Bendhu's Builders

Remarkable story behind one of Northern Ireland's most iconic houses revealed

It you have ever driven up the Antrim Coast the chances are you’ll have seen Bendhu. Standing sentinel on the cliffs overlooking Ballintoy harbour, Bendhu is a house quite unlike any other - its concrete form and unusual silhouette of cubes and finials distinguishing it from the pitched roofed cottages that surround it.

For 70 years architectural enthusiasts have marvelled at Bendhu, and now a new book lifts the roof on one of Northern Ireland’s most important buildings. Written by Andrew Cowser, Bendhu and its Builders details, for the first time, the fascinating story behind the iconic, idiosyncratic house.

‘Bendhu was the creation of Newton Penprase, a remarkable Cornish artist based in Belfast,’ explains Cowser, an architecture lecturer at Queen's University. ‘Penprase started working on it at the age of 47, changing the design as work proceeded, defying Atlantic gales and the occasional hostility of local people.

‘For 40 years he laboured on its construction but he only finished the ground floor. The top two floors – the two main floors of the house – remained unfinished in his lifetime.’

Jutting out into the Atlantic, Bendhu has a haunting, alluring quality but what makes the house so unique are the materials Penprase used in construction. ‘It was built in bare concrete, which was quite radical in those days,’ Cowser says. ‘It is a flat-roofed, cubic house with roof lights and terraces all in a strictly cubic style. So it was, and still is, very different from the holiday homes that surround it,’ the author remarks.

Ascetic and unusual, Bendhu seems to chime with the character of its creator. Born in 1888 Penprase arrived in Belfast in 1911, to take up a post in the College of Art. An accomplished painter, Penprase never left Northern Ireland and devoted his weekends and holidays to constructing his north coast version of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu.

‘Building the house was a painstaking job. He basically built it one room at a time during the summer months and in his spare time. Almost every weekend he went up to Ballycastle,’ Cowser says.

A reluctant motorist, Penprase usually persuaded his son to drive or else got the bus. ‘He was often carrying materials that he needed for construction, including a bag of cement. He must have been quite a sight for the other passengers.’

Penprase was born in Redruth, in the heart of Cornwall’s mining country, and evidently he found echoes of his native land along the Antrim Coast. ‘It’s a very dramatic coastline, full of contrast and drama. This reminded him of Cornwall and inspired him.’

Bendhu, or 'Bendoo, means dark place and takes its sobriquet from the basalt cliff face that encloses the nearby sandy cove. Penprase may not have finished his masterpiece but Michael Ferguson, a skilled building designer and Bendhu’s third owner, has finally completed the house.

‘He has completely transformed the house. He’s painted the concrete white and added 50 new windows.’

Bendhu might finally be finished but its legend looks likely to live on. Not least because a view from the car window is still as close as most people will ever get to the fabled house.

‘Bendhu was always known to the people in the Art College, and those that Penprase got on with would have got an invite to it,’ Cowser comments. ‘But it was, and still is, a private house and it is not open to the public, so you won’t be able to go wandering around it.’

Peter Geoghegan

Bendhu and its Builders by Andew Cowser is on sale now, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. For more information check out the UAHS site here.