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National Trust celebrates 125th year with big plans for the future

The National Trust celebrates its 125th birthday this year and is going from strength to strength in Northern Ireland. Ivan Little hears about its exciting plans for the future and meets some of the people who keep the wheels turning

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General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Experience manager: Hannah McCloy of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Experience manager: Hannah McCloy of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Stephen Hamilton

Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Stephen Hamilton

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Stephen Hamilton

New campaign: Heather McLachlan

New campaign: Heather McLachlan

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Trust the National Trust. The conservation charity, which is preserving the treasures of Northern Ireland past and present, has announced ambitious plans to celebrate a landmark anniversary this year by looking forward to the future.

The Trust, which is enjoying record visitor and membership numbers, is marking its 125th 'birthday' with a series of fun events for the public and more serious initiatives at the 40 properties and sites it manages around the province.

One of the main headline projects involves the planting of 125,000 new trees across Northern Ireland over the next 10 years.

And the Trust will also use the anniversary to remind people here of the richly varied attractions on their doorsteps, including spade mills, the historic Crown pub, breathtaking beaches, an easily accessible mountain at Divis, sumptuous stately houses, magnificent gardens, Game of Thrones location tours and the charity's most popular tourist draw in the UK, the Giant's Causeway.

The Trust currently manages 1% of the Northern Ireland countryside - 46 square miles - making it the biggest single landowner beyond the Government here, and it also manages 22% of the coastline, which is 108 miles long.

The charity's director for Northern Ireland, Heather McLachlan, says she's particularly excited by a far-sighted plan to eliminate the Trust's carbon footprint by 2030 in a bid to acquire up to 50% of its energy from renewable sources and cut its levels of consumption.

As for the new trees, they'll be planted at a series of carefully researched sites, including Lisnabreeny near Belfast, Greenhill, which is close to Annahilt in Co Down, and across Fermanagh and other areas.

Heather says: "We are the least-wooded area in the UK and Ireland is the least-wooded area in Europe. It's really important to have more trees, because they take in carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground to grow the wood and release oxygen, which is vital for us.

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Experience manager: Hannah McCloy of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Experience manager: Hannah McCloy of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Stephen Hamilton

Experience manager: Hannah McCloy of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

"And air quality is a big thing as we deal with the challenges of climate change."

Across the UK, up to 20 million trees will be planted and the national head of the Trust in the UK, Hilary McGrady, says the threats presented by the climate crisis and the resultant surge in fires and floods, together with an overall decline in the natural environment, must be tackled.

Hilary, who's from Northern Ireland, adds: "To restore nature and arrest climate change, we will need to start with people. We will need to connect more people with nature if we are to inspire them to want to care for it and, by linking up with nature, they can bolster their health and wellbeing."

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New campaign: Heather McLachlan

New campaign: Heather McLachlan

New campaign: Heather McLachlan

Heather McLachlan says the support that the National Trust has been receiving from the public in Northern Ireland is encouraging.

"In 2012, we had 60,000 members. At the end of this month, we will be celebrating having 100,000. Our visitor numbers are also on the up and we now have 2,500 volunteers helping us across the province.

"We really are going from strength to strength and we are also taking our message out to communities and finding out what people want to do on our sites."

Heather admits that there's more work to be done to encourage people to get out and explore the full range of places that the Trust are looking after.

"But one of the biggest things for us, compared to the National Trust across the water, is that, because we don't have a 'right to roam' in Northern Ireland, access to the outside is limited," explains Heather, who believes that encouraging families to visit the Trust's attractions has been a major factor in increasing visitor numbers.

Trying to lure children away from their computers has been a major challenge.

"We have a campaign called 50 Things To Do Before You're 11 and what we're encouraging children to do is make a connection with the outdoors and nature by flying a kite, or climbing a tree - the things they don't do when they're sitting in front of an Xbox," says Heather.

The impact of the enormously popular Game of Thrones TV series isn’t underplayed by the trust, who’ve seen thousands of fans from home and abroad descending on filming locations like Castle Ward, Cushendun, Portstewart and Downhill.

