Off the Beaten Track – Lissan House
It is hard to believe that it is now 14 years since the BBC broadcast their series RESTORATION. It was midway through the ten part series that Griff Rhys Jones and team visited Northern Ireland where they visited Herdman’s Mill in Sion Mills, The Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and Lissan House in Cookstown.
All would have been worthy winners of the £3million Heritage Lottery prize, but it was Lissan House that stood out from the others due to one amazing woman – Hazel Radclyffe Dolling. Hazel was the granddaughter of Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples, an eccentric artist also known as the Barefoot Baronet. Amongst the treasures of Lissan House there is a substantial collection of fine paintings and sketches by the ‘barefoot baronet’. As Hazel guided viewers through the house and its history, it was her passion for the place and her great desire to see it saved that brought the episode to life.
On Tuesday 26th August 2003, Griff Rhys Jones announced from the Tower of London that Lissan House had won the regional public vote and would join nine other heritage properties in the final. Despite its popularity, Lissan House did not win the coveted prize, coming second to Manchester’s Victorian Baths. Despite not winning the money necessary to secure the future of the property, the programme nonetheless galvanised the local community and those in authority to take action.
As it turned out, Hazel was the last resident of Lissan House and on her death in 2006 bequeathed the house and its estate to the Lissan House Trust, an independent charity tasked with restoring and preserving the property. Lissan House Trust is a Charitable Trust established to secure the future of Lissan House and its estate for the benefit of the community in perpetuity. It is operated and controlled by a Board of Directors drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds who cherish Lissan and its heritage and who wish to see the Estate as a thriving hub at the centre of the community once again, following many decades of decline.
The Lissan Experience
Lissan House is approached via a mile long driveway through lush woodland and 267 acres of undulating parkland, just outside the County Tyrone town of Cookstown. The main house is impressive, with 3 stories, an impressive entrance portico and slated roof. The house dates from 1620, with a unique interior that takes the visitor on a fascinating journey through the changing aesthetic of each generation of the Staples family. The Jacobean core of the house remains, but later additions include a wonderful regency ballroom and a magnificent arts and crafts staircase – the only one of its kind in the world.
I was greeted at the front entrance by Jayne Greer, one of Lissan’s famed guides, who gave me a whistle stop tour of the ground floor of the house which is currently undergoing some refurbishment. Stepping through the front door on a pleasant March afternoon I was struck by the sudden change in temperature, marked by a sudden chill when entering the main hall. This micro-climate will be consigned to history soon with the installation of central heating; a pity really as I believe it adds to the experience of the house.
Taking a walk outside, you can really appreciate the scale of the house and its grounds. Stone bridges cross the Lissan River while new paths will lead you through the woodlands, where the only sounds will be birdsong and flowing waters. Occasional glimpses of the Sperrin Mountains can also be enjoyed.
Visiting Lissan House
Lissan House has limited visiting times. In June and September you can visit on Saturday and Sunday from Noon to 5.00p.m. In July and August you can visit Thursday to Sunday Noon to 5.00p.m.
Lissan House will feature in the forthcoming Great Houses of Mid Ulster tour from InSite Tours Ireland. Call 02879 386638 for more details.