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How they celebrate Christmas in Northern Ireland's stately homes


Manor born: Nicola and James Manningham-Buller outside Ballymote House, with their dog Nia
Manor born: Nicola and James Manningham-Buller outside Ballymote House, with their dog Nia
Nicola and James Manningham-Buller with their children when they were young
Georgian splendour: Daphne Montgomery at Grey Abbey House

By Lorraine Wylie

In the second part of our special feature looking at yuletide festivities in our grandest homes, today Lorraine Wylie visits two properties in Co Down.

Ballymote House

Situated near Downpatrick, Ballymote House is home to James and Nicola Manningham-Buller and their two children, 29-year-old Edward and Camilla (27). Purchased in 1991, the two-storey, five-bay Georgian property has been in the family a relatively short period of time. But with a lineage dating back to the 16th century, the Manningham-Buller name is well rooted in history.

James and Nicola talk about Christmas traditions and how 'big house' residents all speak the same language.

"There were a lot of little words peculiar to the big houses," Nicola explains. "For example, when I was growing up we never referred to a 'chimney piece' - it was always a 'mantlepiece'. We didn't use the word 'perfume', we referred to it as 'scent', and as for Santa Claus, well he was never anything other than 'Father Christmas'."

Nicola (nee Mackie) recalls a family Christmas with a continental flavour.

"I grew up in a place called Snipe Island, near Templepatrick," she says. "In our family, Christmas Eve was more important than Christmas Day, similar to how it is on the continent. At precisely 3pm on December 24, staff put the tree up in the drawing room.

"The family had to wait until after dinner before we could go in to see it.

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Nicola and James Manningham-Buller with their children when they were young

"The tradition was to open presents the night before Christmas. Now, we compromise by opening one on Christmas Eve and keeping the rest for the next day."

Growing up in a stately home in Northampton, James had a more formal upbringing.

"Children stayed in the nursery wing where they were looked after by nannies," he recalls. "When we were old enough to use a knife and fork, we were allowed to join the adults at the dinner table. That was a very special occasion. My earliest memory of Christmas was waking up on Christmas Eve to find my father's hunting sock at the end of the bed, stuffed with little presents."

What kind of presents did they get?

"It varied but usually practical ones," Nicola smiles. "It depended on what was needed. For example, riding was a way of life in our house so a Christmas gift could be anything from a pair of riding gloves to a new pony."

James knew exactly what to put on his Christmas list.


"When I was a boy, I had a large train set in the attic," he explains. "I started it from one engine, two wagons and a guard's van. Every Christmas I'd get something to add to it but later people began giving me money to choose my own pieces. They could be very expensive. But I loved them!"

James goes on to explain how big house menus were tasty but practical.

"A lot of people prefer goose but a goose doesn't have a lot of meat," he remarks. "With as many as 35 people for Christmas lunch, turkey was a more economical choice. Christmas pudding was a bit rich for my great-aunts so we always had an alternative dessert on offer."

Children were allowed a few Christmas privileges but while rules were relaxed, they weren't abandoned.

"We were taken down to have tea with my parents and allowed to play for half an hour," James says. "At some point, an aunt would signal to the nanny and we'd be ushered back to the nursery so that the adults could change for dinner."

It sounds an unnecessary chore but, as James points out, changing for dinner had an interesting social implication.

"It was very important," he says. "The family would have been concerned that if they didn't dress up, staff might think standards were slipping."

For Nicola, lack of staff at Christmas meant all hands on deck.

"None of the staff worked on Christmas Day, including the farm workers," she reveals. "But animals came first. I have a vivid memory of me outside, with my good dress tucked into my pants, shovelling silage!"

In James' household, December 26 began with a morning 'shoot' for the men. And the women appreciated another Boxing Day tradition - breakfast in bed.

"The women joined us at around 11am," he says. "We'd all go to the gamekeeper's house where lunch was laid out on a big trestle table."

How is Christmas celebrated in the Manningham-Buller's home today?

"It's very low-key," Nicola says. "Our tree doesn't go up until Christmas Eve and we still put candles on it. I have a little 'decoration pot' that I add to every year. We also use the same Christmas stockings."

She shows me four beautiful hand-embroidered stockings which she made for her family.

"I made this one for James in 1985, our first year together," she reveals. "When Edward and Camilla came along, I made a stocking for each of them."

One of the stockings, made from a gorgeous royal blue material, is a perfect backdrop for the delicate needlework.

"This one is mine," Nicola says, running her hand over the tapestry. "My grandmother made it for me and I've been using it for almost 60 years. It's very special to me."

The Manningham-Bullers' gifts remain thoughtful but practical.

"When the children were young, most of their toys were made from wood," James explains. "We like things that last and can be passed down through the generations."

Nicola refuses to allow her children to be spoiled.

"I'm sure I must have seemed a horrible mother," she says. "On Christmas morning I'd take half their gifts away immediately. With fewer toys around, they could focus and actually play with just a few things. We also taught them to look after their toys. I mean, our children are incredibly privileged, but with that comes responsibility. They have to take care and appreciate what they have."

Toys are no longer on the Christmas wish-list but Edward and Camilla are always sure of a unique gift.

