Sweet smell of success in the air for Northern Ireland villages at Britain in Bloom awards
Armies of community-minded people are celebrating after their green fingers gained deserved recognition, reports Ivan Little
Everything was coming up roses for Northern Ireland last night as judges in the prestigious Britain in Bloom awards gave a massive thumbs-up to the province's green-fingered gardeners, with the village of Ahoghill receiving one of the top accolades in the UK.
The jubilant Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Audrey Wales, led the celebrations after Ahoghill's win in the Champion of Champions (small town) category was announced by the Royal Horticultural Society at a glittering gala in Birmingham.
A spokesman for the organisers said: "The award means that Ahoghill is arguably the cleanest, greenest and most beautiful place in the United Kingdom."
But virtually every other county in Northern Ireland also took bouquets in the annual competition, including one for Castlecaulfield, in Tyrone, whose floral displays were wrecked by vandals, and one for the village that fronts onto the Queen's back garden at her official Northern Ireland residence - Hillsborough.
It was during a visit earlier this year that the monarch's daughter-in-law, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, took the time to admire Hillsborough's colourful flower arrangements.
The village scooped a gold award and won the UK Large Village category in Britain in Bloom, plus a heritage medal.
Whitehead, Belfast, Londonderry, Newcastle and Coleraine also blossomed among the winners at the event, which was hosted by TV gardening expert Chris Beardshaw.
Organisers said of Hillsborough's triumph: "Its medal, the highest available, confirms its position as one of the greenest and most beautiful large villages in the United Kingdom."
Councillor James Baird, chairman of Hillsborough in Bloom, added: "It's an honour for the village to be chosen out of the thousands of very worthy entries.
"This is very much a team effort, and congratulations must go to the Operational Services Unit within Lisburn and Castlereagh council, particularly to the gardening teams, and to the fantastic community support in Hillsborough, which makes all the difference.
"We are delighted with the result and will continue to provide the best floral displays we can in Hillsborough and the wider council area."
A number of councillors and officials from Lisburn and Castlereagh were in Birmingham for the ceremony.
However, the rather appropriately named Mayor, Brian Bloomfield, was not there.
Neither were residents from Hillsborough who helped design the village's eye-catching floral displays, often paying for flowers and plants themselves.
Yesterday, one of the main architects of the Hillsborough arrangements could only watch her flowers in the rain as she waited for a call to tell her how the village had fared in the contest.
"Obviously I would love to be there," said Dawn Mitchell-McEntee, who is an artist and a garden designer. "I have lived in the village for 30 years and residents have always tried to make the front of their houses look well with window boxes and baskets.
"But a few years back the council approached a few of us to enter Britain in Bloom as a partnership between them and us residents.
"We got together and set about meeting the criteria set down for the awards, which aren't just about flowers and which also involve measures to ensure that there's no litter, no drinking in public and no dog-fouling.
"It's about improving the entire neighbourhood and being eco-friendly, and we have a huge forest and lake here in Hillsborough which we include in our community and environmental projects."
Dawn, Nessa O'Callaghan and a number of their friends have been involved in a committee working alongside the council in pushing ahead with Hillsborough's Britain in Bloom campaigns. A former colleague had another singularly appropriate name - Flora McGirr.
The hybrid partnership between the council and the community had bloomed successfully in the past. Said Dawn: "The council provides most of the plants and they water a lot of the flowers in the village as well. But before the Queen came here once I thought some of the roses in the flower beds were looking rather tired, so I went out and bought better ones."
Lisburn and Castlereagh council's grounds maintenance manager, Mark Gregg, who oversees the sprucing up of villages right across his area, said there could be more glory on the horizon for Hillsborough with the chances enhanced by new links with the Historic Royal Palaces, which has taken over the running of Hillsborough Castle.
"We are pleased to have them on board," he explained. "We already work closely with community and church organisations, plus youth groups like the Scouts, for example. We've been invited to take part in the Champion of Champions category next year, so we will be trying even harder with our displays."
In the visitor information centre in Hillsborough's old courthouse, staff revealed that the village's floral arrangements have become something of a tourist attraction.
Jill Menary, a visitor service adviser, said: "Obviously, the flowers aren't quite as spectacular as they were in season, but an English couple who were here today appeared to know a lot about Britain in Bloom.
"The displays have been very popular with the hundreds of tourists who've been here to visit the castle during the summer."
Her colleague, Alexander Groves, said the flowers had been a big hit with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
"She said that she was very impressed with what she saw," Alexander told the Belfast Telegraph. "And that was a great boost for everyone involved with the displays.
Over the summer, judges from the Britain in Bloom awards travelled all over the UK to see the 72 finalists in the competition which, it is estimated, involved the participation of a staggering 300,000 volunteers.
Coleraine won gold and best category award for a large town
Belfast won a gold award in the large city section while Londonderry struck gold in the small city category.
Silver gilt awards in other categories went to Whitehead in County Antrim, and Newcastle, County Down.
But Castlecaulfield came away from Birmingham with a raft of gongs. It won a gold medal and the joint category award for a village, but it also got a special prize for overcoming adversity.
That was in recognition of the efforts of volunteers from the local horticultural society who bounced back to repair floral displays which had been wrecked by vandals. Society chairperson Bernie McKenna also received a discretionary award from the judges as a community champion.