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Meet the couple whose home was once owned by the family of notorious murderer Half-Hung MacNaghten and where an escaped lion was shot on the front lawn

Situated in the north west, Benvarden estate has a chequered history as Lorraine Wylie finds out when she chats to present owners Valerie and Hugh Montgomery who have spent six decades restoring the original gardens

Hugh and Val Montgomery at home
Hugh and Val Montgomery at home
Hugh and Val Montgomery in their dining room at Benvarden
Hugh and Val Montgomery strolling through the garden of their estate
One of the sitting rooms

By Lorraine Wylie

Tucked away between Ballymoney and Bushmills, Benvarden is one of the oldest estates in Northern Ireland. Dating back to the 17th century, the two-storey property, set within 350 acres of mature grounds, has been in the Montgomery family since 1798.

Down through the centuries, the house has undergone some major alterations, including the addition of 11 bedrooms, a drawing room, a dining room and an impressive semi-circular, cantilevered staircase.

Current owners Hugh and Valerie Montgomery have focused more on Benvarden's outward appearance. Having spent 60 years restoring the original gardens and adding their own creations, they have transformed Benvarden into an oasis of tranquillity.

Keen to know more about the green-fingered husband and wife team, I arranged to visit them at the family home. There, after a warm welcome, they ushered me into a drawing room so spacious that journalist Geoff Hill once declared it "bigger than Fermanagh".

The sound of a television filters through from the room next door and Valerie tells me they'd been watching tennis. But it isn't long before conversation turns to the more interesting subject of the Montgomery family history.

"Benvarden was once part of the lands belonging to the Macdonalds, the Earls of Antrim," Hugh says, leaning back in his chair as he warms to his theme. "At the time, they were living in Dunluce Castle and referred to this place as the 'hunting lodge'. Back then, there were only three rooms downstairs and maybe three up - nobody knows for sure.

"In 1630, the Earl's daughter married the farm manager, David MacNaghten, and they were given Benvarden plus 3,000 acres as a wedding present. The MacNaghten family lived here until 1760. Tell me, do you know the story of half-hung MacNaghten?"

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My knowledge of local folklore is sketchy but I do recall a few details about John MacNaghten. Born into a wealthy family, he not only gambled away his fortune but embezzled £800 to feed his addiction. Feeling sorry for him, the kindly MP for Donegal, Andrew Knox, invited MacNaghten to stay with his family at Prehen near Londonderry. However, MacNaghten betrayed his kindness by seducing the MP's 15-year-old daughter, Mary Anne Knox.

"MacNaghten wanted Mary Anne's money!" Val tells me. "I remember reading that abducting heiresses was quite a profitable business at the time. Very often, parents paid up because even just one night with the abductor spelt ruin for the young woman - nobody else wanted her.

"Anyway, Mr Knox decided that the only way to keep his daughter safe was to take her away. Of course, MacNaghten was having none of it. He gathered men from Ballybogey and, armed to the teeth, went to waylay Knox's coach. In the brawl, he meant to shoot the father but missed and killed Mary Anne instead."

She leaves Hugh to fill in the details.

"In 1761, MacNaghten was found guilty at Lifford Court and sentenced to death by hanging. Apparently, as was the custom back then, huge crowds turned out to watch. However, the rope broke and MacNaghten fell to the ground. You can imagine the scene! People were shouting, urging him to flee. They said it was his lucky day - but MacNaghten refused. As the story goes, he said he didn't want to be known as 'half-hanged MacNaghten' and promptly climbed back onto the scaffold. The rope didn't break the second time and he was put to death, but the nickname survived. After he died, Benvarden was seized by creditors and, for the next 25 years, nothing happened here until the Montgomerys arrived in the 1700s."

Earliest records trace the Montgomery name to Normandy in France. In 1066, Roger De Mundergumbrie was awarded 'the Earldom of Shrewsbury' in recognition of his support of William the Conqueror. His grandson Robert was granted lands in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and, around 600 years later, the Montgomery clan appears in Ireland. One branch settled in Donegal to become the ancestors of the famous Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

"Nobody really knows anything about my branch of the Montgomery family or what they did in Scotland," Hugh explains. "We do know that Hugh Montgomery, born in 1740, bought Benvarden in 1795. When they first arrived here, they lived in Glenarm - no, not the castle! They had a small house there. We also know that Hugh was rather a good businessman with quite a few projects in Belfast."

