In County Down is the village of Castlewellan, featuring a fairy tale-like castle overlooking a beautiful lake, before the Slievenaslat mountain. The castle lies between the Mourne Mountains and Slieve Croob, offering an incredible natural scenery enclosed in the Castlewellan Forest Park. The park offers parking, an action centre where you can rent boats (kayaks or canoes) and bikes, a bar and toilets in a lovely cottage court. From there, you can choose among six different walks in the woodlands surrounding the castle. Castlewellan Forest Park is 45 minutes from Belfast by car.
Yesterday we decided to go there with our friend Franca, and spend a morning in the nature. We were very lucky with the weather, so we could complete the Lakeside Walk (2.4 miles), Cypress Pond Walk (3.1 miles), and Moorish Tower Walk (3.2 miles) before lunchtime.
Moorish Tower and Cypress Pond
From the Grange Courtyard, we started to follow the Lakeside Walk along the southern side of the lake. This is a relatively flat trail running around the shores of the lake. It offers incredible views across the lake and the surrounding woodland. The trail passes by the Ice House and the castle, built in 1856. The lake itself is a natural lake later extended by the Annesley family in the 19th century.
From the tip of the lake, we followed the Cypress Pond Walk, running uphill in the midst of an enchanting pine tree forest. The trail climbs up the side of the mounhtain, winding its way through mature trees. You are rewarded once you reach the top, with a tranquil view of the Cypress Pond. As a short detour, we also followed the Moorish Tower Walk, a narrow track leading to the Moorish Tower. This was designed as a ‘tea house’ providing a fine view over the lake and the forest.
A steep descent leads back to the lake shore: we resumed here the Lakeside Walk up to the castle. Here, we enjoyed the perfect view of the castle against a vivid blue sky and the clouds. The only disappointment was to learn that the castle itself is a private venue – a conference centre for a Church. We would have enjoyed a visit inside, but is not possible, as it is not open to the public.
At this point, we went back to the parking and retrieved our packed lunch… we had our meal sitting on a bench overlooking the lake (what a treat!) and; after that, we gathered some more energy for the Annesley Garden Tree Trail.
The Annesley Garden Tree Trail
The Annesley Garden Tree Trail is a walled garden next to a garden cottage that is today private. The Annesley family bought the Manor od Castlewellan in 1741 and improved it generation after generation. The garden started as a simple kitchen garden in the 1740s and was transformed into a pleasure garden of 12 acres in 1850s, with fountains and glasshouses. Over two centuries, the family planted thousands of trees and developed an arboretum with the walled garden as the central hub. In 1967 Gerarld Annesley sold the demesne to the Ministry of Agriculture, and two years later they became available to the public as part of Castlewellan Forest Park.
The layout of the park is regular, with long axes paths linking the old garden to the walled garden; The gardens hosts numerous exotic plants, including ten giant sequoiadendrom (giant redwood), monkey puzzle trees and rhododendrons. The collection of plants gathered here – over 3,000 different species – are descripted in the book “Beautiful and Rare Trees and Plants” by Hugh Annhesley (1903), the person who was primarily responsible for the development of the Arboretum. At the centre of each garden is a fountain – the Heron fountain and the Mereboy fountain. Today they don’t have water, adding a decadent romantic look at the gardens.
Bu the time we completed the visit at the Annesley Gardens, the sky was covered in heavy clouds. We were starting to feel our eight-mile walk, so we headed back to the car while the first drops of rain started to fall. Unfortunately, we missed the visit to the Peace maze, the last attraction just before the park exit. However, we felt very lucky to have found such an incredible place and a sunny weather for most of our tour. This is definitely a place you want to see in Northern Ireland.