Northern Ireland Gardens Study Tour 2018 report

GT Northern Ireland Gardens Study Tour, 6 to 11 August 2018

Moira Fulton 

The five-day tour of gardens in Northern Ireland was superbly organised by Doreen Wilson, ably assisted by her husband, Ivan. A party of 24 Gardens Trust members visited ten very varied gardens in five days, all within a short driving distance from Belfast. The gardens were an extraordinary and thought-provoking mixture ranging from one former government property, Hillsborough, now a Royal Palace; two in local authority ownership, Antrim and Castlewellan; two National Trust properties, Mount Stewart and Castle Ward and five very different estates in private ownership, Ballyedmond, Benvarden, Clandeboye, Seaforde and Rosemount.

The gardens, as well as demonstrating the rich horticultural legacy of Northern Ireland, provided a remarkable insight into the turbulent and troubled history of the Province. We discovered the changing fortunes of the gardens and their owners which provided an enlightening history lesson. Although all the ten gardens visited merit detailed descriptions only the most important features of each one have been mentioned.

We began our tour with a visit to Hillsborough Castle, the former Residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Queen’s official residence in the Province. Before 1925 it was owned by the Hill family, from 1789 the Marquesses of Downshire, and some remains of their eighteenth- century garden, particularly the four-acre walled garden still survive. The pleasure grounds which had previously been neglected are now the subject of a £20million part Heritage Lottery funded regeneration project which is due to be completed in April 2019. We saw the extensive work still in progress, but what had been already achieved was impressive. On the south front of the Castle is an imaginatively planted terrace and a parterre created in 2012 to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the nineteenth-century temples, the tree-lined avenues and lake have all been restored. The enormous walled garden, one of the largest in Northern Ireland is a considerable distance from the house, a common feature of all the houses we visited. It is still under restoration, due to be completed in 2019.

Photo Judit Appel
Orangery & Cascade at Ballyedmond
Photo Judit Appel
Garden Trust members at Ballyedmond Orangery & Cascade

In complete contrast our second visit was to Ballyedmond Castle, situated on the shores of Carlingford Lough. Here we saw a remarkable garden, created since 1987 by the late Edward Haughey, created Baron Ballyedmond in 2004. The most striking and memorable feature was an enormous glass-domed conservatory from which a marble imperial staircase, flanked by cascades and statues led to the lower gardens and the view of the Lough. Lord Ballyedmond was an enthusiastic collector of architectural antiques. The staircase from the Orangery to the garden had formerly been in Robinson and Cleaver, Belfast’s principal department store while the statues in bronze, lead and marble, some raised on columns, had been collected from all over Europe. The horticultural aspect had not been neglected and there was an enclosure full of exotic tender plants, a Japanese garden and a productive well-maintained fruit and vegetable garden. The fruit cage in the vegetable garden was based on the design of the Palm House at Kew. Ballyedmond Castle, which had been built c 1849, was destroyed by a firebomb in 1972 and the derelict shell was rebuilt by Dr Edward Haughey in the mid1980s.

The next day we went first to Antrim Castle Gardens, now in the care of Antrim Borough Council. After years of minimum maintenance, with the help of a £6 million grant, mainly from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the parterre and water gardens created by the 3rd Viscount Massarene between 1680 and 1713 have been carefully restored. The gardens are considered some of the earliest of their kind surviving in the U.K. The parterre, using evidence from drawings has been replanted, while the avenues, the long canals and round pond have been repaired and renovated. The Castle is a ruin having been destroyed by fire in 1922. The family then lived in the converted stable block Clotworthy House, until the death of the 12th Viscount in 1956. The gardens and grounds, now owned by the District Council, are a popular, much-used amenity which enjoy a great deal of local, volunteer support.

