Downhill House & Mussenden Temple, Derry, Ireland

Downhill House and the Mussenden Temple were constructed in the late part of the 18th century near Castlerock in County Derry. Work began on the house in the early 1770s and was commissioned by Rev Dr Frederick Hervey, the 4th Earl of Bristol and Church of Ireland Lord Bishop of Derry. The house and temple were built by the architect Michael Shanahan for an estimated cost of £80,000. The entrance gate (still that of the car park) was guarded by two leopards, part of the Hervey, coat of arms, in 1794 another gate, known as the Bishop’s Gate, became the principle entrance, this can still be seen to the east of Downhill House. Frederick Hervey’s niece was Frideswide Mussenden, a renowned beauty of her time for whom the temple was built, a memorial to her premature death. The temple itself is a beautiful structure, constructed as library for Lord Bristol. The temple was modelled on the Temple of Vesta part of the Roman forum, a quotation from the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius can be seen on the top of the temple, ‘Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem’ (Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore, The troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar). The temple originally did not stand so precariously close to the edge of the cliff, and originally a horse-drawn carriage could be driven around its edge. The walls were lined with bookcases and these were kept dry by an enclosed flue and fires burning constantly in its basements. After Lord Bristol’s death the estate passed to his cousing Rev. Henry Bruce. The house suffered significant damage during a fire in 1851 and much of the house and library were destroyed, including arts by Rubens and Dürer, to name but two. Restoration of the house began in 1870 and ended in 1874 and remained in the Bruce family until 1946.

Due to its excellent strategic position the house was used as lodgings for the RAF (Royal Air Force) servicemen and women during WW2. Much of the house was dismantled after the war and by 1950 it had become ruinous, its surrounding lands sold. The Mussenden Temple remained was acquired by the national trust in the 1940s and the house was acquired in 1980. The building itself was contentious during its life, some felt that its positioning and structure bordered in the sublime, others such as Edward Wakefield, said in 1812 that he had, “Never seen so bad a house occupy as much ground.”.The structure at Downhill is indeed immense and brash so both schools of thought may have been right, but it is a fantastic place to stop at if visiting Derry, the stroll down to Mussenden and views out to sea are worth it alone.

GPS: 55.16446, -6.81057

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