Between them, the couple piece the story together.

"Hugh had a shipping business and traded between Belfast and the West Indies," Val begins. "He was known locally as 'Split fig' because, if he was weighing figs and if one was slightly too heavy, he was so mean, he'd cut the fig in half!

"He had quite a diverse range of businesses," Hugh adds. "One of his enterprises was a clothing shop where he sold men's fancy waistcoats. He even had a distillery! But no doubt his most notable achievement occurred in 1803 when he established the Northern Bank. By this stage, he'd also done some major alterations to Benvarden house."

Have Hugh and Val made any major changes to the property?

"No," Val laughs. "Between working in the gardens and Hugh's tree nursery business, we simply haven't had the time."

Hugh gets us back on the historical track with the next generation of Montgomery men.

"Hugh died in 1822 and his second son, also called Hugh, inherited the Northern Bank. He bought a house called Ballydrain which is now the Malone Golf Club."

Considering their success, it seems that business acumen is in the Montgomery DNA. But, in 1854, Robert James Montgomery and his cousin Hugh proved that courage was also a family trait when they fought at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.

"Hugh's great-grandfather, Robert James Montgomery, was just 23 when he joined the 5th Dragoon Guards and went to fight in the war," Val tells me. "Robert rode in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and survived, but his cousin, Hugh Montgomery who was in the 13th Light Dragoons, was killed later that day during the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. In a letter to his mother, Robert James said he had tried to find Hugh's body or anything belonging to him but there was nothing. He also drew a map of the layout of the valley and position of the Army and guns.

"Apparently, Lord Lucan (an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose name was George Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan), Commander of the Cavalry Division (Light Brigade) during the Crimean War, was highly disliked among the men. Indeed, Robert said they'd wished he'd stayed in Ireland growing potatoes! In the end, Robert was among the youngest to be awarded a service medal."

While Hugh goes off to answer the phone, Val and I chat about local places of interest. In recent years, television's Game of Thrones has put a stretch of road known the Dark Hedges on the tourist map. Yet, as Val explains, even in the 18th century, when the Stuart family planted the original Beech trees, the Antrim coast was already a popular holiday destination.

"Visitors have always been attracted to this area, mainly for the scenery," she says. "In the 1800s, they came from all over the world just to see the Giant's Causeway. I think in those days people were very interested in geology and nature. In fact, in 1827, when Hugh's grandmother, Jane (nee Ferguson) lived at Benvarden, the Duke of Northumberland decided he'd like to see the Causeway and, somehow, Jane ended up with the task of finding him and his family a nice hotel. Although I can't imagine there were too many hotels at the time."

Phone call over, Hugh returns and Val hands him the story baton.

"Apparently my grandmother considered the accommodation in the area totally unsuitable and bravely invited them to stay here," he reveals. "Anyway, the family arrived, accompanied by 18 servants, coachmen and dear knows how many others! Grandmother wrote a lovely letter to her sister, giving her all the details of what they did, what they ate and everything they wore.

"Didn't they lose their luggage?" Val prompts.

"Oh yes," Hugh replies. "Apparently, their coach went missing somewhere near Crossmaglen. According to my grandmother, they had to wear their travelling clothes at dinner. Security in the house was very tight. At dinner, two men stood behind the Duke's chair, making sure no one tried to assassinate him. Even during the night, while he slept, guards were stationed by his bedroom door."

Laughing, Val shares another of Jane's observations.

"She described the Duke's wife, as very friendly, very plain, with very hairy arms!"

A natural wonder, the Giant's Causeway is the area's most spectacular and enduring attraction. However, in 1970, the Causeway Safari Park, with drive-through lion, tiger, baboon and elephant enclosures, was the most exotic. On ground leased from Benvarden estate, the park was a popular destination for 27 years, closing in 1997. Val recalls the event.

"The Safari Park was a phenomenal success," she says. "In fact, the noise of the crowds and the cars queuing to get in could be quite loud so we planted a row of trees to help cut some of the noise. On one occasion, a lion managed to escape and came strolling across our lawn!

