Redburn Country Park

Redburn House and the Dunville Family

Video 43 minutes

The video starts with a short overview of the history of the Dunvilles and Redburn House, this is followed by archive film of the house shortly before its demolition, then follows a series of interviews with local people who worked at the house.

Redburn Country Park
A Community Guide

Produced on behalf of Holywood Shared Town, June 2017


This guide to Redburn Country Park tells you what you can see, where you can go, and what happened here in the past. Redburn Country Park is managed by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and there are also various local community groups encouraging you to visit and use the park.

Redburn Country Park is set on the hillside immediately above the town of Holywood. It includes mature beech woods, with scrub, grasslands and a relatively young oak plantation at the top of the hill. It is full of interesting wildlife.

The big house that used to be in the Park – Redburn House – was built by the wealthy and eccentric Dunville family, who owned the largest whiskey distillery in the world, and one of whom won the Victoria Cross in the First World War, in June 1917. A later part of this guide tells you about them.

There are many paths in the Park; the hand-drawn map on the centre page shows the main paths and features.

This booklet was produced in June 2017 on behalf of Holywood Shared Town, (with support from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive). It is a first edition, and the authors would welcome additional information to include in future editions.

The Park

The Park consists of 64 hectares, and rises to several hundred feet at its highest point. The Park can be accessed on foot in various places, off the Old Holywood Road. These include the two public car parks, (one beside the Holywood Care Home, the other in a layby on the road), where interpretation panels with a large-scale map of the Park are situated. There is also a pedestrian track, known as Ardtullagh Avenue, leading up into the Park from the corner of the Old Holywood Road and Jackson’s Road, where one of the former gate lodges still stands. (The stone used to build the gate lodge came from Scotland.)

Parts of the Park are steep, and some visitors may prefer to keep to the lower paths. (Traditionally one route up into Holywood hills was known as Heartbreak – or heart attack – Hill!) The interpretation panels at the entrances to the Park show the gradients. Several streams run down through the Park towards Holywood and there are a number of features of particular interest which include:

  • The Ravine,
  • Nun’s Wood,
  • Rory’s Glen,
  • The quarry known as the Bear Pit,
  • The beech tree row,
  • Redburn House stable yard, and the former gardens,
  • The World War Two bomb crater, and
  • Dreadnought Wood.

Many of these names have historical sources or stories associated with them. The steep-sided Ravine was formerly known as Harrison’s Glen. Nun’s Wood is above the Golf Club; it is socalled after a nun who is reputed to have settled in a cave near here, on her own, as a hermit. Nun’s Walk leads up toward the Wood from the town. Rory’s Glen is said to be named after a family called Rory who lived in a cottage at the bottom of the Glen. (The 1939 Ordnance Survey map also marked Rory’s Wood, on the Knocknagoney side of the Glen. The ridge at the top was known to some as Laundry Hill.)

Dreadnought Wood was planted (by the Woodland Trust with EU funding) in 2005 to commemorate two hundred years since the great sea-battle of Trafalgar in which Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the French. It is named after one of Nelson’s oak-timbered ships which carried many Irish sailors. The Wood has various native tree species, including in particular oak, and Scots pine and rowan. At the very top, in the old days, was Holywood Moss, or bog.

The views from the top of the hill over Holywood, out to Belfast Lough and on towards County Antrim and Belfast are rich reward for the climb.

Holywood Men’s Shed is now based in the old stable yard of the long-demolished Redburn House; work to rediscover the former gardens began in spring 2017. For more information about the House and the Bear Pit, see the section below on the Dunville family. A waymarked 5 kilometre running trail winds through much of the Park. There is also an equestrian
route round the Country Park that is shared with all users and requires an NIEA permit.

The Wildlife by Season

The flora (flowers and plants) and fauna (animals including birds) vary depending on the different habitats in the Park. Thus, different birds and plants are found in the open grasslands at the top of the Park from those in the woods at the bottom.

The dense understorey in places provides good shelter for many smaller birds, including tits, finches and wrens. In all there are over 40 species of bird to be seen.

