The long border in the walled garden. Picture by John Manley
IF we should be grateful to the aristocracy and royalty for at least one thing, it’s probably gardens. Arguably without wealthy landowners, many of whom it must be said owed their fortunes to what are now regarded as less scrupulous practices, the idea of gardens and gardening, as we know it, may have never come about.
They weren’t so fond of getting their own hands dirty and left the hard labour to others but the extent of the gentry’s wealth enabled an unprecedented breadth of planting and landscaping on a breathtaking scale. The height of this movement between the 17th and 19th centuries saw the creation of some of the world’s greatest gardens, many of which survive to this day.
Perhaps by the same token, we should be grateful to Historical Royal Palaces, the charity responsible for the upkeep of famous landmarks such as the Tower of London and Kensington Palace, and which has in recent years opened the spectacular Hillsborough Castle and Gardens to the public.
Hillsborough Castle – not a true castle but actually an ‘Irish big house’ – was built by the Hill family in the 18th century and has seen its fair share of history, much of it in recent decades.
However, the focus of my trip earlier this month to this north-western corner of Co Down that will soon be bestowed ‘Royal’ status, was not to visit the residence of the secretary of state and the official residence in Northern Ireland of Queen Elizabeth II but to enjoy the surrounding gardens – 100 acres in all.
My guide is garden manager Claire Woods, who took on the role three years ago, just as the initial stages of the multi-million-pound restoration of the gardens was completed.
Hillsborough garden manager Claire Woods. Picture John Manley
Fully opened to the public for the first time in April 2019, the garden gates shut again 11 months later due to Covid regulations. There has been limited opening since but today marks the garden’s full reopening.
It’s in almost four acres of walled garden, built in the 1760s, that the tour begins. In terms of the variety of plants, this is the most densely cultivated area.
Divided into halves, the bottom part closest to the western entrance is the productive garden, where a range of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers are grown. There are no fewer than 75 varieties of vegetable and 45 apple varieties, the majority of the latter Irish heritage, many trained up walls and as espaliers dividing the different rooms. The produce is sold on site, as well as being utilised by the Yellow Door café in the visitors’ area and restaurants in Hillsborough. You can also purchase new season fruit, veg and bunches of flowers from a garden cart.
Lady Alice’s Temple
It’s a perfect, sunny June day and we walk up the long border in the centre of the walled garden flanked by Macedonian scabious, peonies, Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’ and the ever-reliable Alchemilla mollis, all buzzing with bees and subtly staked with willow supports grown and fashioned by the garden staff, of which there are 10 full-time, supported by as many part-time volunteers.
Within the walled garden especially, the plants are selected with pollinators in mind, reflecting the transformation in gardening philosophy over recent decades that now puts a much greater emphasis on nature.
Moving towards the higher end of the walled garden in the direction of the castle, the planting is initially ornamental but informal, such as alliums dotted among purple moor-grass (Molinia caerulea), then it opens out into an expanse of apple trees underplanted with a dense, hiving selection of wildflowers, including yellow rattle (essential for hindering grass growth), dog daisies, vetches, ragged robin, buttercups and red clover.
This meadow theme is stunning and is justifiably repeated elsewhere in the gardens, leading to a profusion of native orchids among the grasses in the area known as the south lawn.
Hillsborough Castle south terrace. Picture by John Manley
“We don’t cut the grass too much throughout the estate and we’ve amended the cutting regime to improve biodiversity,” says Claire.
It’s a win-win situation in that it reduces labour and burns fewer fossil fuels, while helping the garden’s insect life and ultimately the plants.
Exiting the walled garden into a shaded wooded area, we head towards Lady Alice’s Temple, a focal point in the garden from where you can look down the lime tree-lined Moss Walk or across the lake to the castle, which is reflected on the water’s surface.
Along the way we encounter the first of a number of installations which make up the Imaginary Menagerie, a trail of pet and animal-inspired sculptures that are designed to encourage exploratory play – an activity that is encouraged in the gardens at Hillsborough. This playful, adventurous spirit is also in evidence at the crannog area, where an elevated boardwalk takes you across a previously inaccessible swamp above the flag irises and reeds.
The garden cart. Picture John Manley
But there’s plenty here for the gardening purists too. On the banks above is a selection of primulas, supplied by Peninsula Primulas, reflecting a policy that sees as many plants as possible grown and sourced in Ireland.
Claire suggests that the approach employed today, such as the minimal mowing, has more in common than you might imagine with the garden as it was in the late 1700s.
“When the gardens were first developed there were no lawn mowers, so the only way the grass was kept low was by scything or grazing,” she says.
Above us are some of the original plantings from the garden’s early years in the shape of three Turkey oaks, a Cedar of Lebanon and Deodar Cedar, all of them 250 years old.
The ornamental gardens close to the castle are among the day’s many highlights, less formal than anticipated with many plants left to self seed in the cracks between the sandstone on the south terrace. Off to the sides are more formal, traditionally symmetrical gardens, including the Granville Garden, designed by the Queen’s aunt, the grandly named Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon.
These are gardens that it would take much of a lifetime to fully acquaint yourself with, which was probably the original idea behind them, but there’s great pleasure to be had in just a few of hours leisurely dandering and taking in the sights – and you can always come back whenever you like.
Hillsborough Castle from the top of Yew Tree Walk.