Midsummer night’s dream at the castle
I've lived in Northern Ireland for 25 years and yet I had no idea that Antrim Castle existed.
Well, technically it doesn't anymore — the original Jacobean building tragically burnt down in the 1920s — but the grounds remain in the form of incredible gardens, which have recently been restored with Heritage Lottery funding in absolutely sumptuous style.
This was my destination last Sunday afternoon and it was such an enjoyable experience I wanted to share it with you all.
The reason for my visit was to see the open-air concert by the incomparable Aussie blues duet Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. They were stopping over to perform in Northern Ireland as part of their European Tour to promote their new album, Do Tell.
This gave Cara (who's originally from Bangor, but emigrated to Queensland to marry her musical partner-in-crime Fitz) an opportunity to catch up with all her family and friends, including me. The result was like one great big al fresco party among the most sublime surroundings in the whole county.
These Sunday Treats series of concerts have been a weekly event for the summer, organised by Madd Enterprises to coincide with Antrim Summer Festival.
The castle grounds themselves stretch across 16 acres, but the concerts are held at the bandstand in the centre of the park within a walled parterre surrounded by immaculately laid out formal flower beds and crunching gravel paths.
Of course, it was an absolute delight to hear the husband-and-wife duo performing live again. I have all their albums and have played them almost to death, but nothing compares to a live show and all the craic that inevitably accompanies it.
Especially when Cara gets out her old battered washboard, puts on her special studded gloves and starts bashing out the rhythm in true old-fashioned R&B style. And, more especially, when half the au
dience is made up of pals and their families and friends, too, all joining in, singing, dancing and heckling with absolute oblivion.
But the other treat for me was the perfect setting; discovering such a magnificent park for the first time and seeing how brilliantly the Lottery is using all those pound coins we've all been churning out week after week for two decades.
It really has to be seen to be believed. Every inch of that place is beautifully designed and utterly immaculate. As the band played, the combined scents of lavender and rosemary from the herb garden wafted gently over us in the soft summer breeze.
Then, to my delight I noticed a pair of spotted flycatchers flitting from bough to bough, catching midges in the intertwined branches of the the young, small, but perfectly formed apple orchard.
Afterwards, everyone strolled across the lawns to share a picnic of cupcakes, cream scones, fresh coffee and ice creams in the walled courtyard.
While we were there, I again enjoyed a lovely ornithological moment, watching a pair of chaffinches hopping from table to table, stealing crumbs that they then fed to their fluffy fledgeling who was perched on the cafe's slate roof, chirping hungrily for his dinner.
Such an idyllic setting, such a lovely occasion and, perhaps best of all, it was completely free of charge. No wonder the park was buzzing with visitors, all lapping up the last few hours of sunshine the longest day of the year.
I would really recommend it for a day out, especially if you haven't been to a Heritage Lottery-funded project before. It certainly makes you realise what a difference it can make to a town to have such a beautiful space, created purely and simply for public pleasure.
Antrim Festival is now over, but the free concerts continue tomorrow at Antrim Castle Gardens with a band called The Illegals playing in the parterre from 2-3pm.