Efforts by Forest Service to restore listed glasshouses in Castlewellan that have fallen into disrepair could end up being a “botch job” that could threaten their future.
That’s the warning from garden designer Simon Moore who is concerned that the service is running into a cheap restoration at Castlewellan Forest Park that will jeopardise the chances of getting long-term funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Castlewellan-born horticulturist told the Belfast Telegraph that Forest Service has already embarked on a £130,000 restoration, despite having signed a memorandum of understanding with Down District Council, which is currently carrying out a feasibility study into how the site could be brought back from its dilapidated state.
Earlier this year the Forest Service received a warning from the |Department of the Environment over the decaying condition of the old glasshouses in the walled garden at Castlewellan Forest Park.
“Ten years ago, the quote to restore the glasshouses was £250,000,” Mr Moore said.
“There are no staff to look after them, no budget to plant them, so they are simply going to be closed up once they are restored. They’re just doing it because they have had bad Press and they want to be seen to be doing something.”
Mr Moore said Down District Council has already secured £100,000 of EU funding to carry out a study into the walled garden’s future and is looking to apply for £5m of Heritage Lottery Funding to carry out a long-term plan that would boost tourism.
“This is unnecessary — there is no need for them to do it because the restoration will be done and the fund will insist on a 10-20-year plan to maintain it,” he said. “It is my plea that the Forest Service do what they are good at. It has been proven in the last 12 years that they are not good at looking after the historic aspect of the forest park. Forest Service should look after the trees in the collection, which is of national importance, but they mustn’t be involved in the built heritage that is to be found there. They should go to experts who know what they are doing. I would say put a lid on it, stop the work, make it watertight, put a canopy over it and walk away. Don't just restore it because there is money burning a hole in your pocket.
“It will be a botch job and the Heritage Lottery Fund money will be jeopardised.
“This is money that could be used for other things. They have the largest yew maze in the world there and there is no signpost to it. The bell in the middle of the maze was stolen seven years ago and it has never been replaced.”
A DARD spokesperson said: “The glasshouses referred to are listed and the works currently being carried out are meeting a need for urgent repair work requested by NI Environment Agency. The essential repair works will complement our partnership approach with Down District Council in the development of ideas for the arboretum and the wider forest park within the scope of a formal memorandum of understanding agreed with Forest Service.”
Down District Council said: “The Forest Service own the Castlewellan Arboretum and glass houses. If the minister is minded to provide the money and have the work carried out, Down District Council has no reason to believe it won't be done properly and to the required standards. The responsibility for that lies with the Forest Service. The council continues to take the lead in developing plans for the arboretum and the wider forest park.”
Story so far
The walled garden at Castlewellan was famous in the 1960s but has fallen into neglect since the Forest Service bought the estate from the Annesley family in 1967. The gardens still have mid-19th century conservatories and unusual 19th century fountains, along with a number of other features in stone, identified as the work of Scottish architect William Burn.