National Trust replaces stolen lions at Rowallane Garden
For more than a century they had pride of place at the National Trust's Ulster headquarters.
Now, a year after they vanished in mysterious circumstances, the two magnificent lions that stood guard at the entrance to Rowallane Garden in Saintfield, Co Down, are to be replaced.
Known affectionately as Leo One and Leo Two, the 3ft tall sculptures were wrenched from their plinths on Boxing Day last year in a crime that baffled police.
The trust, whose headquarters are situated in the grounds of the 50-acre garden, had hoped the lions would have been recovered by now.
But despite an extensive campaign to highlight the theft, the statues' whereabouts remain a mystery.
Now staff have revealed that two replacement lions will be put in place early in the new year.
Rowallane is a popular attraction with people from across Northern Ireland.
Tourists enjoy the magnificent garden, which was laid out in the mid-1860s by the Rev John Moore, and whose popular features include a walled garden, wildflower meadows, a large collection of rhododendrons and a farmland walk.
In 1875 Rev Moore commissioned engineer James Coulter to create a new entrance to Rowallane Garden through the Avenue Ground.
He built two stone cairns from river-stone granite and installed a small bridge, which he finished off with the installation of the stone lions, which may have been purchased at auction or from another estate.
The work took two years to complete.
The limestone lions were so much a fixture of the visitor experience to Rowallane that the National Trust, although saddened not to have had the original pair returned, has decided to replace them.
Ian McCurley, general manager at Rowallane Garden, said: "Visitors and staff were very upset to discover that the lions were stolen last December and so we are really looking forward to seeing new stone lions take pride of place again on the main drive into Rowallane Garden.
"With documentation and photographs from historical records, supplemented with many more photographs sent in by visitors, the National Trust commissioned Cliveden Conservation Ltd to work up small-scale maquettes.
"These maquettes were then reviewed by the trust's regional curator, conservator and the Rowallane Garden team and slight adjustments made.
"Following this process, the stonemason then began the process of carving the new lions in sandstone at full size, to match the originals.
"The great news is that the new stone lions are due to be in situ at Rowallane Garden in early 2018. Over time, the new lions will weather and age nicely to match the original set and will be enjoyed by many generations of visitors to come.
"Over the years the lions became firm favourites with visitors to the garden, and the overwhelming response to the theft last year is testament to this.
"The National Trust is a conservation charity dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of places such as Rowallane Garden.
"And so, with great reflection and consideration, it was agreed that the stone lions should be replaced to enable future generations to enjoy and connect with this important part of Rowallane's history."
At the time of the theft there was speculation that the lions may have been stolen to order.
A trawl through the internet shows a roaring trade for similar sculptures, which can fetch up to £3,000 a time. It was thought the thieves may have used an angle grinder to cut the Rowallane lions from their plinths.
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