Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Kilwarlin Estate in Hillsborough - Ulster says "Yes!"

This story originally featured as "Timeless Elegance" in The Book of Interiors Volume 2 (2005)

Located less than 15 minutes drive from Belfast, the village of Hillsborough is amongst the prettiest in Ireland. Planned in the 17th century by the Hill family, later Marquesses of Downshire, it's impressive history reached a peak when the rambling Hillsborough Castle became the seat of the Governors of Northern Ireland from 1924 to 1973. More recent visitors to the Castle have included George W Bush, Tony Blair and An Taoiseach, Bartholomew Aherne, TD. With a stunning Gothic church, beautiful forest parks, a proud floral tradition and an increasingly famous Oyster Festival every autumn, Hillsborough is set to become a seriously fine place to reside.

Any new developer seeking to build in such a location was always going to have to work hard to impress the planning authorities of their aesthetic integrity. (I remind the reader that this is Northern Ireland, not the Republic). And yet tucked away to the west of the ivy-clad town is one of the most commendable developments to have arisen in recent years.

The new five-acre redbrick estate is called Kilwarlin, recalling a title conferred on the prestigious Hill family in 1751. It is the result of a successful collaboration between the award-winning Snoddons Constructions, Des Ewing Architects and Eric Cairns Partnership Estate Agents. Those involved are to be applauded for taking the time - and expense - to ensure Kilwarlin consists of generously proportioned houses with high ceilings, ample light and plenty of space between them all. It is astonishing to think that these buildings with their tall red-brick walls, sliding sash windows and slate roofs were built this century. And yet, time will surely only serve to make them look more graceful as the decades roll by. Already the surrounding gardens and mature trees, planted by The Outdoor Room of Crossgar, have begun to assert a sense of permanence at Kilwarlin.

Hillsborough is a town well regarded for the variety and stature of its front doors. From the outset, the developers of Kilwarlin have been careful to respect such tradition. Above the yellow double entrance door of the principal Showhouse, a brass Georgian lantern peeps through a cast iron fanlight. The Showhouse features open plan kitchen and living areas to the left and right of the entrance hallway respectively. A staircase at the centre runs up to bedrooms and bathrooms on the first and second floor. The design is taken from a simple neo-Georgian recipe. In every room, high ceilings and generous sash windows encourage a mood at once fresh and invigorating.

The interior was largely devised by Ian Thompson, a brilliant Belfast designer whose recent portfolio includes a French chateau, an upmarket Portuguese restaurant, a London townhouse and the Buddha Bar in Belfast. Ian is an esteemed connoisseur of antiquity. His brief was effectively to create an ambience of understated elegance reminiscent of the 18th and 19th century while simultaneously allowing for contemporary additions to sit easily in between. "Subtle luxury" was Ian's interpretation; it was a made-to-measure brief he clearly relished.

The internal visage - cream walls, deep-pile beige carpets, tiled bathrooms - consists of a neutral palette designed to set everything else off. In Ian's careful hands, the subsequent application of make up is elegant and chic. His hand in selecting the furniture is evident everywhere - in the marble top consoles of the living room and hallway, in the V&A Museum style tapestries, white-painted armchairs and tables, leather-bound books, Italian pewter lamps, Bordeaux chairs, hand-painted dressers, Oriental porcelain vases, leather suitcases and antique baskets. Ian has access to furniture suppliers throughout France and Italy but, he cautions, two pieces are rarely the same.

For his fabrics, Ian relies on the industry's time-honoured stalwarts - Ralph Laurent, Andrew Martin, Mulberry, Thackeray. Gorgeous silk curtains hang from gently distressed gold poles. By day, they lend a delicious flowing frame to the view beyond - leafy oaks and a young meadow rolling into the distance. In the master bedroom, a stunning pair of buttermilk gold curtains, feminine in repose, are reflected in an oval Georgian mirror. In another bedroom, embroidered denim curtains recall a contemporary thrust behind Ian's design, a perspective further enhanced when one looks closely at the chandeliers, French and Flemish, found throughout the house. His recent incarnation as a design consultant for Tyrone Crystal is evident in the coloured beads and elegant shades that adorn such pieces. It is also apparent in the collection of wine glasses and candleholders in the kitchen. Ian's modernist thrust is again to be found in lattice teak cubes that double as bedside tables, in the skirted rollback suede dining chairs and dark leather lampshades.

As well as the Showhouse, Ian was also employed to decorate one of twenty five apartments on sale at Kilwarlin. Once again, his expertise with antiquity came to the fore and the apartment is a triumph. Silver console tables nuzzle grey silk clad Louis Seize chairs. White Gustavian bookcases reflected in art deco Venetian mirrors. Sleigh beds and rollback chairs encased in white Egyptian cotton and olive grey cushions. Italian chandeliers drip with crystal tears. Crackled grey chests of drawers are echoed in Italian box frame mirrors.

Ian's approach to the Kilwarlin showrooms has been unequivocally traditional. But there is more to his sense of antiquity than initially meets the eye. He invites the contemporary in to flirt in a subtle but enchanting way. This is a house designed for a well-lived life, for those who enjoy and understand the importance of wholesome days and thoughtful nights. Or, as Ian suggests, "for those who like to kick back with a G and T and listen to some relaxing classics".

For further information contact: Ian Thompson 00 44 28 90669069; www.ianthompsoninteriors.com ; Ingrid Edgeworth , The Eric Cairns Partnership Tel: 00 44 28 9066 8888;www.ericcairns.co.uk

Photography: Paul Sherwood

Words: Turtle Bunbury