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Dream of a fairytale wedding at Mount Stewart came true

Ahead of a new UTV series on the restoration of the National Trust property, one local bride tells Una Brankin of the race against time to get her venue ready for the big day.

For Nicola Kelly, a childhood dream came true on June 28, 2013. Not only did she get married in the fairy-tale setting she'd always dreamed of for her big day, but the occasion was filmed - regally, from the rafters - for a new television show.

The beautiful wedding will feature in Mount Stewart - The Big House Reborn, a six-part UTV documentary on the £8m restoration of the 18th century mansion on the shores of Strangford Lough.

It will be the first viewing of their official, special "wedding video" for Nicola and husband Andy Kelly, from Groomsport.

"None of our guests knew the cameras were from UTV and we didn't tell them until the reception, as we didn't want them reacting to them," says Nicola, a volunteer for RNLI lifeboats. "We had 100 guests and we wanted to keep it as natural as possible. The cameras were up behind the balustrade on the gallery, so they weren't in the way at all."

Nicola's parents, Isobel and Sidney Greene, first brought her to see Mount Stewart when she was 10 or 11. It was love at first sight for the youngster.

"I never forgot the sheer grandeur of it, the staircase and the massive paintings and the gardens," Nicola recalls. "It was so pretty, like you were escaping into another world. After that we went round all the National Trust buildings but Mount Stewart always had the biggest impact on me."

The public parts of the National Trust Grade A listed building, which dates back to the mid-1700s, were much in need of a facelift since Nicola's original visit 30 years ago. A monumental three-year restoration and conservation project began in 2012, including repairs and improvements to the structure and services in the house, from the deep cleaning of stone floors to the recreation of handmade rugs.

In March of the same year, Nicola (40) and Andy (51) got engaged.

Nicola says: "Andy proposed in the Merchant Hotel and two days later we went to meet the wedding co-ordinator at Mount Stewart. The minute we walked in and Andy saw the look on my face, he knew the decision had been made.

"It brought me back to the first time I saw it when I was 10 or 11 - you know at that age, your head's full of books and princesses. I'm an only child and my parents had waited a long time for me to get married, so it had to be something special."

Mount Stewart's wedding co-ordinator Jan Hollinger told the couple about the restoration programme but promised that the work within the Central Hall would be completed prior to the wedding date.

"Initially it was a bit worrying - what it if it would not be ready? I had my heart set on getting married there," Nicola admits. "Then we were asked if we would like to include our wedding as part of the media programme storyline of the restoration and we were delighted to be part of it.

"We decided not to have a wedding video and the programme clips will be the first time we will see our day, other than the photos.

"Mount Stewart were really good at keeping us up-to-date with what was happening in terms of the restoration and they invited us to the house to see how they were getting on. It was a wonderful day - we had a private tour of the house and we met with some of the restoration team and their advice that everything would be ready for our wedding was very reassuring. I had total faith that it would be finished in time."

The black and white stone floor of the Central Hall was badly in need of restoration. A stone conservator spent four weeks on it, deep-cleaning the stone with some very time-consuming, careful scrubbing to bring it back to its original, striking glory.

Although general renovations were ongoing, as promised, the stunning Central Hall was ready in time for the wedding.

The groom's children from his previous marriage - Daniel (22) and Christine (25) - acted as best man and bridesmaid on the big day.

"Everything about it - the black and white floor and the vivid colours on the walls, and the wonderful chandeliers, made brilliant backdrops for our wedding photos," says Nicola. "I particularly love the picture of us taking our vows in the Central Hall and the one of us, just married, at the front of the house.

"We had a lovely champagne reception in the gardens - the grounds were perfect. It was a lovely morning, though a little windy. It only rained for five minutes the whole day, at the end of our photographs."

One of the most special aspects of the day for the couple was the presence of Mount Stewart's owner, Lady Rose Lauritzen, whose family has lived at the Co Down country spread since the 18th century.

Nicola says: "Lady Rose happened to be there that day and she came out to speak to Andy before I arrived, to wish him good luck. That made it even more special, and we saw the family quarters of the house that others don't get to see.

"We were at a function there recently and I went over to Lady Rose to thank her for allowing weddings at the house, and told her how much it meant to me. She remembered us from the filming. She was very kind."

Lady Rose is a distant cousin of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who attended the official re-opening of Mount Stewart, with Prince Charles, in May. The royal couple cut a celebration cake with a silver sword on loan from David Lindsay, Lord Lieutenant of Co Down, during their visit.

Nicola and Andy cut their wedding cake at their local golf club, after their champagne reception in Mount Stewart's gardens.

Nicola says: "My favourite memory from the day was walking in among all those huge marble statues, and the double doors opening into the Central Hall, and Andy standing at the top, waiting for me. It felt like a royal wedding, absolutely.

"We haven't seen footage yet - we decided to wait until it's broadcast and have some friends round. Anything for a bottle of champagne. It's going to be brilliant to look back on."

  • Mount Stewart - The Big House Reborn begins on UTV tonight at 8pm

Project that rolls back the years ...

  • In a vast project that took three years to complete, UTV cameras followed every detail of the monumental restoration from structural enhancements to the replacement of curtains. The people featured in the documentary, their abundance of knowledge and their apparent love for restoring Mount Stewart to its magnificent glory, are as interesting as witnessing the restoration itself.
  • The house has been treated with the utmost care by a huge team of experts and tradesmen specialising in restoring the house to its original state, including unique trades in plasterwork, joinery and marble.
  • A selection of rooms is now open to view for the first time, including the butler's silver store, family and guest bedrooms, and the billiards room.
  • A world class collection of family portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, recognised by many as the greatest British portrait painter of the early 19th century, is now on view.
  • In the Central Hall, one of Northern Ireland's most famous paintings, Stubbs' Hambletonian, Rubbing Down has been given a brand new frame. Hambletonian was one of the best thoroughbred racehorses of the late 18th century, having won all of his races, except one.
  • A collection of beautiful table silver, including ambassadorial silver used by Charles Stewart is also on view.

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