"Edward absolutely loves dogs," Nicola says, reaching for a plywood cut-out that depicts a young Edward, accompanied by a dog, seated astride a horse. "He really liked that photograph so we had it cut out and gave it as a gift. He also collects snuff boxes so we've given him a few of those over the years."

"We also give them both watercolours, prints and lots of books." James adds.

Nicola does all the Christmas cooking including salted beef for breakfast.

"We have it with boiled eggs, but I quite like it fried," she says. "This year, we'll be having goose for lunch, my favourite!"

Find out more about Ballymote at www.ballymotehouse.com

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Georgian splendour: Daphne Montgomery at Grey Abbey House

Grey Abbey House

Tucked away on the eastern shores of Strangford Lough, surrounded by ancient woodlands, and beautiful gardens, Grey Abbey is considered the finest Georgian house throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic. The property was built in 1762 but the site has been in the Montgomery family from as far back as 1606.

Today, it is home to William and Daphne Montgomery. Throughout the year, the couple welcome visits from a variety of horticultural and historical groups - but December is always a special month.

Having just celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary on December 4, Daphne and Bill are now looking forward to the next highlight of the year - Christmas with the family.

"I love Christmas!" Daphne beams. "We have 10 grandchildren and they're all coming to us for the holiday. It's so much fun when we all get together."

The youngest daughter of Mary Bridgeman and the Honourable Geoffrey John Orlando Bridgeman MC, once an eminent ophthalmic surgeon at St George's Hospital in London, Daphne, who was born in Kent, shares her memories of Christmas past.

"My father was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour," she recalls. "He had this family joke where he'd stand with a gift in one hand and a wastepaper basket in the other. If the gift was no good it could go straight in the basket! It was very amusing.

"We had a Christmas tree and sang carols, but it wasn't like it is today. I suppose, looking back, you could say that there weren't the festivities we enjoy now.

"Even when Bill was a young lad, Christmas wasn't a big affair except for a beautiful tree which was lit with real candles and of course they loved exchanging presents and opening their stockings on Christmas morning."

Following her marriage to fine art and property consultant William Montgomery, Daphne arrived in Northern Ireland and set about creating her own brand of Christmas magic. Even today the old-fashioned blend of parlour games, songs and even a touch of thespian entertainment is still a winner with the family.

"Celebrations begin when the family arrive a few days before Christmas," she says. "The stairs are all festooned in holly but the tree doesn't go up until Christmas Eve when all the grandchildren are here. We put it in the music room and although Bill and I do a little bit of the decorating, the children insist on doing the rest. The theme of our decorations is winter birds and the colours are gold and silver. It really does look marvellous when it's finished. We also have a little nativity crib in the hall which lights up."

Like many 'big houses' today, Grey Abbey employs a small number of staff.

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Grey Abbey House which overlooks Strangford Lough

"We have a small team who are wonderful," Daphne says. "They don't work on Christmas Day so we do all the cooking ourselves. That is always great fun. We all pitch in and, somehow, the turkey always makes it to the table on time."

One of Daphne's favourite traditions is the Christmas play.

"Oh that is great fun," she says. "Every year the children get together, dress up and put on a play. We've had a few different ones including 'It Ain't Half Hot' and 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'."

The couple have four children - Hugo, Rose, Frances and Flora.

Given that Flora Montgomery is a well-known actress, perhaps a little drama is to be expected. Indeed, in 2014, Greyabbey village was treated to a showbiz thrill when Flora married London restaurateur Soren Jessen at the old 12th century Cistercian Abbey on the estate and included Hollywood film star Orlando Bloom among the guests.

But it isn't only the Montgomerys who are blessed with talent. As Daphne reveals there's a fair amount of young stars in the local primary school.

"I'm particularly fond of Greyabbey Primary School and always make an effort to attend the various functions," she enthuses.

"But this year's Christmas show was outstanding! I was absolutely amazed by the standard of talent. It really made my day and set the mood for Christmas. I've always supported local events and, actually, have just re-introduced the annual Sunday School party. We hosted it for years but then the children grew up and it fizzled out. Now there are 12 new children (from the Sunday School at St Saviour's Church, Greyabbey) so the Christmas Sunday School party is back on track with a bonfire, marshmallows, sausages - and then we go into the music room for a game of musical chairs."

What else is on the Montgomery family's Christmas programme?

"We all go to morning worship at Holy Trinity church in Kircubbin," Daphne continues. "We like it there because it has a children's service. Then, after lunch, we'll go for a walk, and then it's home to supper, song and music."

As many parents know, young children and musical instruments often equals noise. But for the Montgomery clan, it's a real treat.

"Our grandchildren, who are aged up to 15 years old, are very talented," reveals Daphne. "As well as singing carols, between them they play the oboe, the French horn, the piano and even the recorder. It's wonderful to listen to them."

What is Daphne's contribution to the Christmas party?

"I'll be reciting the poem King John's Christmas, by AA Milne!" she laughs. "But I haven't learned it yet so I'll have to get moving!"

One of her favourite traditions is also an old one and played out in many homes across the country.

"Charades," she confirms. "We love it. Bill and I sit down together and make up the names or titles. It can be anything from Ding Dong Merrily on High to Henry VIII and his six wives or even King Lear!"

For information about Grey Abbey Estates visit www.greyabbeyhouse.com

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