The Hidden Heritage of Blessingbourne
Jenny Cathcart takes a tour of the historic County Tyrone manor and traces its artistic lineage from the late 19th century to present day
Hidden away off the Murley road just outside Fivemiletown is the main entrance to the Blessingbourne Estate. I drive in past the charming Tudor style gate lodge, follow the tree lined avenue and arrive at a residence that's one of the best secrets on the big house trail.
The Elizabethan revival-style manor with mullioned windows and carved round chimney stacks was built in 1874 by Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery and designed by his friend, the London architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell.
I am greeted at the front door by Colleen Lowry whose husband Nick is descended from the first Montgomery, Hugh of that ilk, who settled on the estate in 1820 and built the original dwelling, a romantic cottage orné, that was typical of the Regency period.
We enter the spacious front hall and I quickly realise that Blessingbourne House has changed little over the past centuries and that every object, painting, photograph or item of furniture has a story to tell about the life and times of past Montgomery and Lowry residents. Colleen provides a running commentary and I strive to keep up, such is her encyclopaedic knowledge of this place and the family history.
We view a portrait of Hugh, the first Montgomery settler, who came from Ayrshire in the late 17th century during the Plantation of Ulster. Not only did he build this house but he also established a dispensary, a butter market, a new school and a creamery in nearby Fivemiletown. Side by side hang three individual portraits of his sons.
He also supported the introduction of the Clogher Valley railway which ran along the main street from 1887 – 1942. He was given the name Fellenberg because his father, Hugh Ralph Severin Montgomery, a godson of Lady Byron, was educated in Switzerland at a school established by the educationalist Philip Emanuel de Fellenberg. The young Hugh Fellenberg was a student at Christ Church, Oxford where he met the composer Hubert Parry, who became a life-long friend and was a guest at Blessingbourne.
We move to the drawing room which opens onto a front terrace with pleasing views of Lake Fadda and the woodlands beyond. While Colleen makes me a cup of tea and answers yet another telephone call, I have time to consider some of the items on display. The family was related to Josiah Wedgwood and there on the mantelpiece are some pieces of the well-known pottery.
A gleaming copper fireplace fender decorated with bird and animal designs and a similarly worked candlestick and tankard are typical of objects made in Fivemiletown in the years following 1892, when Mary Montgomery, Hugh Fellenberg’s wife set up metal craft classes for local men and boys. She herself was greatly influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and trained in London in repoussé metalwork.
Her husband also became involved and won a gold star at an exhibition in the Albert Hall in London in 1893. The school produced copper components for a wrought iron clock made to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1903. Recently restored, it stands as always on Fivemiletown’s main street on the front of a building that once housed the Petty Sessions.
The drawing room piano, a Broadwood grand, belonged to Captain Peter Montgomery, (1909 – 1988) who was related to the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and was a second cousin of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of Alamein.
Peter studied music at Trinity College Cambridge and, while still an undergraduate, founded the Fivemiletown Choral Society. From 1933 – 1938 he was employed by the BBC in Belfast as Assistant Musical Director and then conductor of the BBC NI Symphony Orchestra. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Intelligence Corps and in 1945 became ADC to the Viceroy of India.
In 1964, when he was elected president of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, he was involved in the formation of the Ulster Orchestra. He also began collecting contemporary Irish art by the likes of Tom Carr, Colin Middleton, TP Flanagan and Derek Hill.
'In those days the house had a staff of nine including a butler and a house keeper and 12/13 fires were set each day,' explains Colleen, who is clearly relieved that she and her husband have been able to install a renewable energy heating system throughout the house.
A large cut glass Tyrone crystal bowl presented to Nick’s father Robert Lowry when he retired as chairman of Fivemiletown creamery takes pride of place on a central table. Robert and his wife Angela still live in a bungalow on the estate.
Dungannon born Colleen, a graduate of Ulster University's Belfast School of Art tells me how she and her husband are investing all their resources and energy in this project. They have renovated the gate lodge built around 1845 by Hugh Severin Montgomery and made it available as five star accommodation. The former shooting lodge and five courtyard apartments can now accommodate 26 people. They've also established a professional mountain bike trail, the only one of its kind in the UK, and four kilometres of walking trails.
While Nick looks after the farm and its herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle, the multi-tasking mother of two directs the day to day running of the house, dealing with ongoing problems like dry rot or a ceiling caving in or unexpected emergencies such as the cows breaking into a newly seeded lawn.
In order to relax she loves to ride her beloved horses and she takes a particular delight in adding to her own art collection with pieces by Basil Blackshaw, the ceramicist Diane McCormick or the painter and sculptor Marina Hamilton. 'Blessingbourne is my canvas now,' she says, with palpable enthusiasm. 'I love art and I have a new vision for the house.'
Colleen shows me the former dining room, now a family living room which once boasted William Morris wallpaper and still has fireplace tiles by Morris’s friend the potter William de Morgan. She would like to refurbish the room and reinstate the leafed dining table which can seat 18 people.
We don our coats and proceed to the gardens which, under the auspices of the National Trust, will be open to the public for the first time on June 26.
Visitors will discover remnants of a secret rock garden created by Mary Montgomery, a sunken garden designed by Angela Lowry, a 19th century rhododendron glade, and a memory garden where a recently planted oak sapling commemorates the American Army’s 8th Field Artillery Regiment, which was billeted at Blessingbourne during the Second World War.
They will be free to explore the walking trails and may glimpse the kitchen garden which once grew vegetables and flowers for the house. They can amble around lawns lately carpeted with bluebells, appreciate the rare holm oak and the fastigiate yew trees and a solitary fairy tree preserved as local tradition demands.
There are newly planted elderflower bushes, hydrangeas and borders blooming with peony roses, hostis, and lavender. Tea with freshly based scones and Victoria Sandwich cake supplied by the Clogher-based Fluffy Meringue bakery can be taken in the Coach House.
We meet Percy the peacock who seems totally unfazed by the busyness around him. Robert the gardener is dealing with unwanted bindweed and Japanese knotweed. Nick Lowry parks his tractor and comes across to say hello. This is business as usual at Blessingbourne.
Blessingbourne garden opens to the public between 2pm and 5pm on Sunday, June 26, as part of the Ulster Gardens Scheme. Admission is £3. For further details visit www.ulstergardensscheme.org.uk or to book a stay at the estate go to www.blessingbourne.com.