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The woman who breathed new life into the gardens at Hillsborough Castle

Landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald shares with Una Brankin how, despite her aristocratic upbringing, she’s more comfortable getting her fingers green

Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald at Hillsborough Castle
Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald at Hillsborough Castle
Celebrity chefs Nadiya Hussain

By Una Brankin

Catherine Celinda Leopoldine FitzGerald is standing in the unseasonably chilly drizzle, cold - "I'm always cold" - but happy. It has been 18 months since the Anglo-Irish landscape designer completed her initial consultancy work on the restoration of the gardens at Hillsborough Castle and, for a moment, she seems overcome by the results.

We're in the vast Walled Garden at the new entrance to the royal estate, gazing at the orderly expanse of vegetable plots, herbaceous borders and the espalier apple and pear trees growing flat on the surrounding wall of the garden, as if painted on.

"I'm slightly overwhelmed today; I'm trying to take it all in," she says quietly. "I'm amazed at how much has been done. It's really, really, extraordinary. Very satisfying.

"I mean, the Walled Garden was completely empty two-and-a-half years ago - now look at this abundance!"

Married since 2010 to the actor Dominic West, Catherine was an appropriate choice for the redesign of the 100-acre gardens, part of the £24m refurbishment of Hillsborough Castle. She grew up in the more splendid Glin Castle in Co Limerick, which hosted luminaries from Seamus Heaney to Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful in its heyday, and she would often visit the Hillsborough equivalent with her father Desmond, the 29th Knight of Glin.

An active member of the Irish Georgian Society, Desmond was a keen conservationist who passed his love of trees and gardens - but not his title - down to his eldest daughter. (As he had three daughters but no sons, the male-only Black Knight honour became dormant with Desmond's death in 2011.)

"I used to enjoy coming here on trips with dad for the Irish Tree Society, I think it was," Catherine recalls.

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"I love Co Down - Seaforde is an amazing place, and Greyabbey and Hillsborough itself. I always remembered the Lime Tree Walk in the castle gardens. It was amazing to walk along there again. The Moss Walk too, although you're not allowed to walk there now.

"Mum hasn't been yet but she's dying to come. She's a passionate gardener. She says my five-year-old is the next one in the family. She describes her as very hands-on."

Catherine closely resembles her mother, Olda Willes FitzGerald; they even have similar haircuts. Slight and fine-featured, she is make-up free and decked out in typical gardener's garb - jeans, a jumper, a sleeveless linen jacket, a fine-wool scarf and trainers.

Team work: Claire Woods, the gardens manager, with Catherine
Team work: Claire Woods, the gardens manager, with Catherine

Her only adornments are two chunky gold rings, one with a large green stone which she wore to her wedding to West at Glin - by all accounts a merry event for the whole village, with a bar run by the local publican, funeral director and the postman.

The couple have four children, two girls and two boys, and divide their time between London and Limerick when West isn't filming in America.

After Glin Castle sat on the market for two years from 2015, the couple decided to run it as a luxury rental, West commenting that he realised selling it was asking Catherine to give up her soul. "She has devoted 20 years to the garden; it's at the core of her being," he told House & Garden magazine.

At the time, Catherine had completed her work at Glenarm Castle Walled Garden in Co Antrim and had embarked upon the Hillsborough project, staying in the castle once a month for the guts of a year. Both she and the gardening team, led by Claire Woods, faced a mammoth task to brighten up the lawns and clear the areas of overgrown wilderness.

"It was rather dark and gloomy here before," says Catherine, more Anglo than Irish in her speaking voice. "I wanted to bring it to life with different colours and scents, and birds and bees and insects - to make it come alive.

"I had good guidance from the people involved here. They did a terrific job to keep it going all this time; it just needed a fresh eye."

Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald with her husband, actor Dominic West
Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald with her husband, actor Dominic West

The first problem to arise was the lack of castle records kept after 1920. The Northern Ireland Office was not good at keeping them in the past but the current administration managed to come up with old maps, showing the original landscape of the estate. Its 18th-century owners, the Hills, Earls of Hillsborough and later Marquesses of Downshire, liked to entertain in the grounds and often invited their tenants and neighbours to summer parties, keeping barrels of beer cool under the trees of the Lime Walk.

The third governor and his wife, Lord and Lady Wakehurst, insisted on hosting a garden party the day after the Royal Garden Party at Hillsborough for local residents and groups. Guests old and young were entertained with donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows, and practical demonstrations such as, according to their descendants, how to tie a bandage.

Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough and later first Marquess of Downshire, set out what was known as the Small Park at the same time as building the house in the mid-1700s.

"The fashion at that time was for a landscape that looked natural, with carriage rides and clumps of trees breaking to reveal interesting views," Claire Woods explains.

"This fashion was promoted by famous English landscape designer Lancelot Capability Brown who, although he never came to Ireland, worked for Wills Hill on the landscape of his house in England.

