THE restoration of Antrim Castle Gardens has been an unmitigated triumph for the council, and the historic parkland has become a popular stop on the tourist trail.
After decades of neglect, the grounds were transformed from an overgrown and unloved haven for underage drinkers into a public space worthy of the Massereene name.
Somewhat belatedly, it is probably what Lord Massereene himself had in mind when he ‘gifted’ his ancestral home to the people of Antrim back in the 1960s. A small fee was involved, but it was so derisory that he all but gave it away.
It was a remarkable show of benevolence - and it was ‘rewarded’ just a few short years later when a fleet of JCBs were sent in to smash the ruins of his castle into oblivion. Hundreds of years of history were crudely wiped off the map.
Lord Massereene never forgave the people who signed its death warrant, branding it an act of wanton vandalism.
And it is easy to see his point. The castle had been a work in progress for centuries and its walls in places were several feet thick. This was far from a crumbling ruin - and its faded opulence still lured visitors from all over Ireland.
The grounds were treated little better. The ponds were allowed to fester, the flower beds went untended and people stayed away in their droves. The contempt for this unpolished jewel was underlined in the 1980s when Lady Massereene’s sunken garden by the banks of Sixmile was turned into a BMX track for local bikers.
Lord Massereene must have been spinning in his grave.
In recent years millions have been pumped into the parkland, offering a glimpse of how it may have looked when his Lordship was still in residence.
The results are impressive by any standard, but how do they measure up to the original? What if Antrim Castle had not been consumed by fire on that fateful night in October 1922?
Recently unearthed documents finally offer a vivid picture of life at the castle in 1912, when the building and its gardens were at their very peak - a time when the wealthy Massereenes were still living the Downton dream in downtown Antrim.
A Guide to the Grounds of Antrim Castle was penned by Agnes Gawn, with assistance from Viscountess Massereene and Ferrard no less, to coincide with that year’s Massereene Brass and Reed Bazaar and it gives a real insight into what has been saved in recent years - and what has been lost forever.
Her visit began at the Barbican Gate but once its solid oak doors closed, the author was in a very different world from the impoverished county town she left behind.
‘A broad carriage drive, thickly planted about the gate with flowering shrubs, brings the visitor in a few minutes to the castle itself - in appearance an ancient French chateau. Its general feature is that of a square embattled tower of three stories, and its front is well worthy of attention.
‘A stone screen raised slightly on the front wall, over the hall door, is the most attractive external feature of the castle. On this slab, the family arms, mottoes and events of history connected with the family are sculptured.’
These were removed before the castle was destroyed and taken into safe keeping by a government department. It recently emerged that they are on their way back, however, and could be in council hands once more later this year.
Skirting the building and past the Italian tower - the last remnant still standing, our guide takes the reader down 12 broad granite steps to the lower terrace of the pleasure gardens - years before the indignity of becoming a BMX track.
‘It consists of rich parterres of verdure interspersed with ferns and shrubs, artificial mounds, improvised bridges, arbours, tunnels and winding paths in endless beauty and variety.
‘Here where nature and art have vied with each other in beautifying the spot - as if to solemnise the mind and prove the truth that ‘all flesh is grass’ - rises a white marble cross with the following inscription on its base: in memoriam John Viscount Massereene and Ferrard, April 18th 1863.
‘He, having stooped to pull up a young sappling, overbalanced and dislocated his spine’.
Sadly, the cross has long since been vandalised.
From there it is a short journey across to what is now Clotworthy House - a ‘handsome block of buildings’.
‘The entrance to the stables is by an arched gateway, surmounted by a handsome clock. The entire of this building, resting among the trees ... is a picturesque object, and adds considerably to the beauty of the landscape.
‘Near this are to be seen the mounds where favourite horses and dogs have been buried’.
One particularly caught the author’s attention - a marble headstone erected by Viscountess Florence to her dearly departed pet. It read: ‘Here lies Jumbo, the most faithful and devoted little dog (a very handsome small fox terrier - most intelligent and brave) of Viscountess Massereene and Ferrard who erects this tribute to his memory and of her affection and regret for her pet and constant companion for fourteen years. Died at Antrim Castle 25th March 1896’.
And then it is into the gardens proper.
‘The grounds are laid out with innumerable walks - introduction wells, trysting places, acquaintance walks, pouting arbours, declaration groves, sentimental paths, hymen’s boughs and divorce ponds.
‘This entire forms one design called The Lover’s Progress which was planned by a once noble owner from a similar design in Italy and from which, it is said, Bunyan borrowed his idea of the Pilgrim’s Progress.
‘The ponds, behind the ancient yews, form one of the most attractive features of the grounds. The waters of these long basins are confined by shelving banks of verdure, sheltered at either side by towering elms, thickly planted in line, interwoven, cut and dressed in front into gigantic hedges, as at Versailles.
‘Robert Barr is still alive - but retired through infirmity - who cut and dressed those great hedges for almost 40 years.
‘When the cascades are in full play, and the waters rushing and bounding over the ledges and sparkling in the sunshine, the effect is beautiful.
‘Off a path near the ponds is a parterre, formed of high hedges enclosing a garden laid out in short grass interspersed with urns.
‘Not far distant at an opening among the trees, through which can be seen the Catholic Church and the Round Tower, a group of basaltic columns, taken from the Giant’s Causeway and conveyed by road in the days of wheel cars. A few at the base were brought from Carnearney.
‘From the round pond a magnificent view of the back part of the castle and terrace garden is seen. When last we stood there a kingfisher rose and with outspread wings of wondrous beauty and colouring, disappeared amongst the underwood.
‘At the end of this walk the visitor ascends a flight of stone steps and passes through an iron gate into the terrace gardens, which are elevated to a height of about twenty feet above the level of the park. These terraces are divided crosswise by brick walls into four gardens tastefully laid out, having a range of well stocked glass houses.
‘From here a view of the mound can be seen. A circular ascending walk bordered by yew trees winds snake-like to the top from whence a charming view is to be seen of the gardens, the town beneath, the round tower beyond, the park, Shane’s Castle and the hills of Derry in the distance’.
At the end of the terrace stood the rose garden ‘which contains many choice and rare varieties’, to be confronted by the wolfhound which kept vigil on the walls. From there, after ascending two flights of stone steps, the visitor arrived at ‘historic ground’ - the old battery where the yeomen flocked for the Battle of Antrim in 1798.
‘About the centre of the terrace the spot is pointed out where the gallant young officer fired the farewell shot of old ‘roaring tatty’ through the roof of the church - his last military exploit before he took refuge in holy orders’.
So much has changed - but, mercifully, much has been saved for future generations.
Undoubtedly the gardens would be very different if Antrim Castle had survived and the gentry had stayed - but by the same token the opportunities for a Sunday stroll with the dog may have been seriously curtailed.
And as for a BMX ride through the undergrowth - forget it!