The dominant and intriguing ruin of Downhill Castle or Manse commands exceptional views along the coast. It is wrongly referred to as the 'Bishop's Palace' (the Bishop's Palace is in Londonderry). The house and estate which has landscaped gardens and walks covering over 150 acres was one of the most noted houses in Ireland along with its flamboyant owner Frederick Augustus Hervey, the Bishop of Derry and 4th Earl of Bristol.
The house was built as a country home for the Earl Bishop who had a great affinity for the area, he also had a home at Ickworth and Ballyscullion. Downhill was constructed between 1775–85 which included Mussenden Temple, the Mausoleum and Lions Gate. The building was designed by the architect Michael Shanahan under the Bishops’ watchful eye, he also designed Mussenden Temple and on the Bishops request, modelled it on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli in Italy.
The Earl Bishop travelled widely during his life, he was renown for this, so much so that his passion and knowledge of the classics and travelling inspired the trend which the Hotel Bristol became synonymous for in providing quality accommodation throughout Europe, inspiring an whole generation of travellers wishing to emanate the desired pastime of the period.
The Earl Bishop combined his love for travel with a passion for collecting art and antiquities, every journey saw him return with art and artifacts. He commissioned and paid for excavations in Italy to find rare marbles and other items for his collection and tried to buy the original Temple of Vesta which he planned to dismantled and rebuilt at Downhill.
This was turned down by the Vatican, so he had his own built from scratch. Interestingly an archaeological digs at Downhill in 2009 uncovered a sculpture of a Roman Head which is believed to date to AD 160-190 and is either Emporer Marcus Aurelius or his son Commodus, no doubt an artifact brought back from one of his many journeys. During his life he amassed a large and priceless collection of art, at one time or another works by Rubens, Cavaggio, Tintoretto, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt and many more graced the walls of Downhill Castle. He was a great patron to the arts, commissioning works from many of the emerging artists of the time.
When the Earl Bishop died in 1803 the property was left to his cousin, the Reverend Sir Henry Hervey Bruce, 1st Baronet (1752-1822) who at the time was Rector of Tamlaghtfinlagan, Ballykelly and also managed the estate and diocese when the Earl Bishop was away travelling.
This inheritance cause a stir in the Hervey family as his wife and brother were still alive but there had been a rift in the family which was reflected in this decision.
The Bruce family occupied the big house until a disastrous fire gutted the building in 1851, fortunately much of the art work and antiquities had been moved to other locations and others were saved from the fire. After this the house lay in ruins until 1870 when restoration under the architect John Lanyon took place, who was the son of Charles Lanyon. The house was reoccupied by the family and eventually sold in 1946. During the Second World War it billeted servicemen and women. The striking Musseden Temple was named in dedication to the Earl Bishops cousin Frideswide Bruce, wife of Daniel Mussenden whom he was very fond of. The Mausoleum which stands in the grounds close to the road was built in 1778, in memory of his brother. The National Trust acquired part of the estate in the 1960s and the main house in 1980.
The grounds of Downhill have superb walks and views which are accessible from Castlerock through the glen. These are truly wonderful and inspiring as they meander around the estate on both sides of the main road. You can easily see why C.S. Lewis as a young child found so much inspiration and imagination from this area, the dramatic Lion’s Gate must have looked awesome to 'Jack' as a small boy wandering through with his family, the winding pathway through the glen and along the hedges back to Castlerock.
The old Churchyard at Downhill is one of the oldest Christian sites in Dunboe which is believed to have been founded by Saint Adamnan and monks from Iona between AD 700 - 800. There was also a holy well at Downhill, suggesting that the site may have had pagan origins. After the English army defeated the Irish at a battle in Dunboe in 1182, they took the Gospels of St. Martin from the church, these were later recovered and preserved in Londonderry. The church was destroyed by the Earl of Antrim’s army of redshanks as they retreated from the Siege of Londonderry in 1689 and was replaced by the consecration of St. Paul’s in Articlave in 1691.
Where the road for Castlerock meets the main Causeway Coastal Route, is Hezlett House which was built in 1690 and is the oldest building in the area. It was originally the archdeaconry for St. Paul’s Church in Articlave. It is unique in being built without a foundation around a frame of curved timbers known as ‘crucks’. The building passed to the Hezlett family after a new rectory, now Dunboe House, was built in 1774 for St. Paul’s. Dunboe House was also designed by Michael Shanahan, today Hezlett House is looked after by the National Trust and again, well worth a visit.