Glenarm gone to the wall

Tulips, geraniums, and spires of salvia line this inviting Victorian walled garden, maintained by two brothers in the Glens of…

Tulips, geraniums, and spires of salvia line this inviting Victorian walled garden, maintained by two brothers in the Glens of Antrim, writes JANE POWERS

THE ROAD FROM Larne to Glenarm in Co Antrim skirts along the coast, with the sea splashing on one side and harebell-spotted lime and basalt cliffs rising on the other. It is rocky and looks rudimentary, but it is a famous piece of civil engineering, designed by Scottish-born William Bald, and constructed between 1832 and 1842. For the first time, it opened up a relatively easy route to the Glens of Antrim from the rest of the island. Before the road was built (which involved much blasting away of cliffs), the most convenient place for trade from this part of Ulster was across the sea in Scotland.

Today, the winding and narrow way, with its seagulls wheeling overhead, offers a picturesque and wild contrast to the order that prevails inside the demesne of Glenarm Castle, the seat of the Earls of Antrim. This is a model estate, nestling in the long valley that rolls into the sea. Between its forested sides, the oak-planted green fields are grazed by sheep and a pedigree herd of old English shorthorn cattle.

The castle’s 19th-century walled garden – all verdant, manicured and productive – is a marvel of man’s control over his surroundings. In its Victorian heyday, it was staffed by 15 or 20 gardeners.


Now, at the start of the 21st century, it is looked after mostly by a pair of hard working brothers, Billy and James Wharry. The 1.6-hectare enclosure is a highly organised area, divided again and again into “garden rooms” by beech and yew hedging, the oldest dating back to the middle of the 19th century. The newer parts of the garden are just a few years old, and some work is still in progress.

Current owner Randal McDonnell, Viscount Dunluce, took over the property in the 1990s. A few years later he set about putting manners on the garden. He embarked on a programme of redesigning and replanting, always with the aim of creating structure with plenty of pleasing axes and vistas. The former head gardener at Mount Stewart, Nigel Marshall, acted as consultant for many of the planting schemes.

When you enter the garden through the tearooms – via a kitchen garden with a neat and fecund vegetable plot, and a cartoonishly bright dahlia border – it is difficult to decide which way to walk. To the right, a 100m (or more) stretch of lean-to glasshouses, edged with a bobbing and dancing fringe of purple catmint, beckons.

But to the left, the eye is drawn by a wide border of hot-coloured flowers: bright red and orange Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Citronella’, jelly-coloured daylilies and potentilla, and dozens of other fiery specimens. When the border turns the corner it metamorphoses into a mixed planting of herbaceous stuff and shrubs, with hydrangeas out in their full, mop-heaped force.

The baroquely-ornate foliage of peonies endures as a reminder of their May and June loveliness (and earlier in the year, hundreds of tulips have made a screamingly colourful blaze in these borders).

But perhaps the most inviting path to choose, as you stand under the jasmine-swagged arch at the garden entrance, is straight ahead – where a classic English double herbaceous border waves in welcome. It is a sugary confection of pink and mauve and blue: with mounds of hardy geraniums and phlox, spires of salvia and stachys, and the dingle-dangle bells of Dierama – aptly known by the common name of angel’s fishing rods. In traditional style, the twin borders are flanked by a pair of yew hedges, and at their end, a vast yew circle makes a dark backdrop, punctuated by an opening. Yew is a morose and light-absorbing plant, so when you pass through the aperture into the circle, you half expect to find a mournful sarcophagus. Instead there is a girlish and cottagey herb garden, with orange marigolds, purple agastache, wild strawberries, sunflowers, bay, rosemary and santolina.

The herb garden is one of many delightful surprises at the walled garden at Glenarm. At the newer, west end of the enclosure, there are six distinct areas created by designer Catherine Fitzgerald. Five of them pay tribute to the garden’s previous use as a place to grow food, and feature apples, quince, medlar and pears in various arrangements.

The sixth has a spiral mount which commands a view across the adjacent deer park. Hidden in a beech corridor is a pretty double rill, designed by architect Jill Lambert. It trickles down a gentle slope, the water hopping musically over a mosaic of black and white pebbles. The stones were brought from where we started this article, on the Glenarm coast – and where their collecting is an ancient right of the estate.


Today and tomorrow (August 20th and 21st), Dublin Five Horticultural Society show at Chanel College, Coolock village. Open Saturday 3–6pm and Sunday 2–5pm. Plant sales, raffle, teas.

Admission €2.

Glenarm Castle

The walled garden is open from May until the end of September, and by appointment to groups at other times. Craft Fair next weekend (August 27th–29th), with the castle open on Monday, August 29th (UK bank holiday) for tours. See