“Can I get a tour?”
The voice came from behind me. I had just bade farewell to my last group of tour guests and was watching their minibus leave the Car Park through the Lion’s Gate.
“Sorry – I’m just finished for today” I said as I turned towards the voice. I was tired and hungry and it was starting to get dark on that July evening.
It was an old gentleman, wearing a full-length dark coat, with a hint of a purple robe underneath. “Can you come back tomorrow?” I said – he shook his head and explained he was only in the area for a few hours and wanted to see some places from his past. He had no money either, but he would send me something later, if I gave him my address.
Normally, I would have refused, but there was something so earnest in his manner that I agreed to take him for a brief walk around, before it got too dark.
“Have you been to Downhill Demesne before?” I asked him.
“Oh yes many times, but not for quite a few years.” He had a strange accent, somewhere from the south of England but very old-fashioned, even aristocratic.
So we started the tour, and I took him to the story board with the picture of the builder of the Downhill House, that of the Earl Bishop, Frederick Augustus Hervey. My big fact of the day, that I had wowed my previous tour guests with was that today 8th July 2003 was the 200th anniversary of the Bishops death, but he just nodded knowingly.
So we began our tour, walking from the car park, through the Walled Garden, past the Dovecote, down to the Cliff Edge and round to Mussenden Temple. He said very little but listened intently, as I told him stories from the area about the O’Cahans, Binevenagh, the Railway tunnels and not forgetting the Earl Bishop himself and his successors, the Bruce Family and the National Trust. He was particularly interested in the period of history after the death of the Earl Bishop, he seemed to know the earlier stuff already. From his manner, I took him to be some sort of retired academic, a history professor perhaps, and definitely a bit of an eccentric.
On arrival at the Mussenden Temple, he became more animated. He could not believe how close it was to the Cliff Edge, and he paced around and muttered and shook his head. I assured him that the National Trust had secured the cliffs, at least in the medium term by underpinning and he relaxed. I told him how the Temple was built as a memorium to the Bishop’s second cousin Frideswide Bruce who had died quite young, not long after marrying Daniel Mussenden. He raised his eyebrows as I told him about the rumoured romantic link between the two, and he looked to the heavens and said “Well, she was a beauty”.
We turned and walked back towards Downhill House and he shook his head as I told him about how the House had burned down but was rebuilt again in the mid 1850’s. I pointed out on the left the ruins of the belvedere known as Lady Erne’s seat, called after the bishop’s oldest daughter, and he mumbled, “Yes, Mary was always my favourite”.
Then we reached Downhill House, and as we walked through the courtyard towards the main building, I took out my phone and played the Londonderry Air as some background music as we walked, and I told him of the parties hosted by the Earl Bishop and how the blind harpist, Denis O’Hampsey played this on his harp along with local volinists.
The transformation of my guest was unbelievable as he started excitedly rushing around the house, telling me stories of parties and of anecdotes of the Earl Bishop. How he laughed as he told of how the Bishop put baking powder on the corridors to see which guests had nocturnal visits to other rooms during the night.
For a few minutes our positions changed as the tour guide became the tour guest, as he told me story after story of the House, and of the life of the Bishop and his travels throughout Europe, visiting the courts of kings and queens and of collecting art treasures from Italy, Germany, France and Spain.
All too soon it was time to leave the House, as the light was nearly gone. I pointed out the mausoleum to the bishop’s brother George, the 2nd Earl of Bristol, which had been damaged in the great wind of 1839. When I told him of how the statue fell and was recovered minus its head and is now in the nearby garden, he shook his head and sighed “Poor George”.
We walked in silence back to the car park. I wanted to ask him so much more – his knowledge of the Bishop was amazing, could he share his research with me, had he written a book or academic paper, were just some of the thoughts that went racing through my mind.
As we reached the car park, he thanked me for the tour. “Bless you, my dear boy” he said and touched me on the shoulder. It was a friendly, but strangely cold touch on such a mild summer’s evening.
“Let me get you my address” I said and went to my car to get a page to write it down. When I returned, he was gone, vanished as quickly and quietly as he had appeared.
Well that was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve never seen him since. While he never paid me with money, the stories he told have remained with me, and enthralled my guests from that day to now, as we visit this beautiful and magical place, of the Downhill Demesne.
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