"The garden to the north of the main house is one such contrived, 'natural' landscape. Some of the carriage rides and paths still survive, encircling the lake that was created by damming the stream."

Catherine's starting point was the south terrace, site of the royal garden parties. The elegant French windows of the castle's drawing room open out onto this place.

"We broke up the ground on the terrace and put down paving we found in a reclamation yard in Hillsborough," Catherine says.

"Then we dug out the austere topiary and planted dogwoods. We kept the colour scheme to white and some purple - we didn't want to fight with the colour of the facade or the roses.

Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald at Hillsborough Castle
Garden splendour: Catherine FitzGerald at Hillsborough Castle

"The idea was to extend the terrace and introduce softer, frothy plantings - more informal planting within a formal structure."

She agrees with the observation that "soft and messy" is more her style.

"I like natural, wild ebullience," she smiles. "I love wildflowers - buttercups, bluebells, lichens. My favourite is meadowsweet - it is such an Irish one, from the west."

Her natural gardening style is better reflected in the Lost Garden, beyond the south lawns. A well shaded, ferny valley, this part of the grounds was established when the Hills family chose to extend the gardens to the south.

The expansion meant relocating the old Moira Road further south and the shops and houses to other areas around the town.

The extended garden, with waterfalls, pools, rocky outcrops and glens, followed the early 19th-century 'picturesque' fashion, which was influenced by Italian Renaissance paintings of landscapes.

Inspired by a giant palm tree there, Catherine had a jungle theme in mind for the Lost Garden, but the wattle hut and bridge across the stream wouldn't look out of place on a Game Of Thrones set.

"This was very overgrown and boggy, but it has some wonderful exotic plants.," Catherine says.

"It's a natural valley and I wanted to keep the jungle feel, as if a dinosaur could appear at any moment. I'm told it's a big attraction for kids.

"It's well sheltered by a good canopy of mature trees. I was inspired by Irish Celtic mythology but if you're thinking Game Of Thrones, write that!"

The Lost Garden leads on to a trail bordered at its opening by huge Flintstones-style sandstone boulders, brought in from a local quarry.

Ahead stands Lady Alice's Temple, named after Lady Alice Hill, which former resident Secretary of State Mo Mowlem used as an escape from the political jousting in the castle in the lead-up to the Hillsborough Agreement in 1998.

From there, Catherine's project extended to restoring the beautiful Granville Garden, created in the 1940s by the Queen's aunt, Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, as well as the Lime Tree Walk, the Moss Walk and the Yew Tree Walks. Also, access had to be created to the Ice House, Pinetum and the Quaker Burial Ground.

"I don't want to claim too much credit; I just wanted to bring out what was there, with a light touch," Catherine adds.

"Horticulture is my passion, the craft of gardening, more so than the design. I want to pass that passion on, especially to children, to get them enthusiastic and, through the Walled Garden, to create awareness of where food comes from.

"A wander through the rest of the gardens is just so peaceful, relaxing and restorative. I love the peonies and hydrangea. All you can hear is birdsong, and the light and colours change with every season. It's purely a pleasure garden, there's no need for anything more."

Feast of stars and events lined up for Hillsborough Castle and Gardens' first ever food festival

Celebrity chefs Nadiya Hussain, Dr Rupy Aujla, Chris Bavin and our own Paula McIntyre are coming to the newly transformed Hillsborough Castle and Gardens for its first food festival, from Friday to Sunday, July 5-7.

Hosted in partnership with BBC Good Food and supported by Tourism Northern Ireland, tickets are now on sale for the gourmet event, giving visitors the chance to discover an array of local flavours and aromas.

Set in 100 acres of stunning castle grounds, visitors can enjoy a majestic day out, shopping from mouth-watering local food and drink producers.

The Discover Northern Ireland Tasting Theatre is hosted by Paula McIntyre and there will be an array of artisan produce, street food and pop-up bars, with the stunning castle as a backdrop.

International and local chefs will give live cookery demonstrations and culinary tips, and there will be music and kids' entertainment on the bandstand, adding to the family festival atmosphere.

Laura McCorry, head of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, said: "We are delighted to be hosting these predominantly local food and drink producers at the Hillsborough Castle and Gardens Food Festival for the first time this year. The newly transformed castle and gardens provide the perfect weekend setting for a foodie extravaganza for all the family to enjoy.

"Along with street food and artisan producers to whet the appetite, visitors will also be able to sample the fresh local produce of the castle gardens in the newly opened cafe.

"Visitors can also make a day of it by exploring the castle's history, brought to life on guided tours led by the castle's team of expert explainers.

"With so much on offer throughout the weekend there is truly something for everyone."

Adult festival tickets, including access to the gardens and a 45-minute guided tour of the Hillsborough Castle state rooms, start at £17.50, while adult festival tickets with gardens-only access start at £13.90. Free for Historic Royal Palaces members. Family ticket options are also available. People are advised to book early as tickets are selling fast.

  • To book tickets and for more information on Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, visit www.hrp.org.uk/hillsborough-castle

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