"Luckily, one of the women working here saw it and had the good sense to ring the farm and tell workers to stay in their vehicles. She also called the police and the vet. We had hoped the animal could be tranquillized but, apparently, once darted, the lion could run for half an hour which would have been very dangerous. The police said they couldn't take the chance and insisted the poor old thing was shot."

The Montgomery family has produced some fascinating characters and, as I've discovered, my host is no exception.

"I was born in 1933," Hugh begins. "My parents, John Alexander Montgomery, known as Jack, and my mother, Nanette (Anna Elizabeth), lived here but they also had a house on Belfast's Cavehill Road. My father had a stockbroker's business in Belfast it was useful to have a base there. Growing up at Benvarden, we had no electricity but we made our own gas. Every room including bedrooms had a turf bucket so we could have a good fire. That's one of the buckets behind you."

I've never seen a turf bucket so wasn't sure what I was looking for. Somehow, an image of my granny's galvanized steel bucket that she used when sluicing down the yard, came to mind. Whatever I imagined, I was not expecting the huge mahogany barrel that Hugh pointed out. Highly polished and inlaid with a brass strip, Hugh's 'bucket' was actually a beautiful piece of furniture.

Seeing my expression, Val offered an explanation.

"They were called buckets but they really are big barrels. With more than 1,000 acres of bogs our ancestors had their own source of fuel and would cut their own turf, then bring it in here to be stored in these buckets. Apparently, the original Hugh Montgomery brought the mahogany over from the West Indies. He used it as ballast in his ship. The Bushmills Distillery is credited with shaping it into barrels. That's what I love about this house, everything has a story."

An open turf fire sounds romantic but, as Hugh reveals, they were often dangerous.

"In 1940 this room was actually one of two," he says. "But a fire in the chimney left the whole place gutted. My parents were asleep at the time and were wakened by an almighty crash. It was the sound of the ceiling falling!

"They lost a lot of things. A new roof was put on straight away but the windows remained boarded up for another 11 years. The place was eventually restored in 1951 but instead of the original two rooms, they made one - now our drawing room. With eight windows it's a beautiful space, always filled with light."

At eight, Hugh was sent to boarding school in Armagh before transferring to Stove in England.

"I did like boarding school but I really enjoyed my childhood at Benvarden where I had a marvellous nanny," he remembers. "I have a brother, John Alexander, and two sisters, Annabel and Jacqueline. Jacqueline was born with Down's Syndrome and was one of the first to attend Muckamore Abbey. She died about 20 years ago."

Formal education complete, Hugh was sent to London where he worked on the Stock Exchange for a few years, before enrolling at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. I ask whether he enjoyed the experience.

"Oh I did indeed,' he says with a mischievous smile. "The party scene in London was very enjoyable!"

In 1956, the death of his father at just 52 brought Hugh back to Northern Ireland. The sad loss changed the direction of the young man's life. "As the eldest son, I inherited Benvarden but I wasn't allowed to live here until I was 25."

Val adds: "We met when Hugh was 24 and I was 21."

And then she adds a little about her own background.

"I'm number four in a family of five girls and I was born in Hong Kong," she says. "Daddy was an Army man and came from a family in Co Down. In fact, the statue in the centre of Comber, Sir Rollo Gillespie, is my great-great grandfather.

"Mummy was from Donegal. She was called Dora Harvey but known to everyone as Dolly. Unfortunately, my parents divorced and mum, along with my sisters and I, went to live at my maternal grandparents' house at Malin Hall in Donegal. My aunts and cousins were there so there were dozens of us kids.

"Looking back, we had so much freedom to rattle around with our dogs and ponies. Every morning, we'd head off after breakfast and not return until the gong was rung on the steps, summoning us to dinner."

It must have been a shock when she was sent to boarding school aged just seven.

"The outbreak of war made travel difficult so instead of sending me to England, my mother decided to send me to Ashleigh House in Belfast," she tells me. "I remember wondering why I had to go to school at all! Then, at my first Christmas there, when I was due to go home for the holidays, I got chickenpox. My grandmother was a complete germophobe and, especially with so many young children at the house, she insisted I remain at school. Three headmistresses were looking after me and totally spoiled me. They did everything to make the time special. I remember it was snowing and these lovely old girls pulled me up and down hills, playing with me. But I still wanted to go home!"

