Saturday 24 September 2016

Sligo champions: Peek inside Temple House complete with 97 rooms

Roderick Perceval grew up in Temple House, so he knew what was in store when he took over the 97-room house. His wife Helena was somewhat less prepared.

Published 11/01/2016 | 02:30

The Perceval home in Sligo was built in the mid-19th Century but the family can trace their ancestors’ arrival in Ireland back to 1665. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Perceval home in Sligo was built in the mid-19th Century but the family can trace their ancestors’ arrival in Ireland back to 1665. Photo: Tony Gavin
Roderick and Helena Perceval in the stately drawing room. Roderick grew up in the house and the couple, who met at university in England, took over in 2004. Photo: Tony Gavin.
The massive dining room was once used for family gatherings but these days it's more likely to be the setting for a reception or business event The portrait over the mantelpiece is of the man who built the house; he made his fortune in Shanghai and thus is known in the family as the Chinaman.
The top landing, like the other living areas, is painted in a rich heritage colour. The portraits which line this space are ancestors of Roderick on both his father's and mother's side. Photo: Tony Gavin
The beautiful staircase is also lined with portraits that have been in the family for generations.
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Every so often, since the advent of the mobile phone, a debate erupts about their effect on children and how early a child should be given one and why.

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Not a lot of people would have the problem Roderick and Helena Perceval had, for which a mobile was the perfect solution. "I lost Saffron once, she was nine. She wandered off and I couldn't find her, so we got her a mobile phone," Helena recalls with a laugh.

Helena isn't talking about Saffron getting lost in the extensive grounds around their spectacular home, Temple House in Sligo, grounds which include a lake, a castle ruin and an island; the child actually went missing in the house itself. But then the house, which spans four wings, does have 97 rooms of varying sizes, spread over four storeys.

The house dates from the 1860s and Roderick's family have lived in it since it was built. In fact, he can trace his forebears back to 1066. "They were Normans and they meandered across England for 600 years, and then they came over here. Marriage brought them to Ireland. There were two brothers, one married in Cork and the other, George Perceval, came here and married Mary Crofton, who lived in the castle in 1665," says Roderick.

Roderick and Helena Perceval in the stately drawing room. Roderick grew up in the house and the couple, who met at university in England, took over in 2004. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Roderick and Helena Perceval in the stately drawing room. Roderick grew up in the house and the couple, who met at university in England, took over in 2004. Photo: Tony Gavin.

He's quick to add that all didn't go swimmingly and, around the time of the Famine, the family went bankrupt.

"The eldest son had to sell the property, and from 1858 to 1862, it was in the hands of another family, but the third son, my great-great-great-grandfather, made a fortune in business in Hong Kong.

"He was there for about 20 years, and when he returned, he bought the land back and remodelled the house," Roderick explains.

It was this ancestor who put in 97 rooms, some of which are enormous and very grand, like the stunning vestibule, the ballroom and the dining room. Some rooms are quite small, and would have been used as servants' quarters or boot rooms or larders.

The family are fortunate that they also have a thriving sheep farm - 1,000 acres including woodlands, and 1,600 sheep - but like most families of their ilk, the Percevals realised that to keep their house alive they would have to try and generate some income from it, and Roderick's parents, who are now retired and live in a smaller house on the land, joined Hidden Ireland and took in paying guests.

At that stage, the idea of having guests to stay in ancestral homes was in its infancy; Roderick and Helena took over in 2004 and are really committed to making the house pay. It probably helps that Roderick, who has two sisters, grew up in the house, and then was able to go away and experience life elsewhere before opting to settle in Sligo.

The massive dining room was once used for family gatherings but these days it's more likely to be the setting for a reception or business event The portrait over the mantelpiece is of the man who built the house; he made his fortune in Shanghai and thus is known in the family as the Chinaman.
The massive dining room was once used for family gatherings but these days it's more likely to be the setting for a reception or business event The portrait over the mantelpiece is of the man who built the house; he made his fortune in Shanghai and thus is known in the family as the Chinaman.

