Hillsborough Castle: How the home of peace agreements faced its darkest days

Like other attractions, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens was hit hard by the pandemic. HELEN MCGURK hears how the historic venue has found its feet again

Friday, 16th July 2021, 4:32 pm
Updated Wednesday, 21st July 2021, 9:48 am
Hillsborough Castle - the South Terrace, looking north.
Hillsborough Castle - the South Terrace, looking north.

Big houses, palaces and castles across the world have played central roles in shaping the modern world.

In the 1990s, Chateau de Rambouillet in France famously, and with limited success, hosted political leaders and diplomats from the US and Europe and former Yugoslav nations in an attempt to end a brutal war in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia.

Camp David, the US President’s country residence was the venue in 1978 in which Egyptian and Israeli leaders finally came together to agree a lasting peace accord. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers.

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Laura McCorry, head of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

To this dazzling list must be added Hillsborough Castle outside Lisburn which since the visit of American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin 250 years ago, has repeatedly played a central role in creating peace agreements in Northern Ireland

The official residence of the Queen when she visits Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle is also home to the NI Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis

And now, thanks to the intervention of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which preserves and maintains world-famous landmarks including the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, Hillsborough Castle is accessible to the public like never before.

You no longer need diplomatic credentials, nor royal family links to gain access to this fascinating hub of political history. In fact, many visitors are far more interested in what Historic Royal Palaces has done with the place and in particular, its gardens.

Children enjoying the Imaginary Menagerie

An investment of £24m by the charity has seen significant restoration work to the main house as well as extensions of the gardens, grounds woodlands and lakes to create attractive and interactive nature walks including the unique Imaginary Menagerie.

These walks have opened up the grounds to take the visitor on an extended exploration from formal elegance and tidy lawns to wilder and more remote parts where ancient trees and woodlands are punctuated by surprise features such as a massive bird cage which artistically celebrates the bird life of the region, a huge timber nest, a conceptual reconstruction of a 19th century horse and trap and a colourful palette of exploratory and sensory devices and challenges to test your senses and those of even the youngest.

There are walled gardens and the highly reputable Yellow Door restaurant where you can eat in or buy a fancy packed picnic and take yourself and your family and friends off to a private corner of the grounds to enjoy an afternoon of relaxed, rural merriment.

Yet all of this faced serious jeopardy following the pressures of the pandemic and its strangling restrictions. Having opened barely a year before the first lockdown in March 2020, Hillsborough Castle suddenly found itself struggling to survive. Visitor number and revenue projections were heading in the right direction after the official opening in 2019 when the pandemic struck and the doors had to close.

Within 12 months, Historic Royal Palaces were facing a £100m shortfall and drastic measures were required to make a survival plan work. This meant the loss of significant numbers of staff across the network and Hillsborough Castle did not escape the stringent cuts.

Head of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens Laura McCorry said the blow was serious.

“Closing just a year after reopening following a £24m restoration was not what we had planned, but now we are focused on recovery and developing new plans to attract local visitors back to the castle.

“One thing the pandemic has shown us is the value of being outside and in nature – and we have that in abundance at Hillsborough. The grounds bring so much history and heritage to life, so we are grateful to have received funding from Tourism NI and The National Lottery Heritage Fund to create Imaginary Menagerie.

“The interactive, engaging and fun activities will give children – both big and small – a greater understanding of the wildlife and pets that have graced the gardens and lakes of the Castle, while enjoying various elements of play safely outdoors.”

The new lease of life is aimed at attracting the ‘staycation’ market, both across Northern Ireland and the South, in an effort to bring much needed funds to the destination.

The enhancements include a series of events scheduled for the summer with further atmospheric and seasonal experiences to mark Hallowe’en, Christmas and next Easter.

All these enhancements have been carefully considered and are rooted in Hillsborough Castle’s history as a home as well as a garden and official residence. For instance, this summer has already seen the introduction of the Round Robin games in which families and groups of friends co-ordinate their efforts to solve challenges and puzzles, a nod perhaps to Hillsborough Castle’s position as the Irish cradle of peace negotiations.

The summer looks promising and Laura McCorry is confident that the new portfolio of enhancements at Hillsborough Castle will be a major draw for families and groups.

“We are incredibly lucky to have been able to secure funding not only to keep Hillsborough Castle and Gardens running but to add this irresistible list of assets to our offer,” says Ms McCorry who adds that the recent awarding of Royal status to the village was a further boost.

In his last visit to Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis announced that the village of Hillsborough is to receive Royal status later this year.

“We are confident that the Royal Hillsborough announcement will help draw more visitors who are keen to learn about the rich heritage on their doorsteps. Hillsborough Castle and Gardens is an inclusive space, one with a long history of fostering peace-making and understanding. Our teams are excited to bring our vibrant heritage to life once more, and we know the appetite is there for it.”

Hillsborough Castle not only boasts sweeping gardens and the lake and the new Imaginary Menagerie, but houses several paintings from the Royal Collection and many Irish artists, some with royal patronage.

Tours of both the Castle and the Gardens are available to book throughout the summer.

“This summer is about recovery and engaging with the public to drive visitor numbers to set us up for the Autumn and Christmas season,” said Laura.