Historic country garden gets makeover by volunteers in new community project

Volunteers Janine Kennedy from Whiteabbey and Joanne Crompton from Drumalis (left and right) with Jonny Hanson at the first community volunteer day
Volunteers Janine Kennedy from Whiteabbey and Joanne Crompton from Drumalis (left and right) with Jonny Hanson at the first community volunteer day

Gardens have registered on Roamer’s radar with increasing regularity over recent years, some of them not just flourishing with flowers, trees, shrubs and vegetables, but well-nourished with history too.

The picturesque and meticulously manicured kitchen-garden in south Ayrshire’s architecturally stunning Glenapp Castle, which I visited in 2013, had once been a horticultural oasis for wealthy heiress Poppy Wyndham, nee Mackay.

Drumalis Retreat Centre

Drumalis Retreat Centre

The glamorous actress, film star, socialite, fast Rolls Royce enthusiast and expert equestrian died in 1928 off the coast of Ireland while piloting a tiny aircraft to America.

Had it not ended with tragedy, the flight would have hailed Poppy as the first woman to fly the Atlantic.

Glenarm Castle has been home to the Earls of Antrim for over four centuries, in a village where there would have been a stronghold since the mid-1200s.

When I was there last year I discovered that Glenarm’s old courthouse is embedded with some of the original castle walls, part of a fortress that contained an orchard and mill, servants’ quarters, bothies, stables and stores…and a walled garden.

Jonny Hanson from the Jubilee Community with young volunteers Holly Kennedy and Bethany Hanson at the first community volunteer day

Jonny Hanson from the Jubilee Community with young volunteers Holly Kennedy and Bethany Hanson at the first community volunteer day

Glenarm Castle today has a walled garden that can only be described as a paradise.

One of Ireland’s oldest, the garden was originally created to supply the “big house” with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Apart from all its other horticultural and historic accolades, the acclaimed garden-writer and designer Fionnuala Fallon said that Glenarm Castle’s garden features “possibly the most perfectly manicured stretch of lawn on the whole island”.

I’ve just been told about another garden in Co Antrim, also with an intriguing history, which is set to revolutionise the whole idea of kitchen gardening.

Colourful corner of the Jubilee Walled Garden at Drumalis

Colourful corner of the Jubilee Walled Garden at Drumalis

At the end of last month, after lengthy preparations, an innovative agricultural co-operative was launched, with a team of volunteer supporters.

Called Jubilee Community Farm, it’s an ambitious new project focused firmly on producing fresh food in an environmentally friendly way.

A team of 40 volunteers has begun transforming the overgrown walled garden in Drumalis Retreat House into a thriving horticultural centre that will supply fresh meat and vegetables to folk living in the area.

Drumalis House is situated in spacious grounds overlooking the sea in Larne and is surrounded by the scenic beauty of the Antrim Coast with its nine Glens.

The building and the estate is bathed in history which includes a significant role in the 1914 UVF gun-running operation.

Initially there was a Friary on the hill of Drumalis in the middle ages which changed ownership a number of times after the dissolution of the monasteries.

The elegant house that’s there today was built by Sir Hugh Smiley in 1872 and extended in stages up to his death in 1909.

After he died his wife Elizabeth continued to live in Drumalis when the UVF gun-running operation was planned and organised from the dining room.

Drumalis was bought by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in 1930 since when it has been home to the community of Sisters and a Retreat House.

At first it catered for Catholic women and later for men and women of all faiths.

It’s thought that the late-Victorian gardens and grounds were laid out about the same time as the house was built.

The Jubilee Community Farm co-operative held its first volunteer day at Drumalis on Saturday 17th January, the first of a series of similar events to be held on the fourth Saturday of every month to prepare the ground for vegetable production.

Family, friends, people from the community and members of the Drumalis Retreat met together to begin clearing the tangle of plants and weeds from the two-acre site.

The next “clearing” is taking place this Saturday (24th February).

Jonny Hanson of the Jubilee Farm said that the first community volunteer day had been “a really fun day, where lots of people came together to break ground and begin the task of transforming it into a space for people and nature to flourish together”.

The site had been a garden centre for 30 years before being closed a few years ago, allowing nature to take over.

Jonny’s team hopes to get a trained horticulturalist on board so that they can begin growing vegetables to sell to the local community.

The Jubilee organisation is an inter-denominational Christian creation care group, set up last year under the auspices of a UK-wide support programme for co-ops and community businesses.

More activities will happen at Jubilee Farm throughout this year and beyond.

There’ll be goats and pigs, which will undoubtedly help clear the site of any unwanted weeds and undergrowth as well, and 20 local households have already invested in the Pig Club by paying a monthly subscription, with each receiving cuts of pork by the summer.

The meat will also be used in the Hog Roast, part of the group’s official launch celebrations in June when there’ll be live music, a variety of walks and talks and other fun events.

The launch event will also include the intriguingly named ‘Bio Blitz’, described by Jonny as “a biodiversity survey of the original estate which includes the walled garden, the Drumalis retreat centre, and Larne Town Park”.

By the end of 2018, Jubilee Community Benefit Society intends to launch a community share-offer to call for public support and investment in this very interesting community and environmental initiative.

For more information visit http://www.jubilee.coop/volunteer/ and the full background to Drumalis Retreat Centre is at www.drumalis.co.uk.