A taste of Downton in Co Monaghan
Hilton Park offers history and relaxation with unspoilt views and no mini-bar in sight
An industrial-sized pot of soup is simmering away on a large stove in the kitchen of 300-year-old Hilton Park house in Co Monaghan. Beside it, Joanna Madden, who runs the house with her husband, Fred Madden, is preparing lunch on a lavish scale.
Hilton Park has just opened its doors to guests for the summer. Set on 600 acres just outside the town of Clones, a stone’s throw from the Fermanagh border, the house, which comes with a lake, lush gardens and mature woodlands, has been in the Madden family since 1734.
“We pretty much do everything ourselves,” says Joanna, while chopping bread and tending to one of their four children. “Fred is the chef and I’m front of house, so it’s a family affair.”
The couple, who took over the running of the estate in 2008, give a relaxed and very inviting impression.
“At the risk of sounding clichéd, we genuinely offer something different to our guests, who can experience the grandeur of a country home with all the trimmings between March and December each year.”
The couple share their home with their four children and Fred’s parents, Johnny and Lucy Madden, who opened it up to guests in the 1980s. “About eight years ago we took over the reins full time, though they are still involved in the gardening and other aspects of the running of the house,” she adds.
People can stay individually or rent the full house for themed parties, birthdays, family reunions or weddings. “We’re not like a hotel; we don’t have mini-bars, TVs or phones in the rooms, but we offer a very relaxed service, which is why people come here from all around the world,” says Fred, who works as head chef.
The majestic dwelling, which sits atop a rolling hill overlooking Hilton Lough, boasts numerous reception rooms with plenty of original paintings, furniture, books and family memorabilia. The piece de resistance is the diningroom, where guests enjoy four-course meals by candlelight, overlooking the lake.
Merriment and dancing
Afterwards, they can enjoy sing-a-longs by the grand piano, themed parties or merriment and dancing till dawn. The next day, after emerging from their four-poster beds, guests can relax in a claw-footed antique bath while enjoying the stunning vista out of their 8ft windows.The house has three four-poster bedrooms, one with an adjoining twin and three standard double or twin rooms.
“We sleep 14 in total. For weddings people can stay in nearby locations and in tents on the estate. We just converted the courtyard for weddings and now it can seat 150 people,” says Joanna. “It’s very bespoke and suits a certain type of person, who wants to completely escape for the weekend,” she adds.
“We get a lot of eccentric Americans and people interested in history, architecture and slow food. It’s not on a well-trodden route, but people often say how beautiful and unspoilt the county is. The actor Aidan Quinn said it was his favourite place on earth,” says Fred.
There are two lakes for fishing, a rowing boat, kayak, lakeside summerhouse and a hidden private shore for swimming. A croquet lawn makes it all seem very EM Forster. You can almost see Maggie Smith in an Edwardian ensemble running across the estate with a telegram in her hand. “People rent it out forDownton Abbey parties, and last year a group of historical re-enactors stayed for a week, in full character. I remember seeing them walk up from the lake thinking I was in Sense and Sensibility or something,” says Joanna.
Keeping the place going is costly. Before buying a new boiler a few years back, the couple spent €15 an hour heating the house in winter and ongoing restoration costs are astronomical.
“We try to take a pragmatic approach of prioritising a building every year or two,” says Joanna. “Due to a lack of available funding, it is often to protect it from deterioration as opposed to restoring it. We got a 20 per cent grant towards the restoration of the roof 10 years ago, which cost €300,000, and we’re still paying it off.”Originally known as Maddenton, Hilton Park was rebuilt after a fire in 1804, after which it was encased in Dungannon stone. The basement was excavated in 1874, turning the downstairs floor into a piano nobile, while a new entrance hall with an iconic port cochere, Corinthian columns and parapet window pediments turned it into the grand house it is today.
During the 1916 Rising, the owner, Jack Madden, trained every man on the estate in rifle practice to defend the house in event of attack. “The house wasn’t a plantation house. It was purchased and built by ancestors so it was spared during the troubles,” he says.
Hilton Park was home of the Flat Lake literary festival, organised by Fred’s brother-in-law Kevin Allen, and Pat McCabe, author of the Butcher Boybetween 2007 and 2011. Guests included Neil Jordan, Seamus Heaney and Dylan Moran. “It was an amazing event. We’re so sorry to see it go, but Kevin moved to Wales to pursue other work. If someone wants to take it on, they’re more than welcome,” Mrs Madden suggests.
At the moment it is too much for the Maddens to take on. “We’re up at 6am making breakfast and then we’re on the go all day tending to the guests, the garden, our 200 sheep, the list goes on. Because we work from home, the kids are always around us, which is great and we love it. Though since the twins were born last year, I have gone completely grey,” says Fred. Hilton Park takes bookings until New Year’s Eve, 2016