This guide is intended to help you to spot the wildlife and identify some of the more common flora and fauna you will find. There will also be opportunities to visit the Park with experts on hand to help you understand it better.


Spring is a particularly lovely time of year to wander round the
Park. The three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum, not to be confused
with Allium ursinum – wild garlic or ramsons) is one of the first
plants to show its white flowers, along with pretty yellow lesser
celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), white snowdrops (Galanthus
nivalis), wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and wood sorrel
(Oxalis acetosella).

In the latter half of April and early May, bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) carpet large areas of the Park, as do spurges (Euphorbia). Flowering gorse (Ulex europaeus, often called whin) gives off its unique (coconut or butterscotch) smell in sunshine.

Wild cherry trees (Prunus avium) have masses of white blossom, while salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis, introduced from North America and often now found as garden escapees) produce their bright mauve flowers, and their berries in summer are a source of food for many woodland birds. Near the former Redburn House large rhododendron and laurel bushes remain.

Bumblebees and other bee varieties can be seen flying again in the Park, once winter is over. In spring, look for birds flying with twigs, moss or straw to build their nests. Early morning bird song, known as the dawn chorus, is at its best in the spring. Little wrens flit beside the paths, while colourful jays can be heard squawking. In days gone by, local children would roll hard-boiled eggs (dyed yellow with whin blossom) down the hill at Easter.


This is the best time of year to spot the many butterflies in the Park. In the shaded, woody area, you may find the Speckled Wood (see photo), while on the open uplands you may see a Six Spotted Burnet Moth or a Small Tortoiseshell. (Tortoiseshell caterpillars feed on stinging nettles.)

If you look up, you may also see a buzzard mewing and soaring as it hunts for its prey below. You can keep an eye out for young rabbits too, as they venture from their burrows. You may also hear the grating cries of young owls at night-time as they leave their nests.

In June you may find orchids in the grassy areas, along with various buttercups (Ranunculus spp) and foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). There are many ferns round the Park (Polystichum and Dryopteris spp), which are at their most impressive in summer. Enjoy the scent of wild honeysuckle.


Much of the hill-side was planted with beech trees in Victorian times. Enjoy the leaves’ wonderful autumn colours; later in the season fallen leaves carpet much of the forest floor. Invasive sycamore trees spread their seeds as winged fruit or ‘keys’ which are dispersed by the wind.

This is the best time of year for foraging; blackberries, other wild berries and hazel nuts are plentiful. It is a time when some animals plan ahead for the hungry days of winter – you may see grey squirrels gathering nuts, or colourful jays burying acorns for their winter supply.

In the autumn, one can see the colourful but very poisonous red berries of the arum (often called lords-and-ladies or cuckoo pint, Arum maculatum).

Picking fungi is definitely not recommended, (unless you are an expert who knows for sure which ones are safe. Russula curtipes was first recorded in Ireland in Redburn Park. The ‘toadstool’ fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a particularly colourful fungus.)


The Park stays open for us to visit throughout the year. In winter the deciduous trees are bare of their leaves, though the great wood-rush (Luzula sylvatica) which covers much of the forest floor remains green. (Its dense carpet can prevent tree regeneration.) While the gorse is at its most spectacular in spring, it does stay in flower most of the year, hence various sayings on the lines of ‘when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season’.

Mosses and attractive lichens can be seen at any time, while a scarlet fungus (Elf Cup or Sarcoscypha coccinea) can also be found in a few places in late winter.

Craneflies (also known as Daddy Longlegs) provide a food supply for birds all year round. The red holly berries are food for the migrant Redwings. Blackcaps overwinter here too, and you may see a fox at any time of year.

The History of Redburn House

It was Robert Grimshaw Dunville (18381910) who chose the 170 acre site for his new mansion, Redburn House, when he left the family home at Richmond Lodge in Knocknagoney, with his new bride. Redburn House was built in ‘Fiddler’s Field’, off the Old Holywood Road.

After most of an older farm building had been removed. RG Dunville may have spent time as a youth on the staff of Sir Charles Lanyon, the well-known architect. It was Lanyon’s firm which designed the house which had at least 70 rooms, constructed of Scrabo stone, which cost over £28,000 in 1866. The ballroom had a Waterford crystal chandelier, and later the entrance hall had a memorial window to John Spencer Dunville VC (see below). Bedrooms were en-suite, a century before it became the norm.

