War hero ancestors, working with Bette Midler and appearing in Derry Girls and Game of Thrones... life is never ordinary for the owners of this country house near Ballyclare
David and Henrietta Reade tell Lorraine Wylie about their busy country house Breckenhill and how the Belfast Telegraph had a pivotal role in their settling in NI
Tucked away among the hills of Co Antrim, a few miles from Ballyclare, it's easy to see why Breckenhill was recently voted one of Northern Ireland's most romantic wedding venues. From the gated entrance, along the tree-lined drive to the beautiful stone barn and the extensive grounds beyond, the picturesque scene is straight from the pages of a story book.
But Breckenhill is more than just a pretty place on a wedding planner's list.
Situated in 18 acres of mature grounds, it's also an award-winning outdoor activity centre, offering a wide range of pursuits and experiences.
Regardless of what's happening on site, for owners David and Henrietta Reade, it is first and foremost a family home.
Today, the five-bay, two-storey Georgian house, complete with arched fanlight above the entrance door, is a beautiful example of period architecture, but in 1988, when David and Henrietta bought it, the 18th century property was practically in ruins.
Transforming the building into their dream home, not to mention a thriving business, has been a long, challenging journey.
Interestingly, the first step toward their goal began when an edition of the Belfast Telegraph led David to swap his job in London's fashionable Knightsbridge for one on Portadown's Garvaghy Road.
Seated in the family drawing room, with labradors Rosie and Lola sprawled at my feet, I asked Henrietta about the history of Breckenhill.
"There aren't a lot of details but, according to an inscription on the wall, this house was built in 1755," she says.
"There's also a Census report, dated 1832, that describes the property as 'although old, is rather spacious and modern', so it must have been around a long time even then.
"We don't know a lot about previous owners, but some features, like a strange arch in the wall of the drawing room suggests that, at one time, it might have been linked to something agricultural.
"During the linen era, we believe this place was used as a mill owner's house."
At this point, much to Rosie and Lola's delight, David arrives back from the shops and, after a lot of tail thumping and doggie grins, the pets settle down and allow him to catch up.
"Yes, this place was indeed a mill owner's house," he confirms. "The house has a long and chequered history. Even now we are still coming across new details. For example, people who are familiar with the house will often arrive here to tell us their memories.
"We learned of a judge in England who lived here during the 1930s, when his family rented it before the war.
"For me, one of the really interesting things is the history of the local area. It's incredible that, during the linen years, everything around here was done by water power. Apparently, at one stage, there were 12 different mills between here and Doagh."
Considering that there are just over four miles between Doagh and Breckenhill, that's a lot of mills.
"Of course, processing flax meant that different mills had different roles, but they were all powered by water," David says.
"Naturally, there wasn't enough water to run them 24 hours a day, so they came up with the idea to build a dam. Once it was full, they'd run the dam dry, using the water to power the factories. This meant that the fabric had to be processed seasonally.
"There were two man-made dams, one of which is now Tildarg dam. The other was called Breckenhill dams. They both powered separate mills.
"Incredibly, it's not that long ago that one of the mills was still in exceptionally good condition. The machinery was there - fabric on the rollers, everything.
"Unfortunately, it was taken down due to the danger of loose slates. Can you believe it? Such a terrible loss.
"If it had survived just another few years, attitudes toward old buildings and heritage would have changed and it could have been saved."
For David, Northern Ireland's linen industry is more than an interesting subject; it's part of his family's history. "There is a lot of linen in our family," he says. "In the 1800s my great-grandfather, Robert Henry Sturrock Reade, was chairman at the York Street Flax Spinning Company Ltd and had a major role in building the mill up. He lived over at Wilmont, in Dunmurry.
"My grandfather, George Reade, also became a director at York Street. Although he inherited Wilmont, he sold it to the Dixon family in 1919 and moved to Carncairn Lodge near Broughshane, which is where I grew up and where my brother Richard now lives."
As well as industrialists, the Reades produced courageous military men, among them David's father, Major Robin Reade, who won the Military Cross for gallantry during the Burma campaign of the Second World War.
History records tell how on one occasion, while fighting in the Arakan jungle, Major Reade's unit was completely surrounded by Japanese soldiers but, with incredible skill and fortitude, he managed to hold out for 17 days, saving most of his 120 men.
David is equally proud of his great uncle, Ernie - Robert Ernest Reade DSO. "Ernie, born in 1879, was my grandfather's younger brother," he says. "He was an extrovert and, by all accounts, a very popular young man.
"He joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps (60th Rifles) and went to South Africa in 1899 when he was just 20. He survived the Siege of Ladysmith, under Sir George White, who was from Broughshane.
"Ernest was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for conspicuous gallantry at the Battle of Wagon Hill. For a young Lieutenant, the DSO was an unheard of honour. Sadly, he was killed in a skirmish in 1901 and is buried in Natal, South Africa."
