The Secret Garden

Desima Connolly discovers a hidden gem in the north coast village of Glenarm

If you’ve been driving along the popular North Coast this summer, and let’s face it, most of us have been, I’m sure you’ll probably agree it’s not overrun with atmospheric, pleasant and unique little places to stop and idle away an hour or three.
Sure, the views are spectacular, but if you want to escape the slow moving cavalcade of bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic, get a bite to eat and stretch the legs, where do you go?
An interesting development is underway at Glenarm Castle. The stunning and compact estate, well-known for its annual hosting of the Highland games, opened its gates to the public for the ‘Walled Garden’ this summer. The development comprises a restored garden, charming tearoom and traditional crafts bothies.
Long-held to the bosom of the estate, the walled garden, previously both a decorative garden and working orchard, is now open to the general public and offers a unique tourism development for the quaint village of Glenarm.
Enchanted Castle
Glenarm Walled GardenSituated along the North Coast, between the villages of Carnlough and Ballygally, Glenarm is itself a quiet, quaint seaside village. From most vantage points within the small picturesque town, the castle’s enchanting turrets and its curious ‘Barbican’ gate, which towers over the passing river, can be seen.
Established since 1260 by the expelled John Bisset, the estate was seized by the McDonnell clan, former Lords of the Isles and Glens, in the sixteenth century, after the last McEoin Bisset was killed in 1522.
The estate and castle itself metamorphosed over subsequent centuries due to invasions and fires. The present castle as it stands today was built by Randal McDonnell Knight, Earl of Antrim in 1636, but still suffered disasters enough to demand a partial rebuild and renovation by Irish Architects William and John Morrison in the nineteenth century.
With the current 15th Earl of Antrim in residence, in recent years the 4,500-acre estate and farm has been earning its keep with a host of initiatives. The majestically beautiful ‘BarbicanGate has been restored by ‘The Irish Landmark Trust’ and is available for short-term visitor accommodation. As well as hosting the annual Games, the castle is also rented to holidaying and shooting parties.
The Walled Garden
The ‘Walled Garden’ is the latest initiative. Not just income generating, projects such as this serve to ‘open up’ the heritage that surrounds us. Once enveloped in secrecy and privilege, people can now glimpse a way of life that was formerly enclosed.
On passing through the entrance gates, the drive is populated with inspirational buildings, some in use, some not, and you are led up an avenue of ancient lime trees towards your destination.
Contained within a walled fortress lies the garden, secluded and withdrawn from external view. Entrance is gained via the tearoom, which charmingly reminds me of an old-fashioned primary school, but which was in fact a nineteenth century Mushroom House.
The tearoom is small, but space is well adapted and they offer a specialised menu including fresh Glenarm Salmon and homemade ice cream. Memorabilia from the estate selectively decorate the walls and the ambience is one of pure escapism. The tearoom looks onto an herb garden and to the left, the crafts bothies.
The crafts bothies, a row of traditional low whitewashed cottages, are an intriguing development. Despite its size, Glenarm village portrays an artistic ‘vibe’, with the renowned ‘Steenson’sJewellery studio a main attraction, and various other crafts people in residence. Yet retail venues are non-existent, so the bothies should prove to be an invaluable creative resource.
Beyond the bothies lies the garden itself. Stretching to four and a half acres, its restoration was led by Nigel Marshall, former Head Gardener of Mount Stewart, undoubtedly responsible for the stunning array of indigenous and exotic trees and plants that unfold as you stroll the perimeter of the garden. Other features include serpentine hedgerows, water garden and Victorian Glasshouse, but most impressive is the devised vistas created by strategic pathways and seating arrangements.
The interior walls themselves are festooned with luscious apples and pears, whose slow, dull melodious thud as they fall to the earth below truly remind you of this season’s natural significance, Autumn’s harvest.
Since this summer was effectively the pilot season, it will be interesting to see how ongoing transformations unfold. The bothies deserve population, and are a useful and attractive creative addition to the site as well as a much-needed outlet for local artisans.
Hopefully by next year, visitors will be parting with hard-earned cash, seduced by the native crafts on offer. Though if you have the urge to spend some money now, a limited range of plants are available for purchase.
Entrance to the Walled Garden, including tearoom, is reasonably expensive with admission ranging from 2.00 for children to 3.50 per adult, though purchasing an annual membership card at 10.00 per person allows free access throughout the season.
Many may not resent paying the admission charge with the altruistic view of wishing to support the initiative, however it may be off-putting to those simply passing through and looking for a quick coffee and site-visit. It must also be surely difficult for the tearoom franchise, no doubt struggling in its infancy.
Despite this hindrance, the Walled Garden and Tearoom are definitely worth a visit. It is a rare historical and sensitive development and offers a unique experience on the North Coastal route. We can only hope that similar initiatives ensue, as they are long overdue on what is one of the major scenic tourism routes.
Glenarm Castle’s ‘Walled Garden’ please telephone the estate office on +44 (0) 28 2884 1203 or visit the castle’s website.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation