Tucked into rolling County Down countryside, the newly appointed Royal Hillsborough offers a stunning 18th-century stately home, regal gardens, a Georgian village and serene forest park.
The castle (more an absurdly grand townhouse) – built by Will Hill, the first Marquis of Downshire – is now the official residence of the Queen and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Dignities are lavishly entertained in the State Rooms, including the Queen who visited in her Coronation year and has returned many times since.
Historic Royal Palaces, caring for six of our royal properties, are returning the castle to the 1950s in June 2022, celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with a vintage garden party. Join a special Jubilee tour or visit the extensive gardens and state rooms independently (prebooked) before finishing with a ramble through Hillsborough Forest.
3 miles (4.8km) | 2 hours | easy
1. Way of St Malachy
At the bottom of Main Street (beside the Public Car Park), you’ll find the grand entrance of St Malachy’s Parish Church flanked by two stone lodges. Follow the long tree-lined avenue up to the church restored by the first Marquis of Downshire, then continue up Main Street past handsome Georgian terrace townhouses of arched doorways and courtyards with enticing coffee shops, inns and delicatessens.
2. Pinetum, garden and meadow
Turn right into The Square at the top of the street to enter the castle. Having viewed the State Rooms – Throne Room, State Drawing Room and State Dining Room, go outside and take the path through the Hidden Pinetum to follow the east bank of the lake. Continue through the Gasworks Field to the Hydro House, reaching the Walled Garden via the Coronation Meadow.
3. Pond loop
Continue west and south of Lady Alice’s Pond, then loops round the Lost Garden with its exotic planting now under restoration. The path joins Yew Tree Walk to the Granville Garden with its perfumed roses.
4. High trees
Back on Main Street, turn right and head up Dark Lane on the opposite side of the road to the artillery fort, remodelled in the 18th century for lavish entertainment. Continue into Hillsborough Forest (if you still have energy, you can circle the lake). Otherwise, head for the dam head where you can enjoy the cast of resident and overwintering waterfowl: swans, greylag geese, coots, moorhens, little grebes, cormorants; in winter teals and widgeons. Soaring ornamental trees include western hemlocks, Douglas firs, Italian cedars, and Californian redwoods.
5. Back to the church
Continue straight on, dropping down through the forest. Take the second left and follow the boundary wall to a gate leading out onto Ballynahinch Road. Turn left to return to Main Street and the end of a glorious ramble filled with regal history and natural beauty.
Please note the house is closed between October and March and pedestrian access to the gardens may be from Moira Road. More information found at hrp.org.uk/hillsborough-castle
Helen is the author of Slow Travel The Peak District, Bradt and A Time of Birds, Saraband, a memoir and travelogue describing her journey across Europe to Istanbul on her sit-up-and-beg bike.