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A spectacular cliff-top building that defies both gravity and subtlety

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Cliff-top View
Mussenden Temple Building
Downhill Castle Ruins
Hezlett House
On Northern Ireland's coast, balanced delicately but confidently on the edge of a 50 metre cliff, is one of the most visually arresting buildings you will ever lay eyes upon. The small, circular structure was based upon the Temple of Vesta in Italy, but it may well have surpassed its parent in looks.

Mussenden Temple.
Photo john.purvis
It's called Mussenden Temple, and it was built in 1785 for Frederick Hervey, the Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. He was regarded as a bit of a flamboyant character, and this is reflected in the extravagant design. An inscription around the exterior reads: "'Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore, the rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar." It's a bit of a dramatic statement for what was simply a summer library!

Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board

Did You Know?

The Temple of Vesta in Tivoli (Italy), provided a model for many English landscape gardens, such as the Temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe, the Temple of Solitude at Kew and the Mussenden Temple, here in Northern Ireland. All temples to Vesta were round, and had entrances facing east to symbolise a connection between Vesta’s fire and the sun as sources of life.

The Temple of Vesta in Tivoli
Photo Emilia Orlandi
The Dean lived next door in a manor house called Downhill Castle. Unfortunately, it lies in ruins after suffering plenty of bad luck during its long life. There was a fire in 1851, and further damage in the Second World War. The National Trust looks after both of these properties, as well as a nearby cottage called Hezlett House. Despite dating from the 17th century, it's in much better condition than its neighbouring mansion. Inside, a series of displays teaches visitors about what life was like several centuries ago.

Downhill Castle, now in ruins.
Photo Jean Smith
The various buildings are surrounded by a network of pretty gardens and paths. They're sheltered from the strong coastal winds, making them ideal for walks and picnics. Keep an eye out for the coast's population of birds. Bored children can be set on their trail by equipping them with one of the National Trust's "tracker packs". They come with binoculars, a compass and bird identification cards, turning the little ones into instant experts.

Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board
The Mussenden Temple itself is only open on certain days, but it's free, and the sight from inside is worth timing your visit for. Seagulls float overhead, the beach sprawls out beneath you, and an occasional train clatters along in the distance. The only problem with the view from Mussenden Temple is the fact that you can't see Mussenden Temple! Some buildings would look out of place among such wild scenery, but this one takes that roughness and instils it with the wonderful arrogance of the 18th century's upper classes. It doesn't just fit in, it takes command of the entire coast.

The view from inside the Mussenden Temple.
Photo Northen Ireland Tourist Board
If you want to take a look, you might be better off going sooner rather than later. The cliffs have suffered many years of erosion, and there's a danger that Mussenden might plunge down onto the rocks, and into the sea. Thankfully the National Trust have carried out some stabilisation work that should keep the place safe for a while yet.

Mussenden Temple on a cliff edge.
Photo Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Couples who take a particular shine to the temple may be interested to hear that, since 2007, it has been licensed to hold weddings. Photographs of the ceremonies make for some unique, spectacular keepsakes.
Visitor Information
Mussenden Temple, Downhill and Hazlett House is managed by the National Trust and is open daily, 10am to 5pm. Entry costs around £6 for adults, £3 children. Mussenden Road, Castlerock, County Londonderry BT51 4RP. Tel: 028 7084 8728

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