We then drove to the North to the estate of Benvarden, the property of Hugh and Valerie Montgomery. The estate was created in 1608, making it one of the oldest in Northern Ireland. It has been in the ownership of the Montgomery family since 1798 and most of the landscaping and the planting of the mature trees was carried out by them in the years 1800-1820. The 2-acre Walled Garden, some distance from the house, was in existence by 1798 and has been cultivated since then without interruption. Part of it is now a beautiful rose garden, created by the present owners, while much of the rest, a well-stocked kitchen garden. The extensive pleasure grounds stretch down to the River Bush which is spanned by a fine iron bridge of 1878, recently repaired. A woodland pond in the pleasure grounds, which had fallen into dereliction, has recently been restored. The whole estate is maintained by the owners to a very high standard. The gardens are open to the public in the summer months and much of the produce of the kitchen garden is sold.

photo Moira Fulton
Clandeboye House (built 1801–04) & wild flower meadow

The Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava inherited Clandeboye, which we visited on our third day, from her husband in 1988. She has been entrepreneurial in numerous activities to make the 2,000acre estate pay for itself. Very interested in conservation, Lindy, Lady Dufferin and Ava, ably assisted by her very knowledgeable head gardener, has restored and maintained the late nineteenth-century plantations of rare trees and shrubs. 

No tour of Northern Ireland would be complete without a visit to the world-famous gardens of Mount Stewart. Here, taking advantage of the micro-climate of Strangford Lough, Edith, Lady Londonderry from 1919 onwards created a garden full of exotic, rare plants. She sponsored many of the plant hunters of her day, such as George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward and Joseph Rock, introducing many of their finds into the gardens. Now the property of the National Trust it is superbly maintained by Neil Porteous, Gardens Advisor to the National Trust, who has revitalised the planting of the gardens. He conducted our group on a fascinating and informative tour of the pleasure grounds around the house.

The Seaforde Estate, visited on our fourth day, has been in the ownership of the same family, the Fordes, for over four hundred years. The family trace their origins to the Anglo-Norman settlers of Ireland in the thirteenth century. The grounds were laid out in the landscape style in the late eighteenth century. The five-acre walled garden, completely overgrown by the 1960s, has been cleared and replanted. It is open to the public and houses a maze, a café and a Butterfly House. The arboretum contains many rare and unusual trees collected on plant expeditions by members of the family.

 photo Judit Appel
Garden Trust members sheltering from rain under the canopy of Sequoiadendron giganteum ( planted 1856) at Castlewellan

We continued in the afternoon to Castlewellan Forest Park, since 1969 owned by the Forestry Service but formerly the demesne of the Earls of Annesley. The fifth Earl (1831–1908) created one of the most important arboreta in Britain and by 1900 there were over 3000 different species of rare and tender shrubs and trees. The arboretum evolved from the walled garden of 1740s before being expanded into a pleasure ground of about twelve acres, complete with terraces, fountains and glasshouse. Although the wider estate and lake are a popular tourist attraction, until recently the walled garden and arboretum have been sadly neglected, but, due to pressure from dedicated volunteers and the appointment of a knowledgeable gardener much restoration work has now been undertaken. The superb photographs taken by the fifth Earl in the 1890s have provided invaluable information for this renovation project.

Our final day was taken up with visits to two properties on either side of Strangford Lough; the privately owned Rosemount Estate and Castle Ward, owned by the National Trust. The Rosemount Estate has been in the possession of the Montgomery family since 1607. The present house, a very fine mid eighteenth-century mansion, Grey Abbey House, was positioned on a hill to embrace the view of the ruins of the twelfth-century Cistercian abbey below. Taking advantage of the very mild micro- climate around the Lough, the gardens hold part of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens’s collection of Chilean plants and seeds as well as plants from Tasmania, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, many collected by the present owners.

Crossing the Lough by ferry our final garden was Castle Ward, where the National Trust have just completed a recreation of the Victorian parterre, using a painting of 1864 by Mary Ward, wife of the future 6th Viscount Bangor, as guidance for the layout. The project which cost £37,500 has been mainly undertaken by local and foreign volunteers.  Restoration has also begun to reinstate the important late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century landscape of Temple Water which was much admired in 1762 by Mrs Delany. Here, close to the shores of Strangford Lough, a temple of 1750 overlooks a canal. 

Although the gardens visited varied greatly, one common factor was the enthusiasm and pride shown by both owners and guides in their unique botanical heritage. From the amount of private and public money now being spent, it is obvious that its remarkable gardens are now being regarded as a valuable asset in the regeneration of the Province.