Lor­raine Wylie

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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - COMPETITIONS -

“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

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