooms, which are all still in use. And perhaps this is why there’s such a great feeling to the place – it’s a working house. When we visited, the Dining Room hadn’t quite been reset after a function the previous night, and we were invited to sit on the sofas.
The guest book dedicated to royal visitors had been embraced by an enthusiastic American tourist who has written ‘Bob was here’. They were deciding whether to remove the page. There’s an emphasis on showcasing local produce and craft, including Ulster Carpets and Waterford Crystals as examples.
I’m sure there’ll be an excellent locally-produced sausage roll available in years to come
In 2014 the house and grounds came under the auspices of Historic Royal Palaces. And there are plans afoot: refurbishment of various areas of the house is already underway; and there are plans to open up the apartments where Mo Mowlam stayed (her ashes are scattered in the grounds), and longer-term to build a Visitor Centre.
I’m sure there’ll be an excellent locally-produced sausage roll available in years to come, and that the Visitor Centre and other resources will allow the Castle to become financially sustainable, but just hope that shiny capital investment does not detract from the intimacy, and the delicate historical and political stories that this house has been home to.
Other bits and bobs about Hillsborough Castle:
The house was built in the 18th century for the Hill family (and indeed that’s how the village got its name – the family went on to build the village). House and grounds were sold by the family to the British Government in the 1920s.
The house served as a venue for a range of meetings during the Peace Process, including the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, decommissioning talks in 1999 and the e negotiation of the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010 (The Hillsborough Agreement)
Members of the Royal Family come and go as they please. The Queen gives lots of notice, the notice from others is sometimes the sound of a helicopter landing in the grounds.
The art collection will soon be listed online. It includes a number of works owned by an American collector, including a Joshua Reynolds.
Hillsborough Fort (built 1650) is opposite the house, and the starting point for the Hill Family building the village of Hillsborough. http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/Hillsborough-Fort-Hillsborough-P7895
You can hire the house as a wedding venue!
You can find out more about Hillsborough Castle on the ‘Historic Palaces website: Hillsborough Castle