Dating from 1660, the Larchfield Estate near Lisburn has a long and fascinating history. Current owners Gavin and Sarah Mackie took over management of the estate in 2007 and, as Sarah tells Lorraine Wylie, have come up with a plan to ensure that it is ec
“Larchfield Estate has a fascinating history dating back centuries. Gavin and Sarah Mackie are the current owners, and this week Sarah tells me about life at their big house and the exciting developments they are overseeing.”
Situated midway between Ballynahinch and Lisburn, Larchfield Estate has all the hallmarks of a country manor. The driveway is suitably long and winding, the grounds beautifully maintained and the views are stunning. Larchfield House, a two-storey, four-bay, Georgian property with an impressive porch boasting four columns, looks every inch the stately home.
But unlike other estates, such as Mount Stewart, Larchfield is not an ancestral home. Down through the centuries, a succession of families may have shared similar hopes and dreams but not always the same genes.
Unfortunately, many records have been destroyed, leaving sizeable gaps in the estate’s history. However, the land can be traced as far back as 1660 when it belonged to the O’Neill family. Less than 100 years later, new owners, the Mussendens, wealthy merchants and bankers from Belfast, built a house on the site but the death of Mrs Mussenden at just 22 years of age interrupted their plans and brought tragedy to their door. Mrs Mussenden’s cousin, the Bishop of Derry known as Earl Bishop, was particularly devastated and, in memory of the young woman, built the Mussenden Temple, near Castlerock, in Co Londonderry.
In 1868, Ogilvie B Graham, director of the York Street Flax Spinning Company took ownership of Larchfield and set about increasing the property’s value with an ambitious building project that included an extra storey, a Victorian wing, several gate lodges and a large fish pond.
By 1968, Larchfield Estate was down to just 300 acres and on sale to the highest bidder. It was bought at auction by Leslie Mackie of the former James Mackie and Sons engineering firm. Then, in 2007, he handed it over to the current owners, his son and daughter-in-law Gavin and Sarah Mackie.
A country manor may sound an enviable inheritance but “big houses” are a huge drain on finances and unless there’s a reservoir of unlimited cash, owners have to find ways to become economically viable. Fortunately, Sarah’s “light bulb moment” revealed the route to secure Larchfield’s heritage.
Keen to know more about the latest member of the Mackie clan who has helped transform Larchfield into one of Northern Ireland’s premier wedding and corporate events destinations, I met up with Sarah Mackie.
“Would you believe, we had a donkey, dressed as an elf in here on Christmas Eve?” she laughs as she shows me into a beautiful, spacious drawing room. “There were more than 30 of us all crammed in, it was wonderful. My friend helped arrange the surprise and the kids loved it. The donkey, called Lucy, came in and was fed lots of carrot canapes which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was hilarious. The children had a fabulous time.”
For me, a donkey in the living room at any time of the year would be a nightmare. But then, turning a party into a memorable event is what Sarah does best. As her story unfolds, it seems “light bulb moments” could be a family trait.
“I was born in Somerset but my father is actually from East Africa,” she tells me. “My grandparents had a cattle farm and a coffee plantation over there. My grandfather was such a fabulous man. He took himself off to chart the Congo when parts of it were still totally unknown. Then later, when he broke his back while playing rugby and was told he wouldn’t be able to work, he had no choice but to come up with a solution — not easy when you’re flat on your back.
“In the end, he used a mirror, held above his face and taught himself to tie flies for fly fishing. From there he went on to establish Fulling Mills Fishing Flies in Kenya. Today it’s a major name, known around the world. I think my ‘Paw Paw’ as we called him, taught me one of my most important lessons — hold you head up and, as long as you’ve done your best, you’ve done enough.”
Determination to succeed seems to be a family characteristic.
“My dad was a farmer but when he met and fell in love with an English girl, who later became my mother, he decided to move back to England with her. Of course, his farming skills were no use in England so he had to find a different line of work. He re-trained as a pilot and got a job with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation).
“We had been staying with an aunt but when my parents bought an old schoolhouse in Dorset we were able to move to our own home. Dad went to work and mum stayed home to look after us. With four girls, all under the age of eight, it was a full-time job for her.”
As Sarah reminisces about her school days, I’m not surprised to discover the businesswoman has always had a head for figures.
“My best subjects were maths, pure maths and physics,” she says with a smile. “I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study at St Mary’s in Shaftesbury but, to be honest, by the time my school career ended I was sick of figures. I didn’t have any specific career in mind. I remember doing this very nouveau
It was pitch black when we arrived, but I did think it was a terribly long drive
test designed to determine the type of job best suited to my skills. I had to list details of my interests, the subjects I was good at, hobbies etc.
“You can imagine my parent’s horror when it came back to say I’d make a great dustbin lady. I did think about following in my dad’s footsteps and becoming a pilot with the RAF. I even went as far as taking a few flying lessons but then I discovered that I’d have to sign up for a nine-year contract — but at 18 nine years seems forever. In the end I decided to study geography at Manchester University.”
