What a mouthful, a place called “Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple”. What a puzzle that the person who built it was called “the Earl-Bishop”, an earl or a bishop, well both actually. And that archaic word “demesne”, used more in Ireland than in England: not just an estate but a slice of land owned by a lord, silent ‘s’, please. Odd on paper and even odder in the flesh. The desmene consists of Downhill House, Mussenden Temple, a mausoleum, a dovecote and an icehouse. This is a scattering of left-overs, survivors from a dream, perched on Northern Ireland’s north coast, a fine spot.
Downhill House today is a mess. Roofless and scaffolded, it isn’t much more than a building site with Italianate vestiges. Round the back, facing out to sea where the cliff edge is some four hundred yards away, the cement mixers were once at work, showing evidence of occupation by the RAF during the war when the place was considered ideal as an anti-aircraft gunnery position.
Only in the print below from 1818 can one glimpse something of what the place was supposed to be. Frederick Hervey, the 4th Earl of Bristol, also the Lord Bishop of Derry (perhaps four hours away by horse), had commissioned the building in the early 1770s. Fire damaged the bulk of the place in 1851. What was left of it after the Second World War was dismantled by 1950.
What is worth visiting is the Mussenden Temple, a folly of some aching sadness in a place of great beauty, perched on the very cliff edge as if beamed there by some laser on a line due north of the main house.
Modelled on a Roman temple, the Mussenden Temple was built by the Earl-Bishop in memory of his cousin, Mrs Frisewide Mussenden whose beauty he apparently admired. The Bishop used this building as his library, heating it with a fire in the basement below in order to keep his books dry in the shelves lining the circular walls above.
At the time, it is said that one could drive a carriage round the building. Today the cliff edge, after years of erosion, is walled off from access because it is right up against the building’s seaward foundations. The National Trust, who currently maintain the property, have carried out major stabilisation work to prevent the basalt of the 60 metre cliff falling away further. For the moment, it is safe for visitors and is used — perhaps no surprise — as a wedding venue.
History doesn’t tell us much about the Earl-Bishop, although the Wikipedia page on him contains a small gem: the Earl-Bishop’s colourful if not eccentric personality prompted no less an authority than Voltaire to write “when God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys”.
In spite of this cliff erosion there is now a railway line running 60 metres under the Temple in a tunnel, which was blasted and cut in the 1850s.
Perched up on this cliff with the Temple at one’s back, the cliff-top views are exhilarating. The presence of Downhill House and this eccentric, very out-of-place ‘Temple’ neither add to nor take away from the views west and east of Ireland’s sweeping northern coastline. These views are the reason to visit this place. The Temple is an added bonus of a curiosity.
- The Wikipedia page on the Earl-Bishop, builder of Downhill Demesne and the Mussenden Temple.
- Take one of the world’s great railway journeys, Discover Northern Ireland. The post includes a superb photo of a train beneath the Mussenden Temple
- Michael Palin’s favourite railway line — between Coleraine and Derry in Northern Ireland — set to re-open following upgrade The Belfast Digital, November 18th 2016. This includes another splendid photo of the railway line, tunnel and Temple.