Infamous murders, lost paintings worth a fortune... and more recently a serious riding accident. Life through the years at Ballymote House
It's now a luxury B&B but, as James and Nicola Manningham-Buller tell Lorraine Wylie, their Co Down manor has a fascinating history - and they also reveal how she has battled back from a serious head injury
Situated a few miles from Downpatrick, Ballymote House doesn't have the grand facade of other country manors in Northern Ireland. In contrast to the neo-classical design favoured by architects during the 18th and 19th centuries, there is nothing showy or flamboyant about Ballymote.
Built in a vernacular style, the two-storey, five-bay Georgian property is in keeping with its surroundings and reflective of its era. But when it comes to character and charm, Ballymote House is in a league of its own. Down through the centuries, it has been home to some fascinating characters.
And, as I discovered when I went to meet James and Nicola Manningham-Buller, its current owners are no exception.
Gathered around the kitchen table, James made coffee while Nicola told me about the origins of Ballymote House.
"It's very interesting because historically there's no record of a house ever having been here," she says. "Back in January 1991 when we bought the place, Dick (Richard) Oram, a conservation architect and then head of the Department of the Environment's historic monuments, told us it pre-dated 1730.
"We think it originally started out as a linen warehouse before being converted to a house. There's some evidence to back up the theory. For example, there was a field around here called the bleaching green as well as a lot of workers' cottages. At the time, linen was very much a cottage industry and there was some very beautiful sewing work and embroidery done in this area.
"We think that this place was once the manager's house. There are a lot of little clues. For example, upstairs one of the bedroom doors looks more like a front door and, in our room, there's a very elaborate ceiling rose that seems slightly too grand for a bedroom."
In the 18th century, the nearby village of Killough, then known as St Anne's Port, was one of Northern Ireland's major seaports. At the time, many of the larger properties in the area were used as 'letting houses' and rented out to corn merchants. It's likely that Ballymote also had a series of tenants. However, a 1911 census identifies one of its earliest owners as Captain John Bowen Colthurst.
"He was the very same Colthurst who was linked to the Skeffington murders in Dublin, during the 1916 Easter Uprising," James confirms.
The story of how Captain Colthurst arrested and subsequently executed writer and pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, aka 'Skeffy', along with two other Irish journalists, during the disturbances is well-documented. How ever, James adds an interesting observation.
"Colthurst had been out at the Western front during the war and must have suffered shell shock because when they sent him to Dublin to deal with the simmering trouble in Ireland, records show he had a complete mental breakdown. Colthurst was eventually court martialled for murder, declared insane and sent to Broadmoor Asylum where he stayed for two years. He lived out his remaining years in Canada where in 1965 he died of a coronary thrombosis. But what interests me about the Colthurst/Skeffington affair, and something that no one seems to mention, is that Skeffington (who took his wife's name, Sheehy) actually grew up in Downpatrick where his father was a school inspector and his murderer, Colthurst, lived here at Ballymote, just a few miles away."
Compared to Colthurst, Ballymote's next owner lived a relatively uneventful life. His name may be absent from history's hall of fame but as Nicola reveals, he will never be forgotten or indeed forgiven, by art lovers, especially in Northern Ireland.
"He had some kind of an egg business going on," she explains. "He kept day-old chicks, in what is now my dining room. When we lifted the floor we found old pieces of grain etc. Anyway, at some stage the famous Belfast artist Colin Middleton had stayed here and left a huge amount of his drawings and pictures that were painted on card. They would have been worth a fortune. Anyway, not knowing what they were, this man decided to use them as egg packaging and bedding for his chicks. Can you imagine that!"
Nicola and James have clearly done their homework. Their knowledge of Ballymote's previous residents is both impressive and entertaining but, as its latest custodians, I was keen to hear more about their own story.
Nicola, daughter of the late Sven (Lavens) Mackie, formerly of James Mackie and Sons, agrees to go first. "Originally, my father's family home was on the outskirts of Belfast, in a place called Rathfern, but after the war it was the subject of compulsory purchase to make way for a housing development. It's now the Rathcoole estate. I was born in 1961 in Johnston House at the Royal Hospital and grew up in a place called Snipe Island, out at Templepatrick. My parents had bought a beetling mill there and spent the Sixties renovating it as well as a full working water mill. It was quite an idyllic childhood and later, I was sent off to boarding school in Ascot."
Boarding school stories are often laced with homesickness and loneliness but Nicola seems to have enjoyed the experience.
"Yes I did quite like it. To be honest, I really didn't think about it," she shrugs. "I suppose, coming from a generation that went to boarding school, we didn't query it. We accepted it and got on with things. I did miss my riding, though. In our circle of family and friends, everyone was involved with horses. My family competed, I competed internationally and our daughter also followed the family tradition. I was still entering competitions right up until after James and I got engaged."
