The Bishop's Palace, Downhill

Downhill palace building c.1803

Downhill palace building c.1803

Archaeological Survey and Excavation Project 2009-2011
Northern Ireland

Downhill is located on the North Coast of Co. Londonderry to the west of the town of Castlerock. The estate covers an area of about 152 acres and was acquired by the National Trust in the 1980s as the core remnant of a landscaped estate, established in the late 18th Century.

The survey and excavation project 2009-2011 was initiated as part of a research strategy to record and interpret the archaeology of the Downhill Estate.

The history of the house and estate
During the 1770s Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and later Earl of Bristol, chose this bleak headland to build a grand country house and create a surrounding estate.

The house itself, perched in an open and spectacular location, now stands as a roofless ruin. Few would believe that it was once one of the most renowned houses in Ireland.

  • 1775 - The Earl Bishop started building a 'cabin', intended at first to be no more than an 18th century villa. But the Earl's aspirations for grandeur made him seek out such famous architects to make designs for the building and its interiors. The Cork architect Michael Shanahan is credited with designing most of the garden buildings, including the famous Mussenden Temple.
  • 1803 - When the Earl Bishop died (in Italy), he bequeathed his Irish estates to his second cousin Harry Bruce, who subsequently took the name Hervey-Bruce and was created a Baronet in 1804.
  • 1851 - The house, with the exception of its east wing, was gutted by fire.
  • 1876 - A famous local architect, John Lanyon, provided the plans and supervised the repair and restoration of the house. Lanyon is also credited with re-arranging the interior and moving the main entrance from its original south front to a porch in the middle of the long west side.
  • 1784-5 - The characteristic bow-ended yards at the north end of the palace were constructed.
  • 1930s - The building was lived in until shortly before the Second World War, during which time it was occupied by the Royal Air Force.
  • 1949 - The Bishop's Palace was sold by its owners and the roof was subsequently taken off the house in 1950 marking a spiralling decline in the property to a ruined and dilapidated state.
  • 1980s - The property was acquired by the National Trust.

There is little by way of surviving architectural plans of the house or indeed maps of the demesne from the late 18th or early 19th century to help document its growth and development.

There are however 19th Century Ordnance Survey maps which provide valuable cartographic information on the growth and development of the house and its yards during the 19th and early 20th century.

These maps invariably show sometimes subtle changes to both layout and arrangement of the buildings and can help us to date the appearance of features such as the domestic gas works located in the west yard.

Fieldwork 2009

The Downhill Archaeology project began in 2009, running from 1st to 30th August and attracted 14 volunteers from the public – even though August was one of the wettest months on record for the year.

Work began in the East Yard, known as the Poultry Yard, which had been closed to public access since the National Trust first acquired the building in the 1980s.

The yard quickly became a make-shift architectural store, holding large quantities of un-catalogued masonry and architectural fragments. Heavily overgrown and filled with rubble at the start, over 50% of the yard has now been cleared and excavated by the volunteer team.

Excavation has revealed original cobbled surfaces lying intact below the rubble and other overburden. It has also revealed and exposed a walled enclosure lying to the central south of the yard, partly cobbled which may have been used as a piggery. This building was found to overlie an earlier structure which may have been the original poultry house.

Excavation also cleared out four compartments or buildings that were arranged along the south and eastern wall of the yard. All of these were found to retain their original cobbled floors.

Highlights of the fieldwork
One of the main benefits of this work was the recovery of a large collection of architectural fragments and stone building material.

This included sections of decorative pilasters and cornice from the exterior façade of the building and blackstone and hand made red-brick. All of this material is to be catalogued and can be re-used in future restoration or repair to the palace ruin.

Many small finds were also recovered during the excavation including: ironwork, glass and pottery. Some of the pottery fragments were from plates and cups bearing the stamp 'RAF 1942'.

However the most striking and perhaps important single discovery made was of a sculptured stone head, which appears to be a Roman portrait of AD 160-190 of either the Emperor Marcus Aurelius or his son Commodus.

This was likely bought by the Earl Bishop in Italy on one of his grand trips and is a tangible reminder of the once opulent interior the palace once presented to visitors and guests.

Ongoing investigations
Thus started, the project will continue into 2010 with the aim of finishing the clearance work and recording of the East Yard and then it will move into the West Yard to investigate other buildings and the remains of a domestic gas works located there.

The project is actively recruiting members for its team and anyone wishing to take part as a volunteer on future digging seasons should contact:

Malachy Conway,
Archaeological Conservation Advisor.
Historic Properties Department
Rowallane House
Co. Down
BT24 7LH

Tel: (028) 9751 2304