Heated glass houses in the garden behind the house produced exotic fruits for the table, and a large conservatory brought on flowers. There was a laundry building some way off, and a little tiled dairy producing butter and cream from the Dunvilles’ herd of Jersey cows. In 1879, a separate walled courtyard and stable yard with an elegant clock-tower were added. In the grounds, houses were built for various members of the staff. Bricks used in the out-buildings came from McGladery’s brick works in Belfast.

In the Second World War, Redburn House was taken over by the Air Ministry as Women’s Auxiliary Air Force accommodation, although they were initially housed in Nissen huts in the grounds. (The concrete bases for at least two huts can still be seen in the undergrowth across the path below the beech tree row. The photo shows WAAFs on parade in front of Redburn House.)

After the War, the House became derelict; it and the outbuildings were vandalised. By 1972, it had been demolished. It was replaced for a brief period by the Redburn Hotel (a roadhouse), which was then converted to a staff members club for British Petroleum, before being pulled down in its turn. Today the Holywood Care Home occupies much of the site of the original Redburn House.

The History of the Dunville Family

In 1801, a John Dunville started working for William Napier a tea and spirit merchant in Belfast, taking over the business in the 1820s. The Company started distilling whiskey in 1869. John’s grandson was Redburn House’s owner Robert Grimshaw Dunville, who became chairman in 1874. He died in 1910, by which time the Royal Irish Distilleries on the Falls Road was the world’s largest. (It was said that Dunvilles introduced the English to whiskey.)

Robert’s son John became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Meath Militia. In 1892 John married Violet Lambart, grand-daughter of the Marquis Conyngham of Beau Park, County Meath and they had four children – Robert (Bobby), John, and William Gustavus, and a daughter, Una. The family spent much of their time living in their London home at 46 Portland Place. The summer months and Christmas holidays were spent at Redburn House where the children’s grandparents still lived.

Colonel John had the funds to indulge his passion in horses and ballooning. Before the First World War, his 16 grooms tended 60 hunters and four carriage horses. By 1906 Colonel John and Violet had become enthusiasts for competitive ballooning, and they later owned several balloons which they named ‘Banshee’. (Their balloons were cotton envelopes filled with coal gas, not hot air; most were built by Short Brothers.) Violet was reputedly the first woman to have flown across the Irish Sea in a balloon; in the years before the First World War, she won the Hedges Butler Challenge Cup for the longest distance flight by any type of flying machine, starting from London on a specified day. (In that War, Colonel John served both with the Royal Naval Air Service and the RAF, training many servicemen as balloonists.)

Their second son, John Spencer Dunville (whose was known within the family as ‘Jonkins’) joined the Army in 1914. He transferred to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in January 1916. On 25 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant John was in charge of a party of Royal Engineers sent out to demolish enemy barbed wire near Épehy in north France. He placed himself between a non-commissioned officer and enemy fire and although mortally wounded enabled the task to be completed. John died from his wounds early the next day. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery and disregard for personal danger.

The eldest son Robert had joined the Army just before the First World War. After illness and a period convalescing at Redburn, in April 1916 he was returning to his Regiment in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) when his car was ambushed at Castle Bellingham by Irish Republicans involved in the Easter Rising. They put him up against a wall, shot him in the chest and left him, thinking he was dead.

After a couple of years Bobby had recovered sufficiently to indulge his interest in animals. His collection included a zebra (above), a leopard, wallabies, lemurs, a kinkajou (or honey bear) and a locally-famous black bear, called Bruno. There is clear evidence – including photographs – that the animals were mostly kept within the stable yard (see photo). However it is widely-rumoured that Bruno was kept in an enclosure in the quarry higher in the woods which is now called the Bear Pit. It is known that he was sometimes brought out on a long chain. Old maps show there were Dunville kennels beside the track leading from the House toward the Bear Pit.

