Unforgettable Garden of the Month: Castlewellan

View through an arch to a herbaceous walled garden at Castlewellan.

February’s Unforgettable Garden of the Month is Castlewellan Arboretum and Annesley Garden in County Down, Northern Ireland, written and researched by Paula Sewell, MA Garden History.

Each month we highlight an Unforgettable Garden in the UK, sharing the value and vulnerability of historic green spaces as well as the work of staff and volunteers from a range of organisations who protect and maintain them. This is part of our Unforgettable Gardens campaign which aims to raise awareness of the risks that the UK’s most treasured parks and gardens continue to face. The photo featured above is of the walled gardens of Castlewellan, taken in 2010, courtesy of Paula Sewell.

Castlewellan Arboretum and Annesley Garden

Black and white photograph of Castlewellan gardens with a man standing on a path overlooked by mountains
Views of the wider landscape from Castlewellan, c.1880’s (Photo courtesy of the Ogilvie family)

Castlewellan is picturesquely located alongside a lake just 4 miles from the Irish Sea, looking out across to the Mountains of Mourne.  Its proximity to the gulf stream, and with gardens surrounded by mature mixed woodlands, contribute to the mild climate that allows an outstanding collection of hardy trees and shrubs from all corners of the globe to thrive.

A collection recognised by the International Dendrology Society in 2018 as being of exceptional merit, and the finest on the island of Ireland.  The walled garden, at the heart of the estate, is now named the Annesley Garden in memory of the family that once owned it.

Black and white photograph of Castlewellan gardens with a man standing to the side of a tree lined pathway
Castlewellan, from The Garden, December 20, 1890

The Unforgettable Castlewellan

The Annesley family owned the demesne of Castlewellan from the 1740’s and, over the generations, enlarged the estate, improved the land and, of course, created gardens.  It was not until the late 1870’s however, that the 5th Earl, Hugh Annesley, together with his Head Gardener, Thomas Ryan, began their work of nearly 40 years creating the arboretum and gardens that exist today.  Fortunately, the Earl recorded Castlewellan extensively in his photographs, many appearing alongside articles written by Ryan for the horticultural press.

Hugh Annesley with camera and photographic equipment, 1883. (Photo courtesy of the Ogilvie family)

By the time of the Earl’s death in 1908, Castlewellan was described as having the richest, and largest, collection of rare trees and plants in the UK and Ireland.  Unfortunately, its gradual decline began soon after.  With the death of his heir in 1914, the title passed to another branch of the family, while his widowed daughter took on the estate despite crippling death duties.  Castlewellan was eventually sold in the late 1960’s to the state and opened as a ‘forest park’.  Over the years, and despite the best efforts of people passionate about Castlewellan, it suffered from lack of funds and resources – although remained popular with locals and tourists, who still enjoy walks around the lake and through the arboretum and gardens.

Black and white photograph of a man standing on a lawn in front of a large glasshouse
Thomas Ryan standing by the glasshouses on the terrace at Castlewellan c.1880’s. (Photo courtesy of the Ogilvie family)

Current Status

In 2021, £5.5 million from the National Lottery and local council was awarded for a 4-year restoration project.  Its aim is to protect Castlewellan’s heritage and plant collections, while restoring the arboretum and remaining glasshouses – the Earl’s photographs proving an invaluable resource.  Current Head Gardener, Alwyn Sinnamon’s hope is that Castlewellan be restored to its former glory and put firmly back on the map as one of the greatest plant collections in Britain and Ireland – just as it was during the days of the 5th Earl and his Head Gardener.

You can read more about Castlewellan and other garden history articles on Paula Sewell’s blog: www.gardenhistorygirl.co.uk

The Garden’s Trust visited Castlewellan in 2018 as part of a five-day tour of gardens in Northern Ireland organised by Doreen Wilson. Read the trip report by Moira Fulton here.

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith