Castlewellan Castle
Castlewellan Castle

On the steps at Annesley Garden The picture (left) shows a party of Cedars walkers on the steps in the arboretum at in Annesley Gardens, Castlewellan. By chance, we had met up with Simon Moore who is working on a major project to restore the arboretum and gardens to their former glory. He outlined the proposals currently under consideration and possible sources of funding. Simon has since featured on Radio Ulster. On 17 January 2012 Willie Clarke of Sinn Fein made a plea in Stormont for funds to be made available for the Restoration of arboretum in Castlewellan Forest Park - you can see more by clicking here.

Castlewellan castle, designed in the Scottish Baronial Style by Scottish architect William Burn, was commissioned and built between 1856 and 1859 by William Richard Annesly, 4th Earl Annesly, as his main residence and home. Located at the foot of Slievenaslat, with breathtaking views of the Mournes and lake, the site was easily the best in the whole Annesley demesne. It is a fine example of Victorian architecture and craftsmanship; the Granite for the walls was quarried locally in square blocks at Ballymagreghan and is the hardest of any in the British Isles. Because of this it took the stone masons much longer than anticipated to dress it. This also helps explain its huge cost: £18,128.

The Castle was in the Annesley family for some 111 years, finally passing from Lady Mabel Annesley to her son Gerald Francis Annesley on the occasion of his marriage in 1927 to Lady Elizabeth Jocelyn, daughter of the 7th Earl of Roden from Tollymore. Gerald Francis lived in the Castle from that time until it was sold to the Department of Agriculture in 1967.

The walled Annesley Garden, dating from 1740, provides a central focal point for the National Arboretum. This magnificent collection of trees and shrubs, set in beautiful surroundings, also incorporates fountains, ponds, ornamental greenhouses and broad sweeping vistas.

In terms of size, age and condition of the trees, this collection ranks among the top three arboreta in the British Isles and the finest in Ireland. It includes:

    Witch Hazel in full bloom
  • 20 oldest existing specimens in the British Isles
  • 42 'champion' trees of the British Isles
  • 50 'champion' trees of Ireland.

As a group of us entered the garden, we were met by garden designer Simon Moore who told us a little of the gardens history - apparently more coal was used to heat the glass houses than was required to heat the castle! He hopes to carry out a major restoration project on the garden over the next few years. We also enjoyed some of the magnificant trees, especially the magnificent Witch Hazel - Hamamelis - (right) which was bare of leaf but in full bloom and not to be confused with the lady of the same name currently appearing in panto at Portadown Town Hall.

The name Witch in witch-hazel has its origins in Middle English wiche, from the Old English wice, meaning "pliant" or "bendable". The bark and leaves are astringent; the extract, also referred to as witch hazel, is used medicinally. Extracts from its bark and leaves are used in aftershave lotions and lotions for treating bruises and insect bites. Witch-hazel helps to shrink and contract blood vessels back to normal size, hence its use as the active ingredient in many hemorrhoid medications - so now you know. The seeds contain a quantity of oil and are edible. It is also used in treating acne. Witch Hazel is also used in treating psoriasis and eczema. In addition, Witch Hazel is sometimes found as an ingredient in eye drops.

Even more impressive than the Witch Hazel were the two giant redwoods flanking the steps near the entrance to the arboretum. These are Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant sequoia, or Wellingtonia), the sole living species in the genus Sequoiadendron, and one of three species of coniferous trees commonly known as redwoods. It occurs naturally only in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California (see right).

Castlewellan Hurdles Only the toughest As we climbed up into the forest, Elizabeth set a brisk pace, vaulting over felled trees with consumate ease and showing a clean pair of heels to the following pack. However, as we reached higher altitudes, the pace slackened and conditions became even more difficult - eventually, we fond dense scrub blocking our path and it was a case of "only the toughest survive."

Despite all our difficulties, we were rewarded with two magnificant viewpoints where we could look past the trees and Castlewellan lake to enjoy uninterupted views of the Mournes to the south.


Giant Sequoias

John and the Giant Redwood
John and the Giant Redwood
Giant sequoias are the world's largest trees in terms of total volume. Record trees have been measured to be 94.8 metres (311 ft) in height and over 17 metres (56 ft) in diameter. The oldest known giant sequoia based on ring count is 3,500 years old. Sequoia bark is fibrous, furrowed, and may be 90 centimetres (3.0 ft) thick at the base of the columnar trunk, giving the tree significant fire protection. The leaves are evergreen, awl-shaped, 3 to 6 mm long, and arranged spirally on the shoots. The seed cones are 4 to 7 cm long and mature in 18 to 20 months, though they typically remain green and closed for up to 20 years. Some seed is shed when the cone scales shrink during hot weather in late summer, but most seeds are liberated when the cone dries from fire heat or is damaged by insects.

The seeds only grow successfully in mineral soils in full sunlight, free from competing vegetation - they require periodic wildfire to clear competing vegetation and soil humus before successful regeneration can occur. Without fire, shade-loving species will crowd out young sequoia seedlings, and sequoia seeds will not germinate. Loose ground ash may also act as a cover to protect the fallen seeds from ultraviolet radiation damage. When fully grown, these trees typically require large amounts of water and are therefore often concentrated near streams.

Discovery Tree - giant redwood
Lithograph showing a party of 32 people
dancing on the stump of the Discovery
Tree, North Calaveras Grove

General Sherman General Sherman (pictured right) in the Giant Forest, California is the largest known living single stem tree in the world - as of 2009 it was 274 feet high and its girth at ground level was 102 feet. Its volume was 52,508 cu. feet.

In 1879 this tree was named after American Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, by naturalist James Wolverton, who had served as a lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry under Sherman.