Belfast Telegraph

Once crumbling Ulster country pile is now favoured location for film crews

By Linda Stewart

When Lord Dunleath moved into Ballywalter Park his home was so unhabitable that neighbours joked going to bed there was like climbing between sheets of wet cardboard.

But the stately home on the Ards Peninsula has undergone a startling transformation over the past few decades, changing from a crumbling semi-derelict structure to a welcoming mansion filled with everything from statues and old railway posters to a beautiful rocking horse.

The house has also become a popular location for film and television shoots.

A new Frankenstein drama is to be filmed there next year.

The A* listed house was built in 1846 by his ancestor, former Lord Mayor Andrew Mulholland.

It was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon around an original Georgian structure.

But the years had begun to take their toll.

"When my wife and I arrived, the dry rot had been eradicated and the hall, staircase and first floor had all been done," Lord Dunleith explained.

"But there was a serious fire in 1973 and the house came within a whisker of being lost.

"The second floor was completely uninhabitable - it was derelict."

Over the next 15 years, the couple embarked on a major revamp, transforming the top floor to provide five double bedrooms, renovating the kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, followed by the exterior of the building before moving onto the billiard room.

The conservatory was restored in 2008/9, followed by the reception room and drawing room.

Now it hosts shooting parties, conferences and has been used as a location for numerous movies including Divorcing Jack, 37 Days, Christopher And His Kind and The Wipers Times.

Lord Dunleath has childhood memories of visits to a bitterly cold house, where a fire would have to be lit for hours before you could use a room.

"One of our neighbours in Greyabbey stayed overnight and he said going to bed was like climbing between sheets of wet cardboard," he said. "When I came here, the billiard room was unusable after the end of October. As for the gentlemen's loos, going in there was a torture which you avoided if you possibly could."

One of the three heating systems used a series of grilles to blow heat from the vast boiler in the basement round the ground floor.

Although this did little to battle the cold, it was too much for Lord Dunleath's' great grandmother, who was a "fitness freak".

"She didn't believe heating was good for us and she disconnected it. It wasn't reconnected until the 1980s."

Because the house was built in such a piecemeal manner, it was difficult to heat and powering the big boilers cost a fortune. The oil tankers were practically queued up outside during the winter and the heating was kept switched off in most rooms unless visitors were staying.

"We were almost living in the kitchen and breakfast room - we were getting cabin fever," Lord Dunleath added.

But the couple have embraced the new green technologies pioneered in Northern Ireland - shaving £20,000 a year off the heating bill by installing a biomass boiler system powered by brites wood pellets from Co Fermanagh. Meanwhile, a wind turbine is to be installed on the estate next year.

And the next major project will be restoration of the cricket wing - a feature that few other homes in Northern Ireland can boast. The badly rundown cricket wing once hosted visiting teams and had 11 bedrooms.

Factfile

Ballywalter Park has been a location for numerous film and  TV shoots, including:

Divorcing Jack

Christopher And His Kind

The Undisclosed

Hitler On Trial

Wodehouse In Exile

The Wipers Times

37 Days

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