"Growing up here, we had great fun, we had indoor bikes, we were always sliding down banisters . . . it was a big house, but it was home. I always loved the place, and felt I'd like to take over, but going away gave me my own identity and experience. It is quite a challenge taking over a place like this," he notes.

After boarding school at St Columba's in Dublin, Roderick studied agriculture at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth and then "meandered through" some farming and marketing jobs in England, before finally becoming marketing director of a large destination garden-centre company and gaining great experience for his future career as chatelain of Temple House.

Helena is from Gloucestershire and she studied history of art at the same university. They met in 1988 through a hockey-club social there. "A friend of mine, who I was in halls with, asked me to the hockey-club dinner," Helena recalls, and Roderick rather romantically adds, "I can remember her walking into the room and thinking, 'I've got to speak to that girl'."

Helena's father was an architect who specialised in historic buildings and her family lived in a 600-year-old restored farmhouse, so she was familiar with old houses. "I was used to the cold in winter and being rained on when I'd go to bed at night. I was used to going to bed in a woolly hat," Helena notes with a laugh.

Still, Roderick made it his business to be by her side when she first caught sight of Temple House. "My grandfather said I should bring her here myself the first time," he recalls, while Helena adds with a laugh, "Without Roderick I might have been daunted. I probably would have turned round and gone back. Or maybe not. At that stage, remember, I wasn't presented with the option of living in it. We were very young when we met and realised we were going to spend the rest of our lives together.

"You don't really think beyond your early 20s -you just think life is for living, you're in love and that's it," she notes affectionately.

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The couple married in 1993, a year after they graduated - and Roderick can remember Helena's father's words to her. "I remember he said to her, 'Do you know what you're taking on?' And he wasn't just talking about me," Roderick laughs.

However, they had 11 years of married life before they took over Temple House in 2004, during which time they lived a little and chilled a bit.

Though they joke now, it can't have been easy arriving in Temple House with their young family - the couple have two children, son George (17) and daughter Saffron (16).

"It was daunting, exciting but daunting," Roderick admits, while Helena adds, "Our UK house would have fit in the front hall. The first 10 days we found we were whispering to each other, then it was so big we found we were shouting all the time."

It didn't help, either, that within a few years the recession hit, but they realised early on that it was a life-long project and that there was no point in expecting everything to be perfect immediately. "A lot of our ambitions had to be postponed. We're getting there, there's lots of things to be done. What we do is prioritise and tick everything off in bite-size chunks," Roderick notes. Helena adds, "We have three lists - an emergency list, a priority list, and the list of things we'd like to do, but the budget won't allow at present."

Things like roof repairs are constant, as is heating. "Heating is one of the things we've been working on; we're getting there. Then there's the roof, which is enormous. We've done about a quarter of it; if we finish it in the next 15 years, we'll be very happy," Roderick notes, then adds, "Maybe that's unrealistic, but we'd like to try."

There's also the basement to be done - it's derelict at present - and the top two floors, not to mention the back wing, which they say is falling down. In fact, only 60pc of the house is in everyday use.

But to accentuate the positive, which is what Roderick and Helena like to do, there's a long list of things they have done. These include restoration and decoration of the six gorgeous en suite bedrooms, which are available to guests - one bedroom which is said to be haunted; but she's a friendly ghost, one who likes to sit on the bed, and chat.

The vestibule, the outer hall, the morning room, the dining room, and the ballroom - which is a magnificent location for the weddings they host - have also been restored and decorated, with Helena doing most of the actual wall-painting herself. "It would cost a fortune to get professionals. I actually like painting walls; Roderick hates it. I start all the walls but he finishes them, because I can't manage the high bits."

Helena opts for heritage colours - so there are lots of reds and duck-egg blue - and she has used them to great effect in all the different rooms with their exquisite cornicing and mouldings. Roderick is full of praise for her work. "There was a time when I used to question her choice of colour, but I always came round. About six months after a job, I find myself saying, 'Actually, it's quite nice'."

From a cost point of view, it's fortunate that there was no shortage of furniture to fill the rooms. Everything except some sofas has been there since the 1860s, with some bits added by the various Mrs Percevals over the decades. The walls are hung with portraits of the many ancestors, and armoires are filled with antique china.