When she wasn't riding horses, Nicola was busy working in the City in London.
"Growing up, I had no particular career ambition but my father did a very sensible thing," she says. "He said I could take a gap year and then he sent me into the City. I was one of the first girls working in the Stock Market. Imagine, 750 men and me! Back then, in the early Eighties, it was a very different world. It seems incredible now but at the time, I wasn't allowed to use public transport to go to work. Apparently, ladies didn't do those things. I was given my own car parking space instead. They also gave me Friday afternoon off to have my hair done. Not me! Instead, I'd climb into my tiny Fiesta and go bombing off up to North Yorkshire to race horses. I never did go to the hairdresser."
She laughs at the absurdity of wasting precious time in a salon when she could be doing something fun, like horse riding.
"I was working in one of the very grand stockbrokers," she continues. "At just 23 I was an assistant director of the US Merchant Bank. In fact, even today, my very best friend is one of the very powerful girls in the City."
It's time for James to take his turn in the hot seat.
"I was born in Northampton in 1956, my grandfather was MP there," reveals. "Indeed, all my family were either politicians, judges or in the military. My grandfather was Lord Chancellor in 1962. But if we go back to my great-grandfather, 13-times great, we find Sir Edward Coke, a Lord Chief Justice who was very influential on the judicial system.
"He made judges write down their judgements which created judicial precedents. Do you know, that if you go to the Supreme Court building in Washington DC, there is a bronze door with eight panels with illustrations, depicting the evolution of justice in the western tradition.
"On the second panel on the right, there's a picture of Coke telling King James that the judiciary is independent. That is partly what the American Constitution is based on it."
James almost added a new career to the family tradition.
"When I left school, I did various odd jobs and at one point I went down to the Labour Exchange to see if I could get anything that would cover the six months until I started my full-time employment," he remembers.
"They sent me to a job shop where there was a selection of cards advertising different jobs. One said they were looking for a 'pole' bearer and I thought it had something to do with scaffolding. I applied and put my suit on because I'd always been told to wear a suit to an interview. Anyway, I got the job. But it turned out, it had nothing to do with the building trade.
"It should have read 'pall bearer' so I spent six months working with the Tooting Royal Co-Operative Funeral Services!"
At this point, we decide to move the conversation from the kitchen to the sitting room. Passing the stairway, James points out a number of framed watercolours lining the wall. Beautifully detailed, the paintings depict a series of military scenes that, I discover, are the work of another of James's ancestors.
"They are by Colonel Coote Manningham, founder of the Rifle Brigade," he says. "You see, at the time, Army officers were taught to paint. There was no photography so this was how they captured events during wars."
James patiently explains each individual scene, singling out a painting for particular note.
"This one is Gibraltar, on the eastern side of the rock. It depicts the story of two soldiers who had deserted," he says, drawing my attention to the corner of the painting where the artist has painted a little symbolic flag. "One of the soldiers died and this tiny flag marks the spot."
Nicola contributes another little nugget of information. "They were painted on cloth, you know," she says. "They did it that way so that the paintings could easily be folded up and kept in the artist's pocket."
Just as we're about to enter the living room, I catch sight of another wall hanging, this time it's a framed cartoon.
"Oh that's George Thumb," James smiles. "Have you ever heard of the saying 'the rule of thumb'? Well, that's George Buller, my great-grandfather, five times removed. Judge Francis Buller reportedly made a ruling that you can beat your wife with a stick, as long as its no bigger than the size of your thumb."
"Yes, but he never said how long your thumb should be!" he chuckles.
Like the rest of the house, the sitting room at Ballymote is tastefully decorated and comfortably furnished. Seated in front of an open fire, Nicola shows me a photograph of her and James on their wedding day and tells me how they met.
"It was 1983, I was on holiday in Cyprus, staying at the home of a schoolfriend. We were enjoying a lovely time on the beach when suddenly James, who was working in Cyprus at the time, came walking along. I remember feeling a bit irritated by the interruption!"
"I knew Charlotte, Nicola's friend," James explains. "I didn't notice Nicola at first but later, when we met up at the hotel, I thought she was an incredibly interesting person. I'd say there was a definite spark."
After the holiday, James contacted Nicola and before long the spark had been fanned into a flame.
"We were engaged pretty quickly," Nicola smiles. "The proposal was just before Christmas and we were married in the cathedral in Downpatrick the following May, 1985. We had around 500 guests at the wedding, so it was quite big. In old families, an engagement was never a long drawn out affair. The attitude was, if you want to get married, just get on and do it. Weddings today are such major events."
And James chips in: "In our day, we didn't go in for all the fuss. The only time you appeared in the paper was in the event of a hatch, match or dispatch."
Hatch, match and dispatch? I'd never heard the saying but Nicola enlightens me.