One of the perks of having a pilot in the family was reduced air fares and Sarah made the most of the opportunity to explore.
“My friend Joanne and I decided we’d take a gap year and go to India and Nepal. After travelling around a bit we ended up in Kathmandu, helping out at one of Mother Teresa’s homes for the destitute and dying. What a lesson that turned out to be. We met some amazing characters, people who had nothing but somehow were happy with their lot.
“One of my favourite individuals was a Sherpa who was so proud of spending his life climbing Mount Everest. There were a lot of lovely women there who smiled a lot and asked us to paint their nails. They got so much pleasure from a such a simple thing that it made us happy, too. Cutting their nails was a different matter, however, with all that rice in their diet. On Tuesdays when there was no electricity, we’d make our own fun. Some of the rickshaw drivers we knew would let us drive them into town and they’d climb into the back for the run.”
After graduating, Sarah moved to London and took a job with The Moving Picture Company where she worked on special effects for adverts and movies. Later, she secured a post with Carlton Communications.
“I just worked my way up but then I realised I was in a ‘dead man’s shoes’ — a situation which basically means there was no room for promotion,” she reflects. “I went to see Michael Green, who ran Carlton Communications, and told him I was thinking of moving on. It was an act of courtesy really but he asked me to wait 48 hours... and I ended up being one of four who were asked to set up the digital arm of Carlton. We worked initially in digital terrestrial TV and then in DSAT (digital satellite).”
As well as a high-flying career, London brought new friends for Sarah, among them a girl from Northern Ireland called Holly Mackie.
“Holly and I got on well and she told me about her family back in Northern Ireland but I’d no idea that Larchfield was actually a country estate,” Sarah says. “Her brother, Gavin, had an engineering business, selling dredging equipment down in Torquay and he’d come to visit her. I did notice he’d started coming a little more often than usual, but I didn’t think anything of it. I’d just come out of a long relationship and wasn’t looking for another. “However, something clicked between us although I’m not sure when exactly. I think other people noticed it happening before we did. I suppose it’s a bit of a cliche, but I really did fall for my best friend. I can’t really describe how it was and still is with us. Warm, comfortable, familiar, a bit like...” “...a pair of slippers,” I suggest, trying to help her out. “No,” she laughs, shaking her head. “Slippers are something you can take off or put on at a whim. Being with Gavin is more like coming home. It just feels right.” Eventually, Gavin brought her home to meet the family. “I still didn’t have a clue what Larchfield was like,” she says. “It was pitch black when we arrived. But I do remember thinking it a terribly long drive. Then during the night, I got up to use the loo and felt a bit panicked because there were so many doors and I wasn’t sure which was the bathroom.”
Northern Irish men are not known for their romantic prowess, so how did Gavin propose?
“We were in Edinburgh at the time and had planned to walk up Munro mountains,” Sarah recalls. “It was lovely when we started out but by the time we got to the top the weather had changed. There was a group of lads there drinking Irn Bru and generally messing about. I couldn’t figure out why Gavin wanted to hang around instead of heading back down. Eventually, the lads left and Gavin got down on one knee and popped the question. Apparently, he’d asked my dad’s permission beforehand. Naturally I said yes.
“He handed me a box and I was a bit surprised to find he’d given me earrings. But he knows I’m a sucker for history and he wanted to give me the option of having a family heirloom as an engagement ring. We had our wedding rings made and inscribed so that if future generations want to use them, they’ll know exactly who owned them.”
The couple married at Larchfield Estate in 2007 and moved back to make it their permanent home. What influenced her decision?
“Gavin had always planned on returning to Northern Ireland,” Sarah reveals. “When we met, we each had our own property so, after we got married, we wanted somewhere to make a home together. Where better than Larchfield Estate to raise a family?
“When my father-in-law took over, he managed to buy back some of the original parkland trees that had been sold off to timber merchants prior to auction, increasing the size of the estate to around 600 acres. My mother-in-law, Ann, worked hard to restore the walled garden and it really is a beautiful place. I feel really privileged to live here.
“We also wanted the Mackie name to continue and become part of Larchfield’s heritage. I truly hadn’t realised what a huge role the Mackie firm played in Northern Ireland’s history.”
Known to locals as ‘Mackies’, the firm, once the world’s largest producer of textile machinery, employed around 6,000 men in Belfast during the Sixties. My dad was one of them and I can still remember the time he allowed me to tag along while he made a delivery to the ‘big house’. As a youngster, I was more interested in the stony faced felines guarding the entrance than the mansion beyond.
“Oh the ‘lions’ are still a favourite with the children today,” Sarah chuckles. “They love clambering up to sit with them. The statues originally belonged at Terrace Hill, my mother-in-law’s childhood home. Her mother and father, Mr and Mrs H Clokey, gave them to her as a wedding present. They’re very eye-catching but the horses sometimes get a bit spooked by them.”