There's a profusion of stuffed animals about the place and one whole cabinet is filled with a collection of seashells - apparently this was a wedding present to the Chinaman, as Roderick's great-great-great-grandfather, who made his fortune in Hong Kong, is called.

One of the things Helena felt she had to be particularly mindful of is the fact that it's been the family home for hundreds of years, and she has to respect what's gone before; the customs, traditions and ways of the generations past, many of which she gets a great kick out of, including the fact that all the rooms have nicknames, and she and Roderick still use them, though they have modified some.

"One corridor which we don't use used to be called Batchelors' Walk; it was the male servants' quarters. it's now called Bats Walk for obvious reasons," Roderick jokes, indicating that the only occupants these days and for the foreseeable are the eponymous bats. Maiden's Lane is where the female servants used to be housed.

There is no army of servants nowadays, though there are still many reminders of them.

"Every fireplace represents someone who had to clean it," says Helena, adding that she divides chores into daily jobs, weekly jobs and monthly jobs, and then there are occasional jobs. "The brass stair rods are cleaned every February," she notes. She and Roderick do a lot of the chores themselves, though they do have help from people who live locally.

There's a room called the Half Acre, another called Pat's Bottom and another which is called Woolworths, which is a junk room. The room which is called 'the Room with no Floor' does have a floor now, but it still goes by its old name.

The couple have done an enormous amount in the 11 years since they been here and guests can immediately sense a warm, welcoming atmosphere; just outside the enormous front door is a huge range of wellies of all sizes. "We encourage the guests to explore, so we have wellies to fit everyone in case they didn't bring their own," Helena says.

And there is much to explore. There's the kilometre-long avenue from the gates to the house, there are the fields full of gambolling sheep, and the gorgeous grounds in front of the house, which are planted with specimen trees - lime, oak, ash, sycamore and one of the oldest Spanish chestnuts in the country. There's the lake, and the castle.

There's even an island. "This morning, we took 13 sheep across on one of our boats to graze on the island and a German guest joined in. I think she enjoyed it," Roderick notes, adding that there are rods too, for anyone who wants to take the boats out to fish, while Helena adds, "It's very much our home and we treat everyone as guests in our home. It's important that people realise that it's not really a hotel, there are no telephones in rooms and you will trip over the dogs; what we hope is that they'll enjoy it for what it is."

It helps that they feel Sligo itself is enjoying a wave of popularity. "There's so much to do here," Roderick says, listing off the many resources in the area. "Sligo is finally getting the recognition it deserves. There's Yeats of course, the Wild Atlantic Way has helped, the Fleadh has helped, there's hill-walking and water sports," he notes, adding that Temple House hosted Sligo's Hell & Back, Ireland's toughest obstacle course, last summer.

It's run over 11 kilometres and Temple House Estate is ideal, given its fences, lakes, islands and ruins. "It's people running through mud for fun," Roderick marvels. "Our son did it with a couple of school friends, it was hard, but tremendous fun."

Warming to his theme of the many amenities, he goes on to note that 40pc of Ireland's megalithic tombs are in Sligo, as well as many other natural wonders. "There's Knocknarea where Queen Maeve was based, and Benbulben, our very own Table Mountain," he says.

He's also proud of the fact that Sligo was a finalist in the Foodie Towns of Ireland, and is particularly chuffed Temple House won Georgina Campbell's Country House of the Year Award for 2016. The couple feel it's down to the house itself, the food - they source everything locally, they use organic vegetables, they make their own chutneys and granola and, of course, they have amazing lamb - and also the atmosphere.

"We've very aware of saying we're something we're not. We're not Ashford Castle, we're not an anonymous hotel either. More than anything, we're a home we like to share. We like to think the house has a heart," Helena explains, adding that there are several dimensions to the experience of staying at Temple House. "The house is about us and our team and how we interact with the guests and how they interact with each other. We used to get newspapers but we don't anymore, so they can chat to each other."

And as they don't ban mobile phones, it might be a good idea to keep one on you. In case you get lost, that is.

Temple House Estate, Ballinacarrow, Ballymote, Co Sligo, tel: (087) 997-6045, or see templehouse.ie

 Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

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