After moving to the top floor of a National Trust property in March, Neil Watt was expecting to spend his time welcoming visitors to the popular attraction.
But just a few weeks later, the pandemic hit and Castle Ward in Co Down, Northern Ireland was empty.
Seeing an opportunity to fix up everything that had been ignored for years because it was always too busy, Neil and partner Kris Reid, 29, set about giving the whole place a make over.
Neil, 36, became collections and house manager of the 18th-century property after completing a PhD in Irish country houses and Kris is himself studying for a PhD in heritage.
So the experienced conservationists did not put the time to waste, using the unexpected closure to breathe new life into some of the mansion’s spectacular features.
First there was the installation of a new dehumidifying system to address a centuries-old damp problem.
Then they set about cleaning and cataloguing the house’s collection of 2,000 books, most dating from the 18th century.
With the restrictions continuing, they turned to the set of cooking pots and pans , which are some of the finest on the island of Ireland but over the centuries had become blackened and tarnished.
They took each of the 100 pieces one by one and polished them by hand, then doing the same to other fixtures and fittings including brass door handles.
During the summer, they cleaned the antique window blinds and beat down the carpets and rugs, then delicately wiped the crystal Victorian chandeliers.
Neil said in any other year the jobs would not have been doable.
‘You only have so many hours in the day and if the house is open from 11am until 5pm you can’t do all this work in front of the public, because it would detract from their experience,’ he said.
As the first lockdown lifted, they were able to get more help from colleagues and a small band of volunteers.
Throughout everything, the house steward, who was shielding in another property on the estate, also provided lots of organisational support remotely.
‘The people of Strangford are wonderful, they really are,’ said Neil said
‘They’ve been so welcoming to myself and my partner.
‘There’s just such a lovely spirit here. There really is. I mean if you could bottle it you would sell it.’
Castle Ward was able to open briefly to the public in the late summer, with tight restrictions in place, but it was not long before the doors had to close again.
The couple hope that they’ll be able to reopen when it’s safe and the public will see all their hard work.
Despite the unexpected year, they have loved their first months living in the huge property and its beautiful surroundings.
‘If you get bored in the evening, to come down and see 18th-century landscapes of Strangford Lough, to stand under beautiful Victorian chandeliers and walk through big Marmorino marble columns and that sort of thing is really amazing,’ he said.
‘And something that we both love living here is the view because from our sitting room window we can see the town of Portaferry across the lough.
‘And that’s actually one reason why we haven’t felt lonely because even when we were in full lockdown, we could always see the twinkling lights of Portaferry across the lough.’
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