Interestingly, Terrace Hill was also home to Edward Robinson, proprietor of Robinson and Cleaver, one of Belfast’s finest department stores. Sarah also mentions that the Belfast manor once belonged to Van Morrison although it’s unclear whether the singer actually lived there.
Conversation drifts back to Mackies’ glory days.
“The company exported to more than 90 countries,” Sarah says. “In Calcutta they set up the Lagan Jute Machinery company and employed 700 workers to produce machinery for the Indian market. Leslie is particularly proud of the telex they received from Winston Churchill thanking them for producing the new design of armour-piercing shell that helped Britain win the North African campaign. It was quite an achievement.”
During the Seventies, Mackies handed the company over to its employees to run as a workers’ co-operative. It finally closed its doors in 1999.
Nowadays, the sound of Mackies’ horn is silent. For this current generation, it’s the chime of wedding bells that keeps the cash flowing in. I ask about the “light bulb moment” that led Sarah into the business.
“Well, I’d been invited to a few weddings, some of which were held in old barns, so I thought to myself ‘wait a minute, there might be something in this!’ The rest is history.”
Admittedly, Larchfield is a beautiful venue. A picturesque courtyard, an 18th century stone barn, its walls painted red and twinkling with hundreds of fairy lights, gives a sense of stepping into a story book. The fish pond installed by previous owner Ogilvie B Graham is now a secluded area where newlyweds take a break to catch their breath and share the first moments of married life in peace. But creating a perfect experience comes with a price. Sarah and Gavin Mackie have invested over £1.3m to ensure every event is special.
“Yes, it has been a lot of hard work,” Sarah admits.
“Especially in the beginning when we had to re-wire the house before the insurance company would renew the policy. That was a nightmare. Some of these walls are between six and eight feet thick. It took two years and it was like living on a building site.
“We’ve come a long way since then. It has been great watching it all come together, but we must keep working at it. In the last few years we’ve added extra accommodation and, of course, the beautiful orangery which we built to replace the marquee at the entrance to the barn.
“And I’m very proud of Myrtle the glamping truck. It’s a 1952 Saurer Army truck that’s been converted to include everything from underfloor heating, a bathroom, shower, firepit, deck and sauna. Absolutely everything you could want. There’s even a beautiful chandelier and decadent Persian carpets.”
Doesn’t she ever get tired of weddings?
“No!” Her look of surprise says it all. Sarah Mackie loves a love story.
“Yes, I must confess, I really do love a wedding,” she says. “It’s such a privilege to be able to make a couple’s big day special. Over the years, we’ve had some amazing people here. We even had Emeli Sande sing at one of our weddings and then, two weeks later, she opened the Olympics. Another time we had Daniel O’Donnell among the guests. You never know what is going to happen or who is going to turn up. I’m never bored and love what I do.”
As well as growing a business, over the past decade Sarah has been busy raising her children. Fiercely protective, she prefers not to mention them by name but the fact that the girls are all under 10 reveals how hectic her schedule can be. “I do have some help with the children, but Gavin and I try to find a good balance between home and work,” she explains. “I am a bit of a workaholic so I’ve made a New Year’s resolution — not to keep looking at my phone. Our children are very fortunate to live here. There is so much to do and they’re particularly fond of the animals.” Sarah isn’t referring to the family cat or dog. Her animals include a herd of alpacas and several miniature donkeys. Why alpacas? “My father-in-law brought them over from South America during the Eighties,” she says. “At one time he had the biggest herd in the UK. There’s not so many now, but we all love them. They’re very low maintenance and are great for keeping foxes away from the sheep, especially during lambing. Alpacas love to munch grass so they’re also brilliant at mowing. “Our donkeys are gorgeous little things and quite friendly, but we always warn people not to get too close. We do have a favourite among the menagerie. He’s called Albi the alpaca — he just loves to get into the picture and will put his feet on the fence hoping for a kiss. But we have to warn brides to be careful as he might nibble their dress.” Donkeys dressed as elves, kissing alpacas with a taste for satin and selfies... the modern Mackies have found a recipe for success. But they also know how to have fun.
It has been great watching it all come together, but we must keep working at it ‘Emeli Sande sang at a wedding and two weeks later opened the Olympics’
GRAND DESIGNS: Sarah Mackie has helped turn Larchfield Estate into a very popular high-end wedding venue. Below left, the entrance to the Co Down estate, (below) the music room, and Mother Teresa (below right), for whom Sarah worked at one of the nun’s homes in Nepal during a gap year
WEDDING HOST: Sarah Mackie with her two dogs at Larchfield. Below, Emeli Sande, who sang at a wedding, Daniel O’Donnell, who was a guest at another event and Sarah’s glamping truck, Myrtle