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History of Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne

Mussenden Temple on the Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry
Mussenden Temple on the Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry | © National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Discover the history of Downhill House, which was built in the 18th century and now stands in ruins, and find out about the eccentric Earl Bishop who lived in this once grand family home. Perched on the clifftop, the Mussenden Temple was also part of the Downhill Demesne and is now a famous landmark. But what – or rather who – was it built for?

What is a demesne?

The word 'demesne' is used throughout Ireland to indicate the part of the estate that was usually enclosed by a demesne wall and was for the use of the landowner only.

The Downhill Demesne would have been much larger than it is today, however the famous Mussenden Temple and the dramatic ruins of Downhill House reveal something of its past and the people who lived here.

Visitors walking through the wild flower meadow at Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry
Visitors walking through the wild flower meadow at Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

History of Downhill House

Today, Downhill House is standing in ruins, however in its time it was a magnificent building once home to the Earl Bishop.

The house was built in around 1780 by the Earl Bishop on the designs of his architect Michael Shanahan. It had a three-storey, south-facing front which you can still see today, with two long wings to the back, which stretched towards the sea and ended in two immense curving bastions of basalt.

Why was Downhill House built?

The Earl Bishop built his home here because the land formed part of his Diocese as the Bishop of Derry. So he decided that this remote spot was the ideal place for him to have his family home.

Who lived at Downhill House?

Downhill House was home to Frederick Hervey (1730–1803) – known as the Earl Bishop from his twin titles of Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry – and his family. At 22 years old he married Elizabeth Davers and they had five children.

Frederick was widely travelled and well read. He was also an expert in flora and fauna and had a fine appreciation of art, especially Greek and Italian.

However he was also regarded as an eccentric character. It is said that he made his clergy run a leapfrog race on Downhill beach to see who would win the best area. He was also reputed to have had many affairs and before he died while travelling in Italy in 1803, he had asked that his body be shipped back to England in a casket of sherry.

The destruction of Downhill House

Once a grand Italian-inspired home, Downhill House was devastated by a fire in May 1851. The house was almost entirely gutted by the fire – the library was completely destroyed and more than 20 pieces of sculpture were ruined. Most of the paintings were rescued, but a Raphael, The Boar Hunt, was reportedly destroyed.

After the fire

Despite the fire, the house remained in the family until at least 1948, though they rarely lived there after 1920. During the Second World War the house was requisitioned by the RAF. Downhill was then dismantled after the war and its roof was removed in 1950.

The ruins of the west front of Downhill House at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry
The ruins of the west front of Downhill House at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry | © National Trust Images/Robert Morris

History of Mussenden Temple

Today, Mussenden Temple is an iconic landmark, perched right on the cliff edge at Downhill Demesne. It’s one of the most photographed places in Ireland.

The Mussenden Temple was built in around 1783 by the Earl Bishop and designed by the architect Michael Shanahan. Its design was based on the Temple of Vesta in Italy.

Why was Mussenden Temple built?

The Temple was originally built as a library for the Earl Bishop. The walls were lined with white lime and the bookshelves sat in the alcoves. Higher up in the temple dome, eight alcoves also displayed marble busts that the Earl Bishop had acquired.

The scandal of Mussenden Temple

The Earl Bishop built Mussenden Temple as a wedding gift for his cousin's daughter, of whom he seemed to have been extremely fond. Housing his celebrated library, the temple was supposed to be a place where his niece, when she visited, could retire.

Some say the Earl Bishop and his niece were far too close. Without actually naming them, the Freeman’s Journal suggested that the relationship between the them was not altogether proper – although this was later denied in print.

The temple was finished in 1783 but it's said that the mortification of this scandal affected his niece’s health, which had always been delicate. Although there is no proof, it may have contributed to her early death. The Temple, which was to have been her refuge, became her memorial when she died in 1785.

History of Hezlett House

The house at Liffock became home to the Hezletts in 1766 and stayed within the family for the next 200 years until the National Trust acquired it. Much is documented about the members of the Hezlett family who lived there.

Family history at Hezlett House


The first Hezlett

Isaac Hezlett (1720-1790) was the first Hezlett to live in the cottage at Liffock. He acquired the dwelling and some land in 1766. At this point in his life he was married to his second wife Esther and had two sons; Samuel from his first marriage with Margaret Kerr and Jack, half-brother to Samuel.

Exterior of the 17th-century cottage, Hezlett House
Exterior of the 17th-century cottage, Hezlett House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson
Exterior of Mussenden Temple in the grounds of Downhill Demesne at County Londonderry

Discover more at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne

Find out when Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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The ruins of Downhill House at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry

Things to do at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne 

See the Mussenden Temple perched on the clifftop and explore the dramatic coastal landscape of Downhill Demesne which is steeped in history. See far-reaching views from the country fields and paths. Look out for colourful wild flowers in the natural grasses.

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

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Interior of Hezlett House at Downhill Demesne, County Londonderry

Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne on the National Trust Collections website.