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General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

Stephen Hamilton

General views of Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula

“A fifth of our visitors recently to Castle Ward, for example, have been there as a result of Game of Thrones,” says Heather, who adds, however, that some more overzealous fans have gone a little bit too far.

“They’ve been turning up all dressed up and with real swords, presumably to have their photographs taken in situ. But our staff tell them they can’t have metal swords and point them to our shop to buy wooden ones, instead.

“The fans are coming from all over the world, including China. It’s quite incredible. But we have to remember that preservation and conservation are our core causes, not tourism, and sometimes we are caught in the middle.”

The ‘Thrones effect’ and the popularity of the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge have led to the trust carrying out a study of the effect that 1.5 million annual visitors are having on the North Coast, with local people being urged to have a say on their frustrations and their views of a sustainable future for the area.

“We don’t have the answers just yet,” says Heather. “But it’s more likely than not that we will be doing something different in the future.”

At the third most popular trust site in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart in Co Down, changes have already been implemented — and more are on the way.

Several years ago, the trust bought up 900 acres of land surrounding the recently restored Mount Stewart House and gardens, increasing the size of the attraction 10-fold.

New walks have been developed and a walled garden is to be reinstated and outbuildings refurbished, while the main car park has been closed for improvements.

Even on a blustery Wednesday afternoon this week, an alternative car park was busy, as was the popular cafe.

Wendy and Chris Edens, from Kircubbin, were finishing off their latest four-mile hike around the grounds.

“We come here at least three times a week,” says Wendy. “The new longer trails are marvellous and mean loads of variety for us.”

Chris adds: “We only live 10 minutes away. We consider ourselves very lucky to have this gem so close to our home.”

Hannah McCloy, the visitor experience manager at Mount Stewart, says they’re on target to reach 235,000 visitors for the year at what staff call Narnia.

She adds: “Coming to Mount Stewart is like opening a door into somewhere really special. Around every corner, there’s something new and our visitors seem to love experiencing our magical breathing space.”

But what’s just as remarkable at Mount Stewart is the number of volunteers who can be called on to help the 40 permanent staff.

“We have 480 volunteers, who work on every element of what we are doing,” says Hannah. “We couldn’t operate Mount Stewart without them.”

Not all of the volunteers are there to show visitors around. John Orr, a retired university academic, is spearheading a huge history project involving the conservation of a large collection of glass plate photographic negatives taken in the 1890s by Theresa the Marchioness of Londonderry and her son, Reginald.

“We have found almost 900 negatives and a team of volunteers are trying to identify the huge range of topics and subjects,” says John, who is also trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to a recreational yacht owned by the Londonderry family in April 1895 with the loss of eight people.

Englishman David Tyson, who swapped the Lake District for the Fermanagh Lakelands, was for five years a trust volunteer, but saw his dream come true in 2015 when he secured employment as a ranger at Florence Court, a place he says he’d fallen in love with at first sight.

He adds: “I was delighted to get a full-time role as one of the foot soldiers who look after the 300 acres of farmland and gardens and I couldn’t be happier.

“The mansion is closed for the winter, but that’s our busiest time with our work outdoors.”

Heather says the trust will be monitoring what the restoration of the power-sharing government at Stormont can deliver for the charity and the environment.

She adds: “It’s going to be really interesting to see what they do. Officials from the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) have already told us they recognise the need for more trees and have tasked the Forest Service to help us to identify more sites to plant them.

“Now that a minister has been appointed to DAERA (the DUP’s Edwin Poots), I would like to think that it is going to push things forward.

“In the New Decade, New Approach document, there’s a commitment for a Climate Act. I think that would be one of the key, tangible things we could pursue here, along with the other environment agencies.

“And we will all also have to pay serious attention and have important discussions on agricultural issues and how farmers can use their land in the future as Brexit comes along.”

Top 10 most popular National Trust sites in Northern Ireland

1. Giant’s Causeway

2. Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

3. Mount Stewart

4. Castle Ward

5. Rowallane Garden

6. Downhill Demesne

7. Florence Court

8. The Argory

9. Castle Coole

10. Crom

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