Sion Stables

Sion Mills is a conservation area unlike any other in Northern Ireland – not only a model village similar to Bessbrook but also a curiously English-looking place many of whose main buildings were designed at the end of the 19th century by the young English architect William Unsworth in the Arts and Crafts style. It was a linen mill village, developed from 1836 by the Herdman family who continued to run the Mill until its relatively recent closure.

The most prominent building in the village is the mill of 1855 by Lanyon Lynn & Lanyon which has been badly damaged by arson, but perhaps the most unusual is Sion House, the Herdman’s family home in ornamental grounds alongside the Mill. Unsworth, who was the brother in law of Emerson Tennant Herdman, dramatically remodelled the original house designed by Lanyon in a romantic neo-Elizabethan style in 1884. Amongst the other buildings he designed for the village was the Stable block for the house, dating from the same year. It would not be out of place in a Tudor village with its steep rosemary-tiled roof and small latticed windows, but the belfry with its four-faced clock is more obviously Victorian, and alongside the stables for the Herdman horses there was soon a pit for the family chauffeur to repair their fleet of horseless carriages.

Sion Mills was one of the last linen villages to remain in flourishing production long after the last war, but the Herdmans moved away nearly fifty years ago and sold the house and grounds to a new owner, and when the village lost most of its employment with the closure of the Mill it became obvious that many of the buildings themselves were under threat. Sion House was actually delisted, but then relisted when it became apparent that despite its poor state of repair there was still substantial evidence of its historic architectural character. The Stables, which are on the side of the main road running through the village, remained listed and were a matter of concern to the NIEA. Urgent Works notices were discussed, and the possibility of compulsory purchase to save the building was discussed.

Eventually Strabane District Council took matters into its hands and served a notice in 2008 requiring the building to be made safe as it was on a public thoroughfare. The intention was that the owner would remove loose tiles or repair the roof but when the belfry ended up on the ground and a JCB turned up to tumble the tile-hung gables, the NIEA moved fast to implement its long-considered plans and within a week the Stables had been vested and acquired by the DoE.

This was the first time the DoE here had compulsorily acquired a listed building in order to secure its preservation. Although Hearth Revolving Fund had been consulted about possible transfer of the Stables to it for restoration, the details had not been finalised and it took some years to negotiate the terms of the purchase and then to raise funds for the restoration. The fact that DoE engineers had removed most of the remaining roof leaving little more than the four walls of the building meant that the structure Hearth was being asked to restore was much less complete than the building it had been looking at a couple of years earlier, but at the same time the Fund was keen to support the DoE in its action of acquiring the building, which would send a strong message out to other listed building owners neglecting their buildings.

By 2011 Hearth had acquired the building and raised sufficient finance to carry out holding repairs to the Stables. This consisted of stabilising the structure and reinstating the roof in order to let the building dry out while further funds were raised and planning permission for the conversion and a new classroom was awaited. A generous grant from the Pilgrim Trust enabled the belfry to be reinstated at this stage, and Ulster Garden Villages provided a loan that enabled the work to be taken to an interim conclusion with the help of NIEA grants.

The major phase of the restoration started in 2014, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Headley Trust and NIEA, along with ARC(NW), with continuing support from Ulster Garden Villages and Danske Bank. This consisted of the restoration of the Stable building as a restaurant, museum and offices, along with construction of a new-build classroom to provide additional meeting space. By this stage a formal partnership had been agreed with the Sion Mills Building Preservation Trust, with a view to their managing the building on completion, and visitors were first welcomed to the restored Stables for European Heritage Open Days in September 2014.

Restaurant 1861 serves a wide range of meals and light refreshments, while Sion Mills BPT continues to manage the classroom and museum, with support from Derry City & Strabane District Council.

Sion Before
Sion Detail Before
Before: Detail
Sion After
Sion Detail After
After: Detail
Project By
Hearth Historic Buildings Trust
Sion Mills
Year restored
Hearth (Phase 1)
Caroline Dickson Architects (Phase 2)
Piperhill Construction Ltd (Phase 1)
Louerne Construction Ltd (Phase 2)
Albert Fry Associates
Rainey & Best
Heritage Lottery Fund, Ulster Garden Villages, The Pilgrim Trust, The Architectural Heritage Fund, The Headley Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, ARC North West, Historic Environment Division DfC, Danske Bank

Leased to Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust