Perched dramatically on the edge of a 120 feet tall cliff, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Mussenden Temple near Castlerock, in the north-western coast of Northern Ireland, is a curious building. It was built in 1783 by Frederick Hervey, the 4th Earl of Bristol, who took great pleasure in building splendid mansions at Downhill and Ballyscullion, and then filling them with precious art he procured from Italy and elsewhere. His home at Downhill was once adorned with Rembrandts, Rafaels, Titians, Durers, and Carravagios.
The story goes that once while on a vacation to Italy, Frederick Hervey fell in love with a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Vesta. Hervey wanted to buy the temple and ship it back to Ireland to be re-erected on his property. But the Pope refused—the temple was at least 2,000 years old and one cannot simply walk into Rome and buy off its historical buildings.
Offended, Frederick Hervey returned home and instructed his architects to sketch a copy of the temple and build it at the edge of the cliff. Back then, there was enough land on the seaward side of the temple to have a picnic. But erosion of the cliff face has brought the Mussenden Temple closer to the edge. Now there is very little land between the building and the pounding ocean below, leaving Hervey’s building at a risk of tumbling into the sea.
Hervey dedicated the folly to his beautiful cousin Mrs. Frideswide Mussenden, with whom the Bishop shared a platonic relationship. But some people wondered whether there was more to the relationship, and a scandal was rife. It is said that the mortification of the scandal so affected Frideswide’s fragile health that she suffered a premature death, even as the Temple dedicated to her was being built.
Hervey eventually converted the temple into his personal library, and also built a room underneath the building for Catholic priests to say Mass. The inside was ornately decorated with paintings and the walls lined with bookshelves. A fire burning constantly at the basement kept the building warm and drove away moisture, so that even in such an exposed location the books never got damp.
All that remains today is the shell of the building. But its dramatic location by the Atlantic coast makes it a popular tourist halt along the north coast of Derry and Antrim.