A little kindness can make a whole day great. We had wandered around the forest trail in Castlewellan Forest Park but a chance meeting with one of the gardeners changed a rambling, almost aimless, visit into an afternoon we enjoyed thoroughly.
This was our first visit to the Forest Park and we approached through the hilly countryside of south Co. Down to the town of Castlewellan with its spaciously wide main street, two squares and a very attractive Market House (built in 1764) which now houses the public library. It was an impressive approach with the entrance to the estate was directly from the town and I imagine it must the most wonderful amenity for those living locally and, given the number of people walking about, it seems that they take advantage of this and enjoy it.
At one time the estate belonged to the Maginess family but has been in the Annesley family since 1741 and it was the Annesleys who engaged a French architect to design the layout of the town. The arboretum was begun in 1740 with trees from around the world. Castelwellan Forest Park in now in the hands of the Department of Agriculture and extends to approximately 450 hectares with most being managed as a commercial forest while also accommodating activities such as walking, cycling, horse-riding, orienteering, camping and caravanning. The walled “Annesley Garden” is at the heart of the arboretum which is considered one of the very best in the British Isles and contains the twenty oldest existing specimens in the British Isle, forty two champion trees of the British Isles and fifty champion trees of Ireland, a truly significant and impressive collection.
The “Peace Maze”, made from 6,000 yew plants, was planted in 2000 and 2001, mainly by volunteers, covers nearly three acres and has 2.18 miles of pathways. It was for several years the largest maze in the world and has become a huge attraction to visitors with quarter of a million in the first three years it opened.
Our visit to Northern Ireland was to visit friends rather than gardens and we hadn’t done our normal research into the garden before travelling. On arrival we simply studied the large map in the carpark and headed off on one of the several forest walks which were signposted. It was a pleasant walk – a little fresh air was welcome after the long drive – but held nothing of plant interest. We were at the end of the trail, with map in hand and considering the various signposts, when one of the gardeners came along on a small tractor. He stopped to say, “Hello” and to ask if he could be of help and our visit to Castlewellan suddenly surged from enjoyable and pleasant to being special. We chatted about gardening; that we knew one of the gardeners as we were fellow members of the Irish Garden Plant Society and that we were delighted to hear of the rediscovery in the garden of Narcissus ‘Countess of Annesley’, a late nineteenth century Irish daffodil cultivar which was presumed to be extinct. It turned out that we were talking to the man who had searched out and identified this historic daffodil, had transplanted numbers from other areas in the garden to a place of prominence which it would be admired and, most importantly, remembered. It was a hero moment – meeting somebody who had made a contribution to saving our heritage plants. For the moment, there is a restriction on the distribution of this daffodil as there had been an outbreak of fungal pathogen in the park which the bulbs, possibly, might spread to other gardens with devastating impact on trees – the forest park has cleared a hundred acres of trees to contain its spread.
Rather than continue our forest walk we were brought into the bothy area, formerly the accommodation of the gardener and also the works yard of the garden and on to the fabulously restored glasshouses which are on a raised area overlooking the walled garden – The Annesley Garden – which holds the treasures of the tree collection.
It strikes me as an unusual arrangement – a tree collection accommodated in a walled garden amid the formal layout of walkways, ponds and fountains – but it was a very pleasant setting and very enjoyable and, undoubtedly, there was an atmosphere one would not experience in parkland or woodland. It was a magical place, steeped in history, with trees which were truly impressive.
Check here for information on Castlewellan Forest Park