In just eight months time Hillsborough Castle’s stunning gardens – once described as “a locked away hidden gem” – will open to the public.
The 100-acre grounds surrounding the historic house in the heart of the picturesque Co Down village are currently undergoing a major programme of works that will see them transformed into a magnificent visitor attraction.
A royal residence and the official home of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle was previously an inaccessible, invite-only venue for those attending official government functions and royal celebrations. But that’s something Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which took over the running of the property from the Northern Ireland Office in 2014, is working to change.
Work was recently completed on conserving and re-presenting the rooms inside the grand house, with redevelopment of the gardens and the creation of impressive new visitor facilities due to be finished by early next year.
With HRP on schedule to officially unveil the completed £20 million scheme in April, gardens and estates manager Stephen Martelli gave the News Letter a guided tour of some of the ongoing works within the castle grounds.
In addition to revamping many areas of the ornamental gardens, HRP’s gardens and estates team – with the assistance of landscape architects and garden designers – have also put in new planting, water features, paths and seating throughout the 100-acre site.
A new visitor entrance and car park is being created at the lower end of the grounds, just off the A1 dual carriageway.
The development will feature a state-of-the-art visitor centre complete with restaurant, shop and dining terrace and will lead into the walled garden, which is currently being restored to its former glory.
The garden, which dates back to the 18th century, will produce organic fruit and vegetables for the on-site catering facilities and shops.
With any leftovers being composted for reuse in the gardens, Mr Martelli stressed that “nothing will go to waste.”
Old Ordnance Survey maps, castle records and even archaeological digs have been used to inform some of the other major changes taking place within the grounds.
An area known as The Lost Garden is currently being redeveloped through the creation of a wetland area complete with bridges, boardwalks and watchtowers, from which visitors will be able to check out the surrounding flora and fauna.
Also under construction is a southern hemisphere planting area and a Chinese glade, which will feature an array of exotic plants.
Mr Martelli, who has a background in architecture, horticulture and landscaping, has been working at Hillsborough since 2005. He stressed that all the work has been informed by detailed ecology reports and every effort has been made to protect the environment and its wildlife.
He explained that the gardens will be a continuously evolving project, with schoolchildren, students and other volunteers being invited to come and play their part in planting and conservation work.
“We want this to be a really diverse area that encourages everyone from every background from every part of Ireland and beyond to come and visit and be part of by planting or harvesting or whatever,” he said.
“We want everyone to come and enjoy this space, and make repeat visits. The gardens are magnificent. They have been described as ‘a locked away hidden gem’ and the potential we have here is just staggering.
“Historic Royal Palaces have the expertise to make this happen. It will take time to fulfil the ambition and some parts will roll as a five-year or 10-year programme, creating something new all the time.”
A new cafe, shop and educational centre are under construction at the top end of the site, which will give visitors access to and from the village.
Once the project is complete, Hillsborough Castle promises to be one of Northern Ireland’s top tourist attractions, with HRP hoping to increase visitor numbers significantly.
“We are going to increase our numbers from historically five or six thousand up to 200,000 a year, and that’s just the beginning. I believe that’s easily achievable as those numbers are being achieved elsewhere and exceeded,” Mr Martelli said.
While the castle will remain a royal residence and working ministerial home, HRP are keen to see it opened up to as many people as possible.
As well as being open to visitors to walk around the gardens and enjoy tours of the house and grounds, rooms in the castle can also be booked for conferences, weddings and other private functions.
“What we are trying to do is create an environment that encourages everyone to come time and time again, not just those who are invited in on behalf of the Secretary of State or any other official function or event that is on in the castle,” Mr Martelli explained.
“We are trying to turn this estate from a place where we currently have five or six thousand invited mature guests into a site that everyone will want to come to and there is something of interest for every generation.”
Admission prices will not only include access to the gardens and a tour of the house, but also entry to the historic courthouse and fort. Visitors will also be able to check out the forest park and the village itself.
“We want people to have a whole day experience here,” Mr Martelli continued. “We want them to explore and enjoy.
“What we want is for people to feel special and have an experience here that they will probably never get anywhere else, yet the prices are not prohibitive and we are trying to make it accessible to everyone.”
• Project will be ‘a significant addition to Northern Ireland’s tourism offering’
The woman in charge of Hillsborough Castle says HRP’s new visitor attraction at the historic site will be “a significant addition” to the tourism offering in Northern Ireland.
Patricia Corbett, head of Hillsborough Castle, commented: “Our £20 million project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is in conservation, representation and restoration to open the castle and its 100 acres of beautiful gardens to the public.
“Our offering will be a significant addition to the tourism offering in Northern Ireland, a game changer that will attract over 200,000 visitors per year.
“Our geographic position between Belfast and Dublin and our visitor offering will enable us to entice the ever-increasing number of visitors to Ireland.”
She continued: “In July this year, we reopened the state rooms, all of which have been re-presented to help us tell the stories and the history of the castle.
“The beautifully re-presented castle is now open to the public, with the main visitor facilities opening in April next year. In the gardens, we are restoring the four-acre walled garden, reinstating the path network and planting heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables.
“The walled garden will open in spring 2019 and will add further to the garden offering which will be a key draw for visitors, especially families.
“We are uncovering a Lost Garden, building a beautiful boardwalk, an exciting area for children to explore and play. We will have a stimulating programme of activities and events throughout the year with something for every age in both the castle and the garden.
“In April next year, we will bring on stream our new visitor facilities at the entrance off the A1. These include car parking, visitor facilities, a new restaurant and retail facilities. There will also be a cafe and retail facilities at the castle and with easy access to the village, visitors will be able to explore The Fort and Courthouse, which are also part of the Historic Royal Palaces portfolio.”
For more information about the HRP project, castle opening hours and events log on to www.hrp.org.uk/hillsborough-castle
• An ‘Irish big house’ which became a Royal residence
Hillsborough Castle is the official residence of the Royal Family in Northern Ireland and has been the residence of the Secretary of State since the 1970s.
The impressive ‘Irish big house’ was built in the 1770s by Wills Hill, the first Marquis of Downshire, who was a member of the successful Hill family that gave the surrounding townland its name.
The grand ‘big house’ replaced the family’s earlier fortified home nearby, which is now referred to as The Fort.
Wills Hill built not only the castle but also the courthouse in The Square. He also built the terraces around The Square and other buildings in the town.
The castle was the principal seat of the Marquis for over 200 years before passing into public ownership in 1922 – the year after partition – when it became the sovereign’s official residence in Northern Ireland.
The 100-acre ornamental grounds offer significant contrasts of woodland, waterways and formal and informal gardens with trimmed lawns and meadows as well as specimen trees and rare plants.
The picture above shows the view from Yew Tree Walk, coming from the main house, towards Lady Alice’s Temple – a neo-classical garden temple built around 1880 and named after Lady Alice Maria Hill (Countess of Bective), the sister of the 5th Marquis of Downshire.
• Walled garden is ‘a reimagination’
The man responsible for the replanting and upkeep of the four-acre walled garden is Ballymena man Adam Ferguson.
Appointed keeper of the walled garden earlier this year, Adam is in charge of a small team of gardeners.
“This garden is not a restoration of the original garden here, which was built in the 18th century. It is, in fact, a reimagination of how the layout was, the paths and how it was worked hundreds of years ago,” he explained.