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Meet former marketing guru Peter Stark who ditched the rat race to become a volunteer guide at Mount Stewart

Ahead of tonight's final episode of UTV's The Big House, Una Brankin chats with historian and volunteer Peter Stark

Peter Stark was rummaging in the storage room of the chapel at Mount Stewart in Co Down last August, when a sophisticated couple of visitors took him by surprise.

"The lady was rather elegant, and the guy asked me could I tell them about any special features to look out for on the estate," says Peter, a former marketing high flyer.

"They had noticeably polite accents, and I asked them if they were on holiday," he explains. "They said they were attending the actress Flora Montgomery's wedding in Greyabbey. So I chittered away and asked them if they were connected to the bride or groom and so on. It was only when I got home and looked them up on Google that I discovered they were Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark.

"It turns out they're close friends of Flora and her husband (London restaurateur, Soren Jessen). I'd no idea - they were in jeans, just spending a few hours before the wedding service. Orlando Bloom was there, too, but he didn't get as far as Mount Stewart."

The Crawfordsburn historian (59) also rubbed shoulders with British royalty when Charles and Camilla visited earlier this year for the official re-opening of Mount Stewart, where Peter is part of the management team. He says he found a kindred spirit in the prince.

"Prince Charles was very down-to-earth, and when he was introduced to us as a group of volunteers, he joked 'I've been a volunteer all my life', which I suppose he has, given his various charitable roles," Peter says.

"Camilla was lovely, too, chatty and bright. I don't know how they keep that going all the time," says Peter. "We also had Sir Jack Leslie, from Castle Leslie in Monaghan, here. He's quite an elderly man now, but a great character."

Peter opted out of the rat race, and has been volunteering for the National Trust since 2008. During his 16 years as the MD of Genesis Communications and Marketing, he had developed a love of heritage while working with organisations such as the Mid-Antrim Museum and the Northern Ireland Museum Council.

Then, having reached a point in his life where he wanted a change of pace, volunteering was suggested to him as an activity which might help him achieve that. At the same time, he began a course in Irish History at Queen's University, Belfast.

"I reckon if you don't understand the past, you won't understand the future," says Peter, who has lived alone since his divorce. "We have many histories and through Queen's, I got involved with volunteering at Mount Stewart. I developed a real love for the place and realised that, by becoming a guide there, I could open eyes to the cultural diversity in Northern Ireland and awaken interest in our hidden histories."

Peter then successfully applied for a seasonal role as a house guide, where he has utilised his skills and contacts from his former working life to help the National Trust work with TV producers and broadcasters. His media knowledge has come in useful when programmes, including Britain's Hidden heritage and the BBC Roadshow The Great British Story, have come to call. He has even helped out Angie Phillips with the weather forecast from the neo-classical mansion.

"I went to school in Holywood with the newscaster, Dermot Murnaghan, and it was great to catch up with him when he was filming for the BBC roadshow here. Britain's Hidden Heritage, with Flog It presenter, Peter Martin, also filmed here, which was fast-paced, and good fun, too."

Peter remains non-executive chairman of Genesis, and has progressing at Mount Stewart to become a Day Leader in the house, which involves mentoring and looking after the many volunteers who tell the stories of the place and the Stewart family. He agrees it's a very different world to the one he left behind.

"My job is relatively stress-free whereas before, I was working to deadlines all the time and sitting going over tender documents before pressing the button to pitch for a government contract, or whatever.

"Here, you start to relax the minute you get out of the car and walk up through the garden and smell the Eucalyptus - it's so tranquil. And it's great to show children these incredible portraits and explain that paintings were the Facebook of yesteryear; that a painting of a princess was done to show to potential suitors and to find a prince for her to marry.

"That intrigues them and it's more fulfilling work for me than my old job. Interacting with all different sorts of people is great."

Peter has featured on The Big House series on the recent restoration of Mount Stewart, which concludes this evening at 8pm on UTV.

Frequently, children ask him if the 18th century house, by the eastern shore of Strangford Lough, is haunted.

"Come the late evenings when the light starts to fade, they want to know if there are any ghosts about. It's an old house, so there are plenty of creaking doors and floorboards in the corridors, but it's such a tranquil, happy place - if there are any ghosts, they're friendly.

"All your worries start to drift away when you come here. It's not remote and bare and cold like some other big houses - it's warm and welcoming. I love the Tir Na Nog garden above the lake; it's so peaceful and full of the nicest plants, and the sitting room, by the Italian garden, on the west side which is full of books, including some given to the family by their late friend, Sir Winston Churchill."

For National Trust buildings aficionados, Peter has some good news - the opening of a new wing in Mount Stewart next year.

"It's the late Lady Mary's quarters; she passed away in 2009," he says. "Her suite of rooms, behind big mahogany doors at the top of the stairs, includes a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom, which will be open to the public by the middle of 2016. The current occupants are Lady Rose Lauritzen and her husband, who made a very grand donation to the conservatorship of the suite and a massive amount of work has been done to it, including the replication of textiles, to bring the space back to life." Peter is now giving many younger volunteers the benefit of his experience. The National Trust is collaborating with Volunteer Now to find new ways of working with volunteers of all ages, and has registered to be part of the Millennium Volunteer Programme. This scheme, which is aimed at young people, from ages 14 to 24, has placed several volunteers in diverse roles at Mount Stewart, including sixth form students and Queen's University graduates.

Jenny Ferguson, Mount Stewart's volunteer co-ordinator, says: "Our more mature volunteers, like Peter, are really taking the younger ones under their wing and helping them learn new skills.

"We are benefiting so much from the enthusiasm and dedication they bring to what they do.

"We also have millennium volunteers helping in the gardens and with the Strangford team. It has been a complete pleasure to work with the volunteers so far and we will be seeking to develop our work with younger volunteers in the future."

TV series a hit with viewers

  • Featuring the official opening by Prince Charles and Camilla, the final episode of Mount Stewart - The Big House Reborn will be on UTV tonight at 8pm
  • The six-part series has been a ratings hit for UTV, beating EastEnders on BBC NI, with an average of 167,000 viewers tuning in
  • Viewers will see the staff at Mount Stewart work to complete the final touches of the restoration project ahead of their deadline before the royal visit. Meanwhile, the arrival of the "Londonderry Loan" boosts the house's collection of items from 500 to 15,000, while the National Trust also purchases the demesne surrounding the gardens

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