Christmas at Hillsborough | A Look at the New Renovated Castle

On my knees surrounded by strangers, I was crowned King of Misrule.

Prior to the evening spent in Hillsborough Castle, Co. Down, I was unaware of this Georgian Christmas tradition.  However, given a taster of the recently renovated historical spot’s upcoming seasonal events, I left the location better educated and in merrier spirits.

For those unaware, Hillsborough Castle is a royal residence and the official home of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In 2014, independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces – the same group responsible for the upkeep of the Tower of London – took over the management the building. Their goal: transform the landmark into a major visitor destination, opening the building to the widest possible audience.

While the full castle and its over 100 acres will be officially open to the public in April 2019, to celebrate Christmas, Hillsborough are running various festivities – giving attendees a glimpse of how former residents of the house spent the season. What I experienced was ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ event, though it is only one of many taking place from now until the end of December. For more details visit here.

Lord Arthur Hill

At the press event, my party pulled up to the house on a blisteringly windy night, only adding to the Wintry mood. Without warning, suddenly it was 1895. Greeting us in the Entrance Hall was Lord Arthur Hill, former owner of the house. Jolly to the point of menace, he was delightfully embodied by an actor or what the Historical Royal Palaces call a ‘character explainer’, the aim being to educate through live performance.

The Lord joked with his audience, while describing to them the events he and his wife Annie ran at the house. These were The Grand Bazaar – where the castle opened its doors to public filling the home with market stalls selling crafts and handmade delights to raise money for charity – and Twelfth Night – a festival marking the coming of the Epiphany taking place either Jan 5 or 6, featuring an array of traditions. Hill also regaled us with strange facts about the house, such as how it featured a ‘pinery’, a hothouse specifically designed to grow pineapples, a fruit symbolising wealth. Did you know the price of one pineapple in 1895 was £5000?

While the Entrance Hall was gorgeous – filled with original portraits of Hill’s ancestors – moving through the vast corridors, one realises the true opulence of the castle. In the huge throne room, we were warmed with glasses of delicious hot mulled cider as the lady of the castle emerged.

Throne Room

Continuing the immersive element, Annie told attendees how she and her husband fell in love. A composer, the Lady created a piece of music which Arthur had become enamoured with. She also described her favourite painting in her possession, telling the story of god Jupiter and his wife Juno.

Jupiter was unfaithful, falling for Juno’s priestess Io. When Juno found out, Jupiter turned Io into a cow to protect her from his wife’s wrath. This myth started a spirited conversation about what animal we would choose to be turned into. When asked by Annie, I replied without thinking “wolf”, to which she replied: “I love it! Bringing out the theatrical in me!”

Proceedings got even more interesting as we moved into the castle’s dining room to eat the twelfth night cake, an old-time version of a mince pie. As part of misrule – a carnivalesque celebration whereby social class structure for a brief period was upended at Christmas – one hard pea was baked into the cake. The person who got a slice with the pea was crowned King of Misrule and could boss people around for up to 12 days.

I found the pea and so a holly crown was placed on my head by Lord Hill and his wife, in a ceremony where everyone bowed to me. Following this, we said goodbye to the owners of the house as we moved into the state drawing room.

This part of the castle is more modern as in 1934, a devastating fire occurred. It is believed to have been started by a guard who discarded a lit cigarette while lowering the flag to acknowledge the funeral of President Hindenburg of Germany. Because of this, Historic Royal Palaces decided to dedicate the room to more contemporary Irish art, a contrast to the many portraits of Hill’s family on display throughout the building.

Here, we also met Father Christmas (not the Americanised Santa Claus, he does not like being called that), who gifted us with fondant mice, a festive treat in 1895. This marked the end of tour, where we learned more about Historic Royal Palaces intentions for the landmark.

Hillsborough Gardens

“Since we got the car park on the A1, Belfast is only 15 minutes away. Dublin is only 75 minutes.  We are expecting 200,000 people to visit in the first year,” said Stephen Martelli, Gardens and Estates Manager for the castle. He is particularly excited about the public having an opportunity to see the surrounding acres.

“This is just the beginning. All gardens are in construction, being restored from old hand drawn maps from 1770. We’re also going to be working closely with Yellow Door – a catering business specialising in growing food locally – to produce fresh produce. By Spring next year, when you order a salad in the castle it will come straight out of the garden.”

As the night came to a close, I was forced to relinquish my crown. “The King is dead. Long live the King,” a fellow guest joked. However, just before our coach was to take us back to the city, a castle staff member entered the bus, gifting me the holly headwear as a keep sake.

With service like that, Lord Hill would be proud.

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