The journey of Antrim Castle Gardens from a local gem to national treasure is a story of transformation; achieved with the passion and pride of a team driven by ambition to put their place on the map. This spectacular transformation has firmly established the majestic Gardens as the jewel in the crown of the Councils cultural offer.
An 18th century Anglo-Dutch water garden, located in Antrim and owned and operated by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, the Gardens were transformed in 2012, with an investment of £6 million from the Council and Heritage Lottery Fund.
The buildings, gardens, ponds, ancient motte and castle ruins were restored to create a welcoming and vibrant historic environment with formal garden elements cleverly interwoven with natural heritage of river and woodland. With a programme of activities and vibrant events, there is something for everyone. As one of the most important heritage gardens in Northern Ireland, and having obtained numerous awards, the Gardens are now established as one of the region’s leading visitor attractions.
A unique place of history and heritage and a stunning example of the sympathetic restoration and enhancement of built and natural heritage, it’s easy to understand why the Gardens were “Highly Commended” in the 2017 Tourism NI Awards Heritage Property of the Year Category. Prior to its restoration in 2012, the Gardens achieved little success. Yet, the Council had the vision to recognise its huge potential.
Loved locally, this hidden gem was plagued by anti-social behavior keeping most visitors away. The restoration was the catalyst for this glistening gem to transform into a truly valuable asset.
The restoration project started the transformation journey which was reinvigorated with the formation of the new Council and new team in 2015. The project has delivered in abundance against the stated objectives, which were to: - Improve, promote and enhance the cultural and natural heritage of the Gardens and benchmark through accreditation and awards schemes:
- Fully develop effective partnerships with key stakeholders to protect, improve and promote natural heritage and address issues of anti-social behavior.
- Develop the Gardens as a quality regional visitor attraction with a vibrant programme of events, delivering economic prosperity for the Borough.
The accreditations, achievements, accolades and awards for Antrim Castle Gardens are testament to what a stunning and successful visitor attraction and glorious green space the Gardens have become.
The restoration project was not without many challenges and a series of complex and related issues had to be addressed to ensure the successful delivery of the project. Some of the main issues encountered related to statutory protection of the site, ecological constraints, archaeology, discovery of unexpected items and working in a ‘live’ site. These issues, along with those more commonly experienced on projects, ensured that the challenge of successfully delivering the multi element project was an onerous one. However, it was clearly well worth the efforts of the project team given what the Gardens have become post restoration.
The biggest challenge was perhaps putting in place a team of people to transform the restoration results into a high quality visitor service and experience and in doing so bring the Gardens back to life. Added to this was the challenge for the team of becoming part of the new Council and coping with the challenge of such massive change this brought. They have excelled on all counts and are a huge part of this success story.
Following the restoration, visitor numbers increased exponentially and reached a staggering 464, 000 at the end of 2017. Subsequently, the Gardens became the recipient of a number of accolades.
The Green Flag and Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence were achieved quickly and the First Heritage Green Flag followed in 2016 along with the Britain in Bloom Silver Gilt and Special Award for Outstanding Presentation. Having been finalists in the 2016 APSE Service Team of the Year (Horticulture category), the team went on to win this prestigious award in 2017! Crowned Best NI Park in the 2016 Fields in Trust UK Awards, Highly Commended as Heritage Property of the Year in the 2017 Tourism NI Awards and finalist in Horticulture Week 2018 Custodian Awards brought the Gardens national recognition. At the 2017 NILGA awards, the Operations Manager was crowned Employee of the Year, with the team reaching the final in the Team of the Year category.
Recognition arising from the accolades, in addition to a highly effective PR and campaign marketing have driven visitor numbers from 70,000 annually to almost 500,000 - a target the team are ambitious to better. The range of events delivered to is diverse; ranging from a Brick City Lego Exhibition, Ulster Pipe Band Championships, Garden Show Ireland and recently the Queens Royal Gun Salute. The star attraction in the event portfolio - the magical Enchanted Winter Garden - is becoming established as Northern Ireland’s premier Christmas event with 60,000 visitors attending the event over 12 nights in 2017. For the second year running, this event is a finalist in the CIPR Pride Awards Best Event category. Programming of the facilities is ever evolving with a host of arts, horticulture and heritage activities available for all.
There is a lot more to the multi-award winning Antrim Castle Gardens than just beautiful landscapes and features. The Gardens are also home to a complex living museum containing over four centuries of heritage alongside remnants of the Massereene family dynasty. For visitors - local, national and international - the Gardens have now become a vital part of the regional tourism offer.
The future is as bright with the ever ambitious team simmering with ideas for further success. They are developing programming with a view to growing income streams to achieve financial sustainability. An interactive fairy trail, birthday parties, education progamme, ghost, and walking tours are some examples.
The team is working closely with stakeholders to link the Gardens with the town centre ensuring that the economic dividends are maximised whilst dealing with the ever-growing problem of onsite parking limits. We aspire to achieve the top 5 star rating in the Tourism NI Quality Scheme. This process is ongoing and, having been highly commended by Tourism NI, we are aiming for the top next year!
Conscious of the financial pressures facing councils, our Council has developed a strategy of developing income streams to support further growth. The Gardens play a huge role in securing financial sustainability for the Council as well as delivering for the economy and contributing to prosperity.
The Gardens are much loved with much to love. It is now a leading visitor attraction and is still held dear by residents rightly proud of their place. Ongoing success is as sure as the knowledge that everyone who encounters the Gardens’ magic departs wanting more.
• For more information about the Gardens, visit www.antrimandnewtownabbey.gov.uk