After school, Val spent a year discovering France and Spain. The continental experience has left some fond memories but the highlight of that era took place along the wet and windy coastline of Ireland when she joined sailor, author and businessman, Wallace Clark, on an epic adventure.

"What a wonderful time!" she recalls. "Wallace Clark and his sister Jill were great friends of mine. In 1954, he made the trip around Ireland that became the basis for his well known book, Sailing Round Ireland. I was thrilled to accompany him on the first leg of the journey from Portrush to Cork. I love sailing."

Does she still sail?

"No," she laughs and nods toward Hugh. "He doesn't like water."

"Very true," Hugh admits. "I have been known to get sick even before the boat left Larne!"

So how did they meet and perhaps, more intriguingly, what did they have in common? As it turns out, both love a party!

"I had been living with my sister in Donegal," Val explains. "Her husband was away working on Easter Island where they were testing the H-bomb. Anyway, a friend of ours formed a jazz club in Derry and, as it turned out, Hugh also loved jazz. He decided to throw a party here at Benvarden and, somehow, we got invited."

Was it love at first sight?

"Yes, there was a spark," Hugh smiles.

Val is more forthcoming. "Oh, I knew right away I'd marry him!"

In 1951, marriage was a major topic of conversation in Val's family. But on this occasion it was her mother Dora who was taking the plunge for a second time.

"My mother was re-married to Sir John Heygate, the Northern Ireland journalist and novelist. He was notorious for eloping with Evelyn Gardiner, the wife of Evelyn Waugh, in 1929. The love affair didn't last as Sir John and Evelyn eventually divorced. He and mummy married in 1951 - she was Sir John's third wife and they were terribly happy. When she died in 1968, John was incredibly lonely. They had a very beautiful home - Bellarena in Derry."

Hugh and Val's path crossed again when he "tracked her down" while she was visiting London with her sister's family. Romance blossomed and, during a trip home to Northern Ireland, on the road somewhere between Magilligan and Castlerock, Hugh popped the question. The couple were married the following year, in 1957 at Bellarena.

"Before we could move into Benvarden, and while Hugh was still working at his father's office, we rented a flat in Belfast - number 3 Brookhill Avenue," Val recalls. "The place had all sorts of modern things, including a gas meter that you had to put coins in. I'd never seen one before and of course, I never had enough coins! We also had a lovely puppy and at the weekends we'd come down and stay at Benvarden. It was an idyllic time."

When the couple finally moved in they discovered that the grounds needed a major overhaul. But, as Val explains, it was a labour of love.

"As part of the war effort, the gardens had all been ploughed up and used to grow vegetables," she says. "So we had to recreate it. We made paths, beds, fish ponds, everything - but I really loved it, I still do."

As well as working in the garden, Val was kept busy looking after the couple's two young children - Henrietta (who is married to David Reade of the Breckenhill estate near Ballyclare) and Edward.

"Henrietta was named after my mother's favourite cat," she chuckles. "In fact the name Henrietta is actually an old family name on my mother's side. We also had Edward and I remember how when they were around six or seven they'd rollerskate around the house and then come flying into this room to jump around on my records, using them as pretend islands!"

Hugh and Val have six grandchildren - one girl and five boys, who are all grown-up.

What does Val do when she isn't gardening?

"She's a very good artist," Hugh answers, a note of pride in his voice.

"Yes, I do love to paint," Val adds. "I'm self-taught but my sister, Roz Harvey, is a wonderful artist and has had some of her paintings printed in a book."

She shows me some of her sister's work and I have to admit it's impressive. Has Val had any success with her own art?

"Well, Christine Wright, formerly of Gilford Caste, once exhibited 12 of my pieces at her gallery. They all sold, I was amazed!"

As our time together comes to an end, Hugh invites me to accompany him on a stroll through the walled garden. While he leads the way, pointing out the various plants and blooms, fretting about the heron who's pinching fish from the pond, I suddenly get a true sense of what this couple have brought to Benvarden. With their vision, determination and six decades of hard work, they have ensured that future generations can enjoy a little slice of paradise.

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