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Rooted in history ... idyllic corner of Northern Ireland which is a haven of peace and even hosted the Queen

Kilbroney Park in Rostrevor was used as a Second World War prisoner of war camp and has been an inspiration for many distinguished writers - but it's for its trees that it's most famous. Ivan Little reports on a new book and exhibition which pay tribute to this beautiful corner of Co Down

Tree of the Year Old Homer is a must-see on a visit to Rostrevor
Tree of the Year Old Homer is a must-see on a visit to Rostrevor
Award-winning poet Csilla Toldy with her artwork Cadence based on the English Yew
Seamus Collins with his painting Avenue based on the Maritime Pines
Passionate: Contributor Jasper McKInney with his Shadow of the Larch IV work
The young Princesses Margaret (seated) and Elizabeth who enjoyed holidaying in Rostrevor
Seamus Heaney
CS Lewis

On a clear-blue summer's morning, or even on a cloudy afternoon in winter, it only takes a couple of minutes for a visitor to appreciate the serenity of Kilbroney Park in Rostrevor and to realise why it's been an inspiration to great writers like CS Lewis, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray Makepeace and Seamus Heaney.

The idyllic corner of Northern Ireland was even a playground for the Queen in her childhood.

And no matter which way you turn in Kilbroney, the rewards are breathtakingly beautiful, as spectacular scenery unfolds front, rear and centre with Carlingford Lough, rivers, mountains and forestry throwing up captivating snapshots for the roving eye.

And now a lavish new book about Kilbroney, its history, its myths and more especially its trees has been produced in a bid to encourage more people to experience a walk in the park.

But the book, The Trees of Kilbroney Park, isn't all verbiage about foliage.

Artists have also painted striking images of the trees and photographers, including singer Colum Sands have helped to illustrate the book, which is edited by a writer from Hungary who fell in love with Rostrevor years ago.

The idea for the book has its roots in the decision by Rostrevor's Light 2000 community group to enter the Northern Ireland Tree of the Year competition run by the Woodland Trust a couple of years ago.

Old Homer, a mighty evergreen Holm Oak which dates back more than 200 years and which famously leans to one side was declared the winner by Father Ted actor Ardal O'Hanlon in a Channel 4 documentary.

And the next year Old Homer came a creditable sixth in the European competition.

The tree is a site for music sessions during Rostrevor's Fiddlers Green festival and one of its most passionate admirers was Scottish folk singer Danny Kyle who was a friend of Billy Connolly and who had his ashes scattered under Old Homer after his death in 1998.

Using a Woodland Trust grant in the wake of Old Homer's win as a catalyst, Light 2000 decided that they would undertake ways of promoting all of Kilbroney's trees as their follow-up project.

They knew only too well that many of the trees in Kilbroney were undocumented and they worked with the local council to provide information plaques to identify them and record their history and importance.

But Light 2000 didn't stop there. They gave 400 saplings to Rostrevor's primary schoolchildren to plant in the park and they set about producing their book about Kilbroney's trees.

Even the most cursory of glances underlines the fact that the producers resisted the temptation to make the publication a stuffy treatise which would only be of interest to tree huggers.

Instead they've completed a book that is a colourful celebration of the trees in Kilbroney through poems, stories and drawings with contributions coming from as far away as Australia, the USA and Canada.

One of the writers Anita Morgan, a Warrenpoint woman who lives in Madrid, has written in praise of the ornamental Turkey Oak tree which is said to be the most photographed tree in the Park.

The illustration of the tree in Anita's piece, which is dedicated to the memory of her late husband Luis, is an example of the 2,000 year old art form of Japanese Sumi-e ink drawing. The book was edited after a series of workshops by award-winning poet Csilla Toldy, who escaped from the communist regime in Hungary and travelled across Europe before settling in Rostrevor.

She says: "There is a great selection of contributions in the book from professional and local people alike. We organised walks in the park so that people could 'meet' the trees and be inspired by them."