After his father the Colonel died in 1929, Bobby was advised for health reasons to go to Australia where the Dunvilles had acquired a sheep farm in New South Wales. He travelled via South Africa so that his (second) wife could visit her family. However Bobby died there, in Johannesburg, at the age of 38 years in 1931.

William displeased his parents by marrying Ruth Glover from the Newtownards Road in East Belfast. The young couple were sent off to Australia where he managed the sheep farm. Later William divorced his wife and emigrated to Canada, where he remarried.

Una had learning difficulties. At the age of four, her parents took her to Normansfield Hospital in Teddington, Middlesex where she lived for the rest of her life. The Hospital had been founded by Dr John Down who was the first physician to recognise Down’s Syndrome and the condition was named after him.

After Bobby’s death in 1931, there was no one from the Dunville family to succeed as the Chairman of the distillery business. The Company suffered from both the great economic Depression and the Prohibition of alcohol in the USA which had been a major export market. The distillery closed in 1935.

Violet continued to live at Redburn House until her death in 1940. The Dunvilles had at one time employed sixteen indoor and ten grounds staff. The gamekeeper, Tommy Thompson, was a well-known figure in Holywood, patrolling the estate, even after Violet’s death. He had a house within in the grounds, along the path from the Bear Pit.

The Dunville family left various legacies, including the land for Distillery Football Club, Dunville Park in West Belfast (in 1891, the city’s first public park), the John Spencer Dunville VC Trust (for ex-servicemen and the poor of Holywood) and the Sorella Trust (to build better houses for the Belfast working class and promote education). In addition, it is understood that remaining animals from their private collection went to Belfast Zoo which had been opened in 1934.

There are many local stories about the Dunvilles and their eccentric ways:

  • When the family cockatoo irritated him, the Colonel drenched it with a soda syphon
  • Violet used to drive a carriage with four horses until she had an accident – thereafter she used the family’s spectacular yellow Rolls Royce
  • When he fancied lamb for dinner, Bobby would shoot one of the neighbouring farmer’s flock and send Thompson round to pay him compensation
  • Thompson was peppered by Bobby’s shotgun when Bobby shot a rabbit one day
  • Bruno once tore the uniform off a soldier from Palace Barracks who had been teasing him. On another occasion he used his sharp claws to puncture the tyres of visitors’ cars.

The Development of Redburn Country Park

The whole estate was acquired by the Holywood Urban District Council in 1950 for just £14,700. Over the years, various plans for the site were explored by the Council including a caravan park, a children’s zoo and a restaurant. For a while, the grounds were used by Holywood Scout Troops in the summer, but offers to buy the House fell through. Part of the grounds (including the laundry) was sold in 1960 to the Crosslé sports car company. Other parts were used at the Council’s initiative for the new Redburn Cemetery, Redburn Primary School, and public housing. In 1969, the then Ministry of Development suggested it take over the estate, as it just had with what became Crawfordsburn Country Park. This would provide ‘a pleasant amenity to all residents and visitors to Holywood’.

A large portion of the original Dunville estate is accordingly now Redburn Country Park, and is managed by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Please observe the Park Code:

  • Protect the wildlife, plants and trees;
  • Take all litter home;
  • Ensure all dogs are kept under control and dispose of their waste in bags in the approved containers;
  • Please do not consume alcohol within the Park;
  • Guard against all risk of fire;
  • Cycling or mountain biking is not permitted;
  • Some paths may be liable to flooding when it rains hard;
  • The Park contains some natural hazards; watch your step and supervise young children, especially near steep slopes and water.

For further information, contact the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Crawfordsburn Country Park, Bridge Road South, Helen’s Bay BT19 1JT, telephone 02891 853621 or at

The Facebook page is ‘Friends of Redburn Country Park’.

Especial thanks for collating this booklet and sourcing and contributing material are due to Monty Budde, Sam Christie, Audrey Lockhart, Rosemary Masefield, Andy Moore, Ronald Surgenor, Gordon Thompson, Sacha Workman, Holywood Men’s Shed, Holywood Library, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Many others have also contributed in various ways, and Holywood Shared Town is grateful to them all.

Scene in Redburn Country Park, by Holywood artist Tom Kerr