Listed glasshouses and buildings at the deteriorating walled garden in Castlewellan Forest Park are to undergo essential repairs.
Forestry Minister Michelle O’Neill has promised that plans to restore the historic walled garden to its former glory are now under way after years of neglect.
The Forest Service is now in the process of obtaining estimates for repairs to the glasshouses and structures within the walled garden at Castlewellan Forest Park and is working with Down District Council to boost the tourism potential of its properties in the area, she said.
Responding to a written Assembly question from the Alliance Party, the minister said: “Forest Service has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Down District Council which creates a framework to increase opportunities for the recreational use and tourism potential of forests within the Down District Council area.”
The walled garden contains an arboretum made up of a collection of 900 specimen trees, 38 of which are champion trees — the best of their kind in Europe.
In the answer, the minister said the arboretum will be one of the areas considered jointly by both partners “with the aim of securing a long-term, viable end use and to deliver the Executive commitment to set a good example in the care of its historic estate”.
“Forest Service is currently in the process of obtaining estimates for essential repairs to the glasshouses and built structures within the arboretum,” she added.
There is no specific budget set aside for the scheme, she said.
The walled garden was internationally famous in the 1960s but had fallen into neglect since Forest Service bought the estate from the Annesley family in 1967.
Local Alliance Party councillor Patrick Clarke said he was pleased that after decades of decline and dereliction the arboretum was finally going to have a future with the possibility of being restored to its former glory.
“As somebody who regularly visits Castlewellan Forest Park, it would be great for the recreational and tourism potential of this natural attraction to be fully realised to take care of this historic estate for future generations,” he said.
Castlewellan-born campaigner Simon Moore, who has worked as a head gardener in England, recently warned that the arboretum is in danger of dwindling into a “lost garden”.
“The greenhouses are in a state of collapse, the herbaceous borders haven’t been touched in 10 years, the hedges are out of shape, the paths are like country lanes and the built heritage is in a state of collapse,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
According to the Department of Environment’s Building Heritage at Risk Register, the condition of the historic conservatories — “characterised in their listing record as rare survivals of the mid-19th century” — has become a “cause for some concern”.
In spring, following a visit, the Forestry Minister had promised that every effort would be made to help grow the recreational use of the forest park and the restoration of the arboretum would be an integral part of this.
The walled garden at Castlewellan was built in stages from around 1740 to the 1860s, beginning with the portion to the west known as the Upper Garden. It was originally laid out for kitchen produce, and extended to the east with the Lower Garden which was originally an orchard. It was all laid out as a pleasure ground in the 1860s with a terrace, steps and conservatories, along with central fountains and ornamental trees. The gardens still have mid-19th century conservatories and unusual 19th century fountains, along with a number of other garden features in stone identified as the work of Scottish architect William Burn. They are home to 900 specimen trees.