You’ll have to dig deep if you want to snap up NI’s most expensive residence*
(*should Hillsborough ever come on the market, that is)
HILLSBOROUGH Castle is Northern Ireland’s most expensive home after being valued at more than £80m.
The historic former stately pile in the Co Down village is owned by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and is the official residence of the Queen.
But unlike other royal residences which are held by the “Crown in right” and cannot be sold by the Queen, the castle could be put on the market should the government ever wish to dispose of it.
The highest list price for a home in Northern Ireland in recent times was a six-bedroom house in south Belfast which was offered for sale at £2,850,000 in 2020.
Among the most expensive properties on the UK market were Stuart House in London’s Knightsbridge and a Kensington townhouse. Stuart House was offered for sale at £35m while the seven-storey Kensington address was listed at £23m.
In the latest annual accounts for the NIO published last week, the Georgian property is listed as the department’s largest single asset following its valuation by the Land and Property Services (LPS).
Classed as an historic asset, the 18th century mansion and its 100 acres of grounds were deemed to be worth £80,800,000.
Meanwhile, the antiques held there were valued by John Ross and Company at £1,767,000.
The castle and its contents are subject to valuation every five years and the property has increased in value by £3.6m.
A government spokesperson said: “There is no intention to sell Hillsborough Castle and the NIO is delighted with the work Historic Royal Palaces have done to make it a successful visitor attraction which is open to the public.”
You can get a flavour of the royal treatment as the site is a licensed wedding venue for up to 350 guests, but the cost is by application only.
Although it’s publicly owned, the day-to-day running of the castle is handled by the charity Historic Royal Palaces, which also operates the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.
Hillsborough Castle was built in 1770 by Wills Hill, the 1st Earl of Hillsborough, later elevated to become the 1st Marquess of Downshire.
He served as secretary for the colonies and once hosted Benjamin Franklin at Hillsborough during his visit to the United Kingdom in the run-up to the American declaration of independence in 1776.
The Hill family sold the property to the British government in 1922 and it was renamed Government House, becoming the official residence of the governor of Northern Ireland and the royal family when here.
With the introduction of direct rule in 1972 and the abolition of the post of governor, it became the ministerial residence of the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
The castle has been the setting for some of the key political moments in Northern Ireland’s history such as the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
It has also been the venue for more recent political talks between the British government and local politicians, notably in May when Boris Johnson was booed as he arrived to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But it’s the royal role which has drawn tourists and day trippers to its doors since the castle and its grounds were opened to the public by the then Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam.
Such was Ms Mowlam’s fondness for the place that half her ashes were scattered in the castle grounds following her untimely death from cancer in 2005.
In 1946 the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, stayed at the castle for the first time during her solo tour of Northern Ireland.
She famously hosted Irish president Mary McAleese at the property in 2005, the first time such a meeting had taken place between the two heads of state on the island of Ireland.
Her Majesty last visited the castle in 2016 with Prince Philip where they met then first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
The most recent royal visit was by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who came to mark the official reopening of the building following a £24m refurbishment in April 2019.
In 2014 the prince held the first ever investiture ceremony at the castle, awarding OBEs and MBEs to local recipients of honours.
The long-standing royal service of the castle was acknowledged in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee honours, which saw the village granted the title ‘Royal Hillsborough’.
It is also home to one of the two remaining private militias in the United Kingdom with the recent revival of the Hillsborough Fort Guard.
Originally established by a Royal Charter from King Charles II in 1660, the first warders in almost a century were appointed in a ceremony last year to serve under the command of the current Marquess of Downshire as the hereditary constable of the fort.
The other private force is the Atholl Highlanders. who serve as the personal guard for the Dukes of Atholl at Blair Castle in Scotland.