Csilla's husband Alistair Livingstone has been responsible for the design and the producers didn't have to look too far either for guidance about the most significant trees in Kilbroney. Local man Paul Clerkin has developed a tree trail through the park. He says: "I have loved trees in Kilbroney all my life and I started recording them over the past four or five years for the Woodland Trust's ancient tree hunt. "Old Homer may have been the most impressive tree in the completion but now all the other trees are getting to show their beauty as well."

One of the contributors to the book, William (Billy) Graham was, for years, a political correspondent for newspapers in Belfast.

The Maghera man has lived for 35 years in Rostrevor.

He writes in a piece called Memory Sticks: "The first thing I noticed about this beautiful area was the special trees. Exquisite. I love listening to their music when wind passes over the leaves."

In his piece he compares trees to "memory sticks" which he says were keepers of information long before computers.

Billy says he has always had a fascination with trees from back in the day when anyone wearing denim and open-toed sandals and talking about trees was mocked.

"But now trees have become mainstream," he adds. "And even people in suits are aware of their importance in relation to the climate. Walking through trees is also seen as important in the realms of mental health."

Billy who is chairman of Light 2000 and a number of other community organisations in Rostrevor says he still studies - and writes about - politics particularly in the Middle East and America.

But he says: "After the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement and all that I thought it was maybe time for a rest and a change."

In the foreword to the book, Patrick Clegg, the director of the Woodland Trust in Northern Ireland rues the loss of many of Northern Ireland's old trees, adding: "Such trees might be regarded as our cathedrals of the natural world. This book will without doubt, help to raise the profile of trees and their importance to both people and wildlife, and how we might better care for and protect them."

Patricia Strong, a member of the Rostrevor Historical Society has written about the rich back-story of Kilbroney Park which used to be called The Meadow and was part of a sprawling estate where the Ross family built an imposing house known as the Lodge in 1716.

General Robert Ross, who led the army that burned the White House in 1814, was born in the Lodge. The Ross family planted a wide variety of trees in the park, importing many of them from overseas including Redwoods, Monterey Pines, Sequoia and Holm Oaks.

Records from the 1800s show that the Kilbroney demesne was also 'tastefully planted with, ash, sycamore and cherry trees'. The estate changed hands a number of times before it was acquired by the Bowes-Lyon family in 1919. They were second cousins of the late Queen Mother and in 1937 the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret holidayed at the Lodge. Billy Graham says: "A man who received an honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace apparently made a brief comment about Rostrevor and she said that she remembered it well."

During the time the estate was owned by British diplomat and acclaimed scholar Alfred Stratford Canning, his friend Charles Dickens was said to have been a guest who enjoyed walking in the grounds.

CS Lewis is said to have credited Kilbroney as the inspiration for his classic Chronicles of Narnia and the beautiful park has its own Narnia trail in its arboretum. William Makepeace Thackeray said of Rostrevor and Carlingford Lough that if it was in England "it would be a world's wonder".

The book also reveals a link between Rostrevor's trees and the late Seamus Heaney. Singer Tommy Sands tells how the Bellaghy bard named a summer seat in the village fashioned from a decayed Kilbroney oak "the seat of treedom" (sic).

Kilbroney, which was used as a prisoner of war camp for Germans during the Second World War, came into the ownership of the local council in 1977 after the Queen's relative Marianne Lyon left the estate to a niece who decided to sell it.

At one point there was talk of a developer building houses at Kilbroney close to its magical Fairy Glen but the plans were abandoned after a determined campaign by residents of Rostrevor some of whom threatened to handcuff themselves to the gates of the park if the bulldozers tried to move in.

Kilbroney was then declared an Open Space Amenity.

The Trees of Kilbroney has met with an encouraging response from the public. Billy Graham says it has struck a chord with hundreds of people.

A reprint is a distinct possibility and, in the meantime, an exhibition of the illustrations from the book is a delight to see.

The Trees of Kilbroney Park exhibition is on tour and is currently at Cregagh Library until September 29. The book, £7.50, is on sale at local bookshops or directly from William Graham by emailing wkg1951@gmail.com

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