European Heritage Open Days

First published on September 2015

The European Heritage Open Days provide a fantastic opportunity to explore some historic gems about the country with the whole family.  In 2015 I met the charming Lord Dunleath at Ballywalter Park, took in the panoramic views of County Down at the top of Scrabo Tower, explored the atmospheric Riddel’s Warehouse and marvelled at the mausolea in Knockbreda Cemetery.

For two days in September The DoE and the NI Tourist Board help to facilitate places of architectural heritage in opening their doors to the public.  For free.  The idea is to celebrate our built heritage by giving everyone an opportunity to peak behind the magnificent façades of some of our beloved and lesser known historic structures.

A few years back I took the opportunity to tour the Grand Opera House and the Crumlin Road Gaol.  This year I was keen to venture out of Belfast to visit Ballywalter Park especially after all the tweets with Lord and Lady Dunleath, owners of the grand house.  Driving up to the house of the 270 acre estate my family and I were amazed at the sheer amount of pheasants roaming about the grassland.  There were hundreds of them! I guess shooting season was upon us!


The house, built in 1846 for Andrew Mulholland – a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon whose extensive architectural portfolio includes Queens University Belfast, Crumlin Road Gaol and Custom House Square.  Lord Dunleath, descendant of the Mulhollands, was our perfectly charming and charismatic tour guide for the morning.


We heard wonderful stories of his ancestors that once lived at Ballywalter Park including tales of his Great-Grandmother Norah Ward who had a penchant for collecting the most impracticable of souvenirs and liked to weigh guests on their departure to ensure that they had enjoyed fully the hospitality bestowed upon them!

The Dunleaths have undertaken a vast amount of restoration on the building and on some of the heirlooms within.  A couple of children on our tour jumped at the invite to have a go on the freshly restored rocking horse, the parents understandably a little apprehensive when Lord Dunleath told us its value.  The restoration of the library and drawing room revealed the markings of a Badminton court on its floor but the task of cataloging some four thousand odd books has still to be undertaken.

Our tour ended in the billiards room where it was lovely to see the current occupiers own influence with a collection of vintage Northern Ireland tourism posters adorning the walls and a marvelous Danish designed light fixture. It was then onto the conservatory for a cuppa with Lady Dunleath’s tasty chocolate brownies (I so need that recipe!) and purchase some of Brian’s preserves before taking a stroll around the gardens.


With so much knowledge about the history of the house and all that lived there it’s clear to see this has been a very happy home for Lord Dunleath and his wife and with all the restoration it is sure to be for generations to come.  I have such gratitude for them welcoming us so generously into their home and had there been a set scales I think Granny Ward would have been smiling from her grave.  The walled garden was not quite ready to be viewed by visitors but you can take a delightful read about the activities here in the Ballywalter Park Walled Garden Blog.


On our way back to Belfast we were headed towards the well known towering structure in County Down’s landscape – Scrabo Tower.  Built in 1857 in memorandum of Charles William Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, the tower provides unrivaled panoramic views atop over North Down.



The tower stands watch over Strangford Lough, Belfast Lough and the Mourne Mountains and boasts views right over to Scotland on a clear day, which we did have despite the clouds in the picture below! The monument has been subject to a lot of rainwater penetration, unfortunately it has to remain closed to the public for the foreseeable future so thanks to EHOD for giving us the chance to get inside!


On the second day of the free weekender I remained close to home, first by visiting Riddel’s Warehouse in Ann street in the city centre. The ironmongery warehouse built between 1865 and 1867 stored and sold cast iron manufactured in Musgrave.  Inside we walked on cobbles past the remnants of the old arched wooden door onto the old weigh bridge where carts of iron once stood.  To either side empty shells of what used to be finance and managerial offices.  We then walked into the vast open space where daylight floods in from the glass roof.



Our guide Marcus Patton from Hearth Housing and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society gave us a great vision of how the warehouse was used for the work of John Riddel & Co and now with the purchase of the building secured by the Hearth Revolving Fund, how it will used for generations to come.  The pillars of cast iron and pigeon holes of old nuts and bolts are fantastic features for the new home of the Royal Ulster Academy; as well as gallery space they hope to have artists studios and will be a welcoming place for locals and tourists alike.  Would be lovely to perhaps see some theatrical performances here too.


During restoration he hopes, along with the imposing features, some of the graffiti will be preserved such as the “Welcome to Buckingham Palace” scribbling found on the upper floor. It’s always a joy to explore a disused space knowing that there are plans in place allowing it to fulfill a purpose once more.  You can find out more about the great work of UAHS and Hearth Housing by visiting their websites.


I didn’t have to venture too far for my final tour of EHOD 2015 at Knockbreda Cemetery.  More often than not my blog posts come back to cemeteries!  The tour of the graveyard focused on the Mausolea which tied in perfectly with this year’s European Heritage theme of industry.  Three mausolea remain at the site belonging to the families of Waddell-Cunningham, Greg and the Rainey family.


All families were rich merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries helping to transform Belfast from a market town to an industrial centre of linen and shipbuilding.  There’s lots of interesting characters and stories to be found here, like Richard Cow Rowe – who died in 1792 a celebrated comedian and Alexander Corry who was accidentally strangled when his neckerchief caught whilst he was turning a lathe, only 25 years of age.  To bring me full circle after having visited one of his creations the previous day, we visited the gravestone erected for Sir Charles Lanyon and family.


A fascinating tour to round off the weekend.  Now where to next year…

… Read my 2016 EHOD explorations here



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