Today, a beautiful stained glass window in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, commemorates the bravery of Robert Ernest Reade.
The outbreak of the Second World War, combined with the decline in the linen industry, brought economic upheaval for many, including David's father.
"I think it must have been quite traumatic for my father," David reflects. "As a little boy growing up, he was surrounded by the wealth of the linen era and money was no object. The family had everything they could want - my grandfather even had a chauffeur-driven Lancia.
"When dad returned from the war, he thought his future in linen was secure, but the world had changed and the market for linen had crashed. With no family home, my parents were living over at Merville Garden Village, near Jordanstown, but fortunately an aunt left them Carncairn Lodge and they moved there in 1951."
Over the years, David's father worked in various enterprises. Sadly, one venture - the installation of vehicle washing machines - ended in tragedy.
"Dad was in Dublin carrying out some maintenance work," David says. "A 15-year-old kid came in and stole a car and Dad, being a military man, once a member of the Belfast Heavy Artillery, reacted and ran towards the gate to try and stop the guy escaping. But the car hit him and Dad's head banged against the windscreen. The resulting bleed on his brain was equivalent to having a stroke and, for the next 10 years, he was confined to a wheelchair and my mum looked after him.
"It was devastating and, although he did manage to come back a long way, he never fully recovered."
David's dad passed away in 2002 but, as he looks back, he can see parallels between his father's life and his own.
"The buildings that housed York Street mills were bought over by Gallaher's tobacco company," he says. "When I graduated from Bristol University in 1977, I got a job with Gallaher's, although initially I was working in Manchester as a shift manager. Then, in 1980, I got a job with the Old Holborn tobacco factory in Ballymena and ended up working in their head office in London. Working in production management meant I had responsibility for production in all the factories.
"Then, my work took me to the factory in Belfast and the significance of walking along those floors wasn't lost on me. I was always conscious that these were the same floors my family had walked on a previous era. For me, it was the production of tobacco, for them it was linen. Yes, I thought about that a lot. It was very nostalgic, very bittersweet."
David's mother, Kathleen Reade, nee Casement, was a relative of the famous diplomat and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, who was hanged for high treason in London's Pentonville Prison in 1916. Once a regular visitor to Ballycastle, Sir Roger revealed
his love for the area when, prior to his execution, he wrote in a letter to his cousin Gertrude Bannister: “Take my body back with you and let it lie in the old churchyard in Murlough Bay.”
While the men in David’s family left their mark in business and on the battlefield, it was Kathleen Reade who conquered the field of daffodil breeding. David reveals how his mother developed what many in the trade recognise as yellow fever.
“When she first arrived at Carncairn, my mother found life a little difficult,” he says. “I think some members of staff who had been there a long time resented a much younger woman coming in and changing things.
“Mum, with little to do, was very much at a loose end, then she met a man called Guy Wilson who at the time was the most respected daffodil breeder among Northern Ireland’s daffodil community. Apparently, Guy gave mum a lot of bulbs and encouraged her to get involved with the hobby.
“Of course, her initial interest soon developed into a passion and, during the Sixties, she created Carncairn Daffodils of Broughshane, which she ran for nearly 40 years. She exported daffodils all over the world and was valued for her expertise in the cultivation and hybridisation of the flowers.
“As a family we accompanied her to the spring shows, where she had a trade stand. It was very detailed and exacting — the arrangements had to be perfect. Every year she travelled to America, where she was director at large of the American Daffodil Society.
“I remember once, when the Americans came over here and stayed at the Dunadry Inn near Templepatrick, one of them asked me if I’d caught the yellow fever. That’s what they called it. Mum’s most successful daffodil was a pink trumpeted one called The Foundling. She was an incredible woman.”
Apart from supplying an occasional fact or giving her husband a gentle nudge to ensure he stays on track, Henrietta has taken a back seat in the conversation. But now the focus shifts and I ask about her childhood. She smiles as she tells me that she was born at Benvarden estate, between Bushmills and Ballymoney, the home of her parents, Hugh and Valerie Montgomery, who were interviewed for Weekend on June 29.
“Unlike David and my brother Edward, I wasn’t sent to boarding school,” she says. “My parents knew I was happy and well settled at Dalriada school in Ballymoney, so they decided to keep me there.
“As a teenager, I worked in the little shop at the Lion Park and got to meet some fascinating people. Looking back, it was an idyllic time.”
Where did she and David meet? “Well, our parents all played tennis together, so I knew David from childhood.
“Growing up, we went to the same parties. We had some great themed events such as the Arabian Knights and Hollywood. On one occasion David and I got talking and hit it off.
“It was because of David that I ended up studying French and Spanish at Bristol University. He talked about the place so enthusiastically that I decided I’d try. I’m glad I did because it was great.”
