Looking back on first 10 years of council-run visitor centre
April 28, 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Sentry Hill - the historic house and visitor centre near Glengormley.
Purchased by Newtownabbey Borough Council in 1997 following the death of the last occupant, Dr Joe Dundee, the Ballycraigy Road property was the home of the McKinney family during the Victorian period and remarkably, the house and its contents have remained intact.
Since it opened in 2005, almost 70,000 people have visited the award-winning site and heard the unique story of a family who left their mark both at home and abroad.
Visitors to Sentry Hill have come from more than 20 different countries including Estonia, Argentina, Peru and Russia, as well as from many local areas. Over 500 different groups and schools have been to the house and numerous special events have taken place.
School visits continue to be a big part of the customer base, from P1 children right through to those in Key Stage 3, as well as providing a programme for special needs schools. In the last number of years, Sentry Hill has built a strong relationship with Stranmillis College, hosting outings for their graduating history students as well as American exchange students.
The staff at Sentry Hill take great pride in the educational programme they offer, and twice (2010 and 2014) they were presented with the Sandford Award which recognises excellence in the development and delivery of a schools’ education programme.
More than 100 weddings have taken place at Sentry Hill since 2007, and many more bridal parties have called in to have their photos taken in the garden.
The staff at Sentry Hill have also built up a good relationship with the Northern Ireland Hospice, regularly hosting visits for staff and patients as well as visiting day patients to give illustrated talks to those not able to visit the site. Since 2012, three coffee mornings at Sentry Hill have raised over £2,000 for the work of the Hospice.
In 2008, as part of Newtownabbey’s 50th anniversary celebrations, two special garden parties were held in the grounds of Sentry Hill recognising those people from the area who had contributed to the development and success of the borough. In 2012, another garden party took place to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. That special weekend of celebrations also featured an antiques fair and traditional Victorian tea party.
Over the years there have been performances by jazz bands on the lawn, a potato festival, fun days and various living history events.
Sentry Hill has received widespread recognition of its work over the years. Indeed, in 2008 it was nominated for the prestigious European Museum of the Year award. Judges from as far afield as Russia and Denmark paid tribute to the site, describing it as “a jewel of a local museum”. It was the only museum in Ireland nominated by the judging committee for the 2008 awards and one of only four from the whole of the United Kingdom. In 2014, the centre was awarded the Green Flag in recognition of the outstanding gardens and facilities at the site.
Since 2005, Sentry Hill has featured on a number of television and radio programmes, including hosting BBC Radio Ulster’s Gardener’s Corner, A Dander With Drennan and Your Place and Mine. It has also been the location for the filming of a number of other productions.
Staff at Sentry Hill have been delighted to welcome ‘home’ members of the McKinney family whose ancestors emigrated in the last century. They have travelled from Australia and New Zealand, and all have been delighted by what Newtownabbey Borough Council has done with the site, bringing the story to so many people.
In 2014, to commemorate the loss of Tom McKinney (grandson of the Victorian owner William Fee McKinney) at the Battle of the Somme, an oak tree was planted in the garden as a memorial.
One of the most successful ventures within the grounds of Sentry Hill has been the community garden and allotments. Many groups and individuals over the years have grown their own crops and plants as well as being involved in gardening classes and special events. This has developed into much more than gardening, having become more of a social and community hub where people from different backgrounds come together to garden as well as chat and learn from each other.
All in all, over the past 10 years, Sentry Hill has developed into a very successful and prestigious visitor attraction for people from a very diverse range of backgrounds. Many people pay return visits, many use the coffee shop as a regular meeting place. Friendships with visitors have grown over the years and it is the hope of staff that the centre will go from strength to strength in the coming years.
To mark the 10-year milestone, the council is planning to hold an official anniversary celebration event at Sentry Hill in June.
For further information about the historic house and visitor centre log on to www.sentryhill.net