For many years, the distinct beauty of Montalto Estate in County Down was only admired by its private owners. However, the decision to open this beauty to the public has proved a roaring success as Chris McCullough discovered.
Dating back to the early 1600s, Montalto Estate - located near Ballynahinch in County Down - has quite an amazing history which is now being enjoyed by the public after the current private owners took the decision to fully open the estate in September 2018.
According to records, the estate went through a few different owners over the years, even being confiscated at one point in pre-plantation times due to its original owner, Patrick McCartan, being involved in the 1641 Rebellion.
Fast forward a few centuries and Montalto Estate is now privately owned by Gordon and June Wilson who purchased it back in 1994 as their family home.
Set in around 400 acres Montalto Estate, home to Montalto House, combines farmland with numerous trails and gardens offering visitors a chance to explore this historic demesne and reconnect with nature.
Montalto Estate was the family home of the Wilsons until 2009 when, with their family grown-up, they decided the time had come to start the next chapter in the estate's ongoing history.
At that point, Montalto was first opened up as a private-hire venue, accommodating weddings, high-end golf groups, and a wide range of social and corporate events.
After witnessing the success opening up Montalto House brought, the owners had a new found confidence to create a larger offering. The result was The Carriage Rooms, which opened in 2012 as an exclusive and unique wedding venue.
Once this had been established and also became a success, the Wilsons began to formulate plans to transform the estate into a modern visitor attraction that could be enjoyed by everyone.
In opening up the estate to the public, the family wanted to preserve its heritage and natural beauty whilst, at the same time, inspiring and delighting visitors.
The result is a stunning tourist attraction that not only retains the estate's ancient heritage and history but also enables visitors to relax and reconnect with nature.
Since fully opening in September last year, the estate has welcomed over 80,000 people to its gardens, trails and cafe, which is a testament to the hard work put in by everyone involved there.
Ensuring the gardens are looking at their best falls to a team of gardeners headed up by Peter Harris who once worked in the finance industry but preferred to leave the hustle and bustle of office life for the great outdoors.
"I have worked at Montalto Estate for the past six years," said Peter. "I guess I got the taste for gardening after I worked in garden maintenance whilst studying at Queens University for my BSC Management degree