£5.5m funding boost for Castlewellan Forest Park

£5.5m funding boost for Castlewellan Forest Park

31 March 2021

A MAJOR £5.5m revitalisation project at Castlewellan Forest Park has received a major boost from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Newry, Mourne and Down Council is spearheading an ambitious four-year project to significantly enhance facilities at the sprawling park, with the lottery funding earmarked to restore a number of key features to help maximise its tourism potential.

The Heritage Fund has already provided almost £250,000 in financial assistance and has now backed that up with an additional £2.7m, with the local authority investing £2.8m in the revitalisation scheme.

Construction work has already commenced at the Bothy Yard in the forest park thanks to funding from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the EU.

Work on the main restoration project is scheduled to start in the summer and complete by December 2025, with the local authority agreeing a lease for the core areas within the park from the Forest Service until 2045. 

Proposed work includes new landscape and drainage within The Grange courtyard, a new pedestrian path from the entrance gates to the main car park, a new vehicular road of Castle Avenue to the existing car park. There will also be a new traffic control barrier at Castle Avenue.

Caravan spaces will be relocated with the feature entrance gates at the Castle Avenue entrance restored, alongside the restoration of The Grange courtyard buildings and the reconstruction of a derelict building block.

The park’s 19th century greenhouse is also being restored with the reconstruction of the propagation house and cold frames, while one of several outbuildings will be converted to an office and volunteer space.  

Elsewhere, visitor facilities will be created in the Stove Conservatory including an interpretation centre, with a platform lift installed to provide access to the terrance for people with reduced mobility. 

Since 2015, the local authority has been progressing with plans to restore the natural and built heritage of the forest park with several key stakeholders including Forest Service. 

The council’s vision is to create a heritage-led destination which protects the heritage of Castlewellan Forest Park for future generations, whilst also providing opportunities for local people and visitors to learn more about the landscape.

The ‘Re-rooting our past in the Future: Castlewellan Historic Demesne’ project will connect people with the built and natural heritage within the forest park, as well as restore and celebrate its unique biodiversity. 

This includes the restoration of a living arboretum, containing some of the most significant collection of trees and shrubs on the island of Ireland.

As part of the project, the Grange will be developed into a visitor core with the creation of a welcome centre, community space and café facilities, with the Courtyards transformed into a vibrant visitor hub and dedicated centre for community use with interpretation, activities, events, environmental education and skills development. 

In addition, the landscape will be conserved and managed sensitively, protecting its plant collection and important biodiversity.  

Council chairwoman Laura Devlin said the flagship project has been designed to deliver the local authority’s vision of transforming the picturesque forest park into a “dynamic, heritage-led destination, restoring, celebrating and interpreting the natural and built heritage of the historic demesne”.  

And she paid tribute to members of a task-board that has supported the development of the project since 2015.

“I live in Castlewellan and have been on the task-board from day one and am delighted that the council has received this financial support,”she said. “I look forward to the delivery of the project as it will generate local economic, social and environmental benefits”.

As the former demesne of the Annesley family, the forest park is steeped in natural and built heritage dating back to 1740s.

The park is an integral part of the Castlewellan community and provides locals and visitors with recreational space for outdoor activities such as, cycling, horse riding, fishing on the lake, canoeing and orienteering.  

At the heart of the park is the arboretum and walled Annesley Garden, the latter which provides a central focal point for the National Arboretum with the £5.5m investment package designed to re-establish the historical nature of the planting in the arboretum.

The Heritage Fund’s Northern Ireland Director, Paul Mullan, said landscapes and nature “form the bedrock of our culture and heritage, improving wellbeing, sparking curiosity, and protecting and providing for the communities surrounding and inhabiting them”.

He continued: “National Lottery players have highlighted natural heritage as especially important, which is why we are proud to award Newry, Mourne and Down Council a grant to create a heritage-led destination at Castlewellan Historic Demesne.

“The Heritage Fund is incredibly proud to be playing a role in ensuring our natural heritage is safeguarded for generations to come, but also that the projects we fund give people the chance to connect with the nature that is on their doorsteps.”

Council officials say it is widely acknowledged that parks and open spaces play a hugely important role in supporting local communities, both in terms of providing recreational space, but also for supporting health and wellbeing.

They add: “As we move towards recovery from Covid, the implementation of this project is timely and will benefit the citizens of the district through reconnecting people with their heritage, community and nature creating a safe, vibrant welcoming park for all.