Over time, friendship blossomed into romance and, in 1987 the couple married at Henrietta’s family home, Benvarden.
Initially, both David and Henrietta enjoyed their life in London.
“I was working for the Walt Disney Company, supervising European publicity,” Henrietta recalls. “My language skills came in very useful. When stars came to do interviews, it was my job to arrange European press.
“I met a lot of lovely people, including Bette Midler. That was quite a funny experience. She asked my name. When I told her she said, ‘I can’t call you that, it’s far too long. What do your friends call you?’ So I told her to call me ‘Hen’, which she did. She was breastfeeding her baby at the time and sent me out to get a breast pump. I didn’t even know what it was.”
But for David, London was beginning to lose its lustre. “I had a bit of a panic attack,” he says. “I mean, my job in the tobacco industry was well-rewarded but I didn’t want to be there for ever. I worried that I didn’t know anything else and could envisage ending up unemployed.
“I decided to do two years in management consultancy, which was quite hard work. Then, after discussing things with Hen, we decided to come home to Northern Ireland.
“I remember asking someone what the best way to get a job back there was, and they told me I had to get the Friday night edition of the Belfast Telegraph, which we did.”
Henrietta takes over.
“Back then, anyone looking for work knew to get Friday’s copy of the Belfast Telegraph, which advertised all the local vacancies.
“We were quite lucky because David found out that Courtaulds Textiles Company in Portadown were advertising.
“Interviews were being held in London but, as it turned out, they took place the day after the great storm of 1987.”
The storm came in the form of a violent cyclone that battered the south coast of England, France and the Channel Islands with hurricane force winds, wreaking havoc and claiming lives.
“I decided to cycle to the interview,” David says. “The landscape was like something out of a science-fiction film. People were walking around like zombies, mouths open, unable to take in the utter destruction.
“The people doing the interview had flown in and were there to meet me. I was the only one who turned up for the interview.”
Teasing, I ask if that was the reason he got the job.
“No, but I think it demonstrated great determination,” he chuckles.
Swapping London’s glamorous Knightsbridge for the Garvaghy Road in Portadown proved an easy decision.
“We’re not really urban people. We’re both from the countryside,” Henrietta says. “Although London was exciting for a while, it was great to come back.
“Initially, we rented a place called Nettlebush House in Donegal, then we heard Breckenhill might be coming on the market. When we saw it, we knew it was a huge undertaking, but we wanted a project. As soon as I saw the fanlight, I fell in love with the house.”
Thirty-one years and three children later, the couple now have their dream home.
Over time, 63-year-old David has tried a few enterprises, including the sale of wood-burning stoves, but nowadays he and Henrietta work together to ensure Breckenhill lives up to its reputation as a dream wedding venue.
With more than a dozen activities, including raft-building and paintballing, their activity centre caters to all groups, including schools and corporate team building events.
The couple are keen that Breckenhill should play a role in the health and wellbeing of Northern Ireland’s young people.
“We created our Shared Education program for primary schools with the aim of bringing our communities together.
“The Take Five (mental health) programme with Carrickfergus Grammar will be similar but we will make an additional effort to encourage the children to be aware of others, of themselves and what they are achieving from the activities.
“Whatever we do, everything is tailor-made to group. We do not rehash or reproduce the same thing over and over again. We take pride in our personal involvement and ensure that everyone gets exactly what they want.”
With so much on their agenda, it’s a miracle they have any free time, but Henrietta still manages to fit in a little acting work.
“Yes, I’ve been an extra in Game of Thrones,” she says. “I’ve also played the role of mother of the bride in Derry Girls. It’s great fun and a good way to unwind.”
There is one event that both Henrietta and David always enjoy: a visit from the family.
“Our daughter Roseanna is 29 and works for a travel company in London,” Henrietta tells me. “Then there’s our eldest son, William, who is 27 and is in the film business. No not acting, he works in sound. Our youngest is George, who is 25. He studied Chinese at university and now works as an analyst in London.”
So what’s next for Breckenhill? “Ideally, we’d really love to host a small music festival here,” David says excitedly. “Back in the Seventies, I was in Manchester when groups like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were around. But now, if I had my choice, I’d want Police Dog Hogan at our festival. We saw them at the Black Box in Belfast and they were brilliant.”
“Oh yes, that would be great,” Henrietta nods enthusiastically. “We went to Bangor recently to see Snow Patrol and had a fantastic time.”
“We’d have to plan it carefully,” David adds, pondering his festival dream, “but maybe we could have a stage at the bottom of the field or in the barn. Wouldn’t it be great if Neil Diamond turned up?”
For more information on Breckenhill, including weddings and activities, visit breckenhill.co.uk or breckenhillactivities.co.uk