The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) maintains the Register of Parks, Gardens and Demesnes of Special Historic Interest, which is available online, and has information on more than 150 of an estimated 300 important designed landscapes in Northern Ireland.
In addition, the NIEA holds the Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Archive, a comprehensive record of over 700 historic parks, gardens and demesnes, compiled by the Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Committee.
The character and appearance of the modern landscape of Northern Ireland owes much to ornamental parks and gardens associated with its houses, institutions and public parks.
Many are distinguished by their carefully composed designs of trees, meadow and water, perhaps as a setting for a building. Some boast a valuable collection of trees, shrubs or plants. Others may provide a significant historic record, either of a particular era or showing how the design has changed over the centuries.
Aside from their contribution to the quality and character of our local landscape, those that are open to the public provide an important recreational resource.
However, it is a fragile heritage, for unlike other works of art, these gardens and designed landscapes are living, growing and evolving. As such they need careful management. The NIEA considers it important, therefore, that these valuable features of the built heritage are protected from development which could harm their historic character.
In Northern Ireland, none of the criteria used are considered as mutually exclusive categories. For sites to be included in the Register of Parks, Gardens and Demesnes of Special Historic Interest, they would be expected to score well against the following criteria:
- Integrity of the site’s design.
- The historic interest and importance of the site, including age and associations.
- The horticultural/arboricultural interest and importance of the site.
- The nature conservation/scientific interest of the site.
- The aesthetic and scenic quality and importance of the site.
- The site’s contribution to local landscape character.
- The surviving condition of the site today.
- The high recreational or educational potential of the site.
Most of Ulster’s historic gardens and designed landscapes form part of ‘demesnes’ – the parts of a manorial estate not leased to tenants, but retained by the lords for their own use. Demesnes have been a dominant feature of the Irish landscape since medieval times and once occupied over five per cent of the country.
By the early 17th century, gardens with formal layouts were developing beside manors. From 1660, gardens became larger, with tree-lined avenues, canals, parterres and bosquets. There are few extant examples that belong to this category, though there are parts of subsequently altered sites which still have formal elements, such as Antrim Castle.
By the mid-18th century formal layouts made way for the ‘natural’ style of the landscape park, such as Florence Court and Castle Coole. In the Regency and early Victorian era landscapes became even wilder, while flower gardens reappeared close to the house, as at Narrow Water Castle.
In the late 19th century, the great influx of seeds and plants from abroad led to the popularity of specialist tree and shrub collections. There were formal parterres filled with vast numbers of new annuals and tender plants raised in heated glasshouses at places such as Barons Court.
From the 1880s the concept of the naturalised ‘wild’ garden took hold, advocated by the Irish horticulturist William Robinson. His philosophy led to the creation of bog gardens, rhododendron and woodland gardens, mixed borders and the massing of bulbs, typified by gardens such as as Tempo Manor.
While no additional statutory controls follow on from inclusion of a site in the register, the effect of proposed development on a park, garden or demesne or its setting included in the register is considered in planning and/or listed building consent applications and appeals.
The NIEA does not normally permit development which would lead to the loss of, or cause harm to, the character, principal components or setting of parks, gardens and demesnes of special historic interest. Where planning permission is granted this will normally be conditional on the recording of any features of interest that will be lost before development commences. In assessing proposals for development in or adjacent to parks, gardens and demesnes of special historic interest, particular attention is paid to the impact of the proposal on:
- The archaeological, historical or botanical interest of the site.
- The site’s original design concept, overall quality and setting.
- Trees and woodland and the site’s contribution to local landscape character.
- Any buildings or features of character within the site including boundary walls, pathways, garden terraces or water features.
- Planned historic views of or from the site or buildings within it.
In assessing proposals which would affect those parks, gardens and demesnes which retain only some elements of their original form - for example, those supplementary sites identified as an appendix to the proposed register - the NIEA considers the need to retain distinctive elements of such sites as features within the changing landscape.
Where a decision is taken to permit development which would result in the loss of any distinctive features of parks, gardens and demesnes, the NIEA will normally require developers to carry out recording, working to a brief prepared by the NIEA, so that knowledge of this part of landscape heritage is not entirely lost.
Parks and gardens thought to be of national importance are included on the Cadw/ICOMOS Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales.
English Heritage compiles the Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England. It currently includes some 1,600 designed landscapes of many different types.