I wandered around the house sighing in admiration at the beautiful ornaments and furniture.
As I moved I was watched by faces from another time. The eyes belonged to some of the most striking portraits I have ever seen, painted by 19th century artist Sir Thomas Lawrence.
The painter had captured former residents of the house in their prime. Their features were forever young, frozen in time to be viewed by future generations who gazed at them wondering about the lives behind the faces.
‘‘Isn’t she beautiful?’’ I overheard one American lady say as she looked at the portrait before her, ‘‘apparently she was quite a gal!’’.
I had come to Mount Stewart House on a May Day outing with my family. I had first visited it last year when the £7.5 million restoration project was underway and I hadn’t been able to view inside the grand home.
Mount Stewart had cast a spell on me that day and I was determined to revisit as soon as the house reopened to the public again. In the meantime I read the book Society’s Queen and became infatuated by Edith, Lady Londonderry and the world she had created in the mystical house on the shores of Strangford Lough.
I devoured the story of her passionate and sometimes sad love affair with her husband Charles, 7th Marquess of Londonderry. Edith’s life story is intensely interesting. She was indeed as the American lady commented, quite a gal! Edith was the most celebrated society and political hostesses of her day, throwing parties with up to 2,500 guests. They included royalty, prime ministers, artists and poets.
She designed and worked in the whimsical gardens of Mount Stewart herself. Her creations are imaginative and breathtaking and have been voted one of the top 10 gardens in the world.
Edith had a tattoo of a snake winding around her left leg, something quite unusual for ladies of her day, but then she appeared to be a free spirit.
That fun-loving spirit can still be felt in the home and gardens of the estate. Seeing the wealth of wonder she has left behind, one can only image what it would have been like to have spent time in this enigmatic lady’s company. Her magnetism is still tangible in this amazing house. Standing in the dining room I could almost hear echoes of the past, the chinking of glasses, the tinkle of laughter.
A home can be so much more than bricks and mortar, it incubates our dreams, hopes and relationships.
Recently the former resident of my house turned up at my door. He had lived there from 1944-1965; the house was then bought by my late parents.
Now he was standing on the doorstep he had left 50 years earlier. He was in search of his past. He had been living in New Zealand for the past 25 years and returned for his mother’s funeral.
He described to me how the house had been when he had lived there and the way his mother used to wrap apples in paper and store them in the attic to make jam. I could see in his mind’s eye he was back there, in that childhood home with his mother as he spoke.
Sometimes I still catch echoes of familiar voices, just as they sounded back then, my father’s laugh, my mother’s cough, but they are simply imagined echoes. I felt quite emotional and a little jealous listening to my visitor reminisce, because this home also houses my memories of adored parents and childhood events. It was like an ex-lover returning to try and rekindle a romance with your beloved.
But I couldn’t blame him for returning. I know that this home will always be incredibly special to me, even when I no longer live here, because this is the house that built me.
It was also the house that built this former resident and in his heart he felt his childhood self and a trace of his parents still remained here. Perhaps they do. As he turned to leave he said he felt comforted and glad he had came. It was as though the house had given him a reassuring pat on the back as he went, then threw its huge comforting arm around me.
Our homes hold the invisible footprints of the lives that have previously passed through them, some feet wearing more expensive shoes than others (as in Mount Stewart), but all with souls that perhaps leave a whisper of themselves ingrained forever in the place that once housed them.