"Yes, births, marriages and deaths," she says.
In 1989, the young couple decided to move to Nicola's parents' new place, Ballydugan House. By this stage James had found a job in Northern Ireland.
"I had been a Lloyds broker," he recalls. "After a while I'd been doing wholesale broking, fine art, gold bullion and jewellery. But I wanted to get out and build a business dealing with clients. I got a job in Belfast but later went out on my own, running my own insurance brokerage from here."
I wondered whether he found it difficult to adapt to life in Northern Ireland.
"I've always loved it here," he says. "There is still very much a community spirit. Perhaps the best way to describe it is the 'net curtain' analogy. In England, people would often look out to see what so and so was wearing. Here it's more caring and, in the same situation, they'd probably be wondering why they hadn't seen a neighbour around. I think that caring interest tends to be lost in England now."
Since purchasing the house in 1991, the couple have made Ballymote their family home. But for the past decade, the place has been carving a niche in the hospitality industry. Situated in beautiful countryside, a stone's throw from Downpatrick, Killough and the popular Game of Throne's locations, it's among Northern Ireland's favourite bed and breakfasts. With just 11 acres, Ballymote may not have a lot of land but they do have an unusual feature well worth a visit.
"Our grounds are about 50% parkland with some fabulous specimens of trees, including a really unusual combination of ash and sycamore planted on purpose in the same hole at the same time," Nicola reveals.
"This was I gather a very popular and trendy idea to do around the 1820s. There must have been some really special trees at one point but a previous owner cut vast swathes down in order to pay for the property. One tree that escaped is a variegated holly, and that has been estimated to be about 300 years old."
One of Ballymote's biggest attractions is Nicole's cooking skills. "I love cooking," she tells me. "When I was a child, we grew vegetables and raised food for the table. We ate things that were in season and hated waste. Nowadays, ingredients such as mangetout, coloured beetroots, yellow and pink carrots or even Jerusalem artichokes tend to be considered trendy or a little exotic. But back then, we were already growing and eating these kind of foods at home. I remember we had an elderflower lemonade which was really wonderful. Today, I make a lot of jams such as nectarine and rose, really delicious."
Nicola offers to give me a tour of the upstairs, where I notice some of the bedrooms have been given a name. It's a style I've noticed elsewhere so, naturally, I ask where titles such as Archie and Trellis originate.
"Well Archie is named after my nephew, he was the first to stay there," she laughs.
What about Trellis?
"Oh that's easy," she opens the bedroom door and points to the trellis design on the wallpaper. "We just decided to name it after the wallpaper."
There's nothing pretentious about Nicola Manningham-Buller and her laugh, which comes often and easily, is infectious. Yet, Nicola has had more than her share of trouble. It isn't until I ask whether she still finds time to ride horses that she finally mentions her accident.
"I suffered a serious head injury in 2000 that left me in quite a bad way," she says with characteristic candidness. "I lost my speech, in fact, I lost just about everything. I had to learn how to walk again and how to do things for myself. It was a long, hard slog. The thing is, I wasn't even properly riding at the time. I was only bringing the pony in from the fields and had hopped on when I was promptly bucked off. It was such a simple exercise, I did it all the time. But stupidly, I wasn't wearing a riding hat. So when I fell and hit my head, the consequences were major. I have to say, though, that I was very lucky. Here in Northern Ireland we are fortunate to have one of only two places with a community based rehab centre, Thompson House in Lisburn. They were wonderful. They came here three to four days a week for four years and worked with me. They're amazing people. Yes, I was so lucky."
The couple have two children, Edward (28) and daughter Camilla (25). Back in 2000 when Nicola had her accident, her son and daughter were still quite young - so how did she and James cope?
"Like all families in these kind of situations, we just had to cope," she says, keeping drama to the minimum. "I suppose you just get through it. We worked it out together."
When I ask if she's better now, she purses her lips and thinks for a moment
"Yes but I still have my moments, especially if I'm tired, and then concentration is difficult. I also need to have a lie-down and rest for a bit. But other than that, I'm fine."
It's obvious she doesn't like to dwell on the subject and, considering her hectic schedule and busy workload, she doesn't let anything, not even a serious head injury, get in her way. Back downstairs, James asks whether I'd like to see Ballymote's 'Rogues' Gallery'. Naturally, I can't wait.
His rogues gallery turns out to be the downstairs loo and, as I've come to expect from Ballymote House, even it has a quirky, historic theme. The walls are covered in so many interesting photographs that visitors would be willing to spend more than a penny for the privilege of seeing them. Even the toilet, with its Victorian design of pull chain flush and decorative bowl, is a work of art.
As the interview comes to a close, and Nicola tells me about the tourist attractions in the surrounding area, it occurs to me that Ballymote House should be a destination in its own right.
For more information, visit www.ballymotehouse.com