HISTORY OF CASTLEWELLAN CASTLE
Castlewellan Forest Park was first opened to the general public in 1967 after the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture purchased the estate from Mr. Gerald F. Annesley. The park being only a small part of the original estate acquired in 1741 by Lord William Annesley from the Magennis family. This estate stretched from Slieve Croobe to Slieve Donard taking in Castlewellan and part of Newcastle.
The Forest Park itself consists of 463 hectares. The main features of which are:
- The Lake that covers around 40 hectares and is constantly stocked with brown and rainbow trout.
- The Arboretum, which dates from around 1870, is a large walled garden that hosts a collection of trees and shrubs from all over the world.
- The Castle, built in Scottish Baronial style in the second half of the 19th Century to replace the earlier residence of the Annesleys which was nearer the lake.
- The Maze - more information on the maze can be found here
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 Castlewellan Cottage was the original residence of the Annesleys and preceeds the Castle - dating back to the early 1800's. The site of the Cottage is still visible today, marked with a small boxwood hedge close to the path from the Castle to the lakeside. The original entrance to the cottage faced towards the present castle with a garden at the back extending right down to the lake shore.
On the site of the Castle stood a beautiful gothic church, built after the cottage around the 1820s, which stood magnificently against the newly forested Slievenaslat. However, it was prematurely demolished only 35 years later in 1855 to make room for the building of the Castle.
William Richard Annesley (the 4th Earl) had the present Castle built at the foot of Slievenaslat, with breathtaking views of the Mournes and lake, the site was easily the best in the whole Annesley demesne. William Richard Annesley, the 4th Earl, commissioned the Scottish architect William Burn to design the Castle, which is why it is in the Scottish Baronial Style. 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. The Castle was built by the Liverpool partnership of John Parker, John Parker jun., and Archiblad Parker at an agreed cost of £18,128 and was completed between 1856 and 1859.
OUTSIDE THE BUILDING
Above the main doorway is a cornet inscribed with the words 'Virtutis Amore', the family motto; which means 'From the love of valour'. There is also a shield supported by a Roman Knight and a Moorish Prince. Above the dining room windows there is a small shield which reads 'WRA'; presumably standing for 'William Richard Annesley'. There are a set of 3 steps made from one block of stone at the front of the Castle, these were used to mount horses and carriages. There was also formerly a conservatory to the side of the castle, also designed by William Burn. It has since been demolished and is now a small garden hemmed by short granite walls.
INSIDE THE BUILDING
The Castle is entered by large, heavy, wooden doors on the east side. These lead to a small entrance hall with a large fireplace on the south wall. This room would have been were visitors were greeted and announced. The cellars, through a door to the left upon entering the Castle, were cold and bare and would have been used to store food, wine and possibly small amounts of gunpowder and ammunition. These cellars have since been renovated and now play host to an ice-cream parlour and gift shop on one side, appropriately named 'The Cellars', and a games room on the other side.
The large 3m wide staircase at the entrance leads to a large foyer where doors to the ballroom, library and dining rooms are seen. Attention should be paid to the exquisite detail in the woodwork and ceilings. This room was originally used to entertain guests before dinner or similar occasions.
The library has a large fireplace similar to that of the foyer, but with much more lavish carvings and a huge arched mirror above it. The wall to the fireplace has a set of folding doors that lead through to the ballroom. This room can also be entered from the foyer and has a large marble fireplace and a circular bay in one corner where the orchestra would have been staged during a ball.
The dining room is also accessible from the library [which is now a dining room itself] through a secret door designed to look like full bookshelves. All three of the large rooms at the front of the Castle have amazing views of the lake and Mournes. There is a door from the foyer, opposite the library, that leads down to the kitchen area and the servant's quarters, which have now been refurbished to create a further conference room and 5 more bedrooms with en-suites.
The final door off of the foyer [opposite the ballroom] leads to a wooden staircase that was rebuilt after being destroyed in an explosion by a terrorist group in 1973. This staircase leads up to the main bedroom areas, and down to what is now a coffee lounge and further conference room. This conference room, now referred to as the 'Downstairs lounge' was originally the Billiard room.
CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE CENTRE
In the summer of 1974 Rev. John Rosser of Cloverly Hall Ltd (now Centre Ministries) signed a 50 year lease for the Castle from the Department of Agriculture. It was about this time that renovations started.
There were several outbreaks of dry rot and general dilapidations from the building being empty for ten years, as well as the destroyed staircase needing replaced. Various Christian firms helped by giving professional services free or by quoting competitively for aspects of the work, as well as a considerable amount of voluntary help. About £170,000 was spend on the initial renovations and some grant aid was received from the Tourist Board and Historic Buildings Council. Many Christians from the province supported the venture financially in the initial stages.
Amongst those who helped were two families, Stuart and Ellsye Rowell and Dave and Helena Stevens. Both of these couples moved into caravans on the site in 1974 from where they carried out the early major renovations, working in a largely derelict building. Dave and Helena stayed until 1977 when they moved to Peru for mission work. Stuart and Ellsye stayed until 1979. The official opening was not until June 1976, although the first group to stay in the Castle stayed in August 1975.
Mrs. Netta Halyburton took over as manageress in January 1980 and continued in this role until March 1994 when the position was filled by Andrew & Lorna Forson.
Over the last number of years Andrew and Lorna have overseen the development of the remaining derelict areas of the Castle, the courtyard and cellars; with some 50 bed spaces being added to the centre's capacity along with a new conference lounge and ice-cream parlour. In 2011 a new bio-diverse wood-chip heating system was installed for maximum comfort, followed by a general refurbishment of corridors and bedrooms.
The Castle continues to be an invaluable resource for churches and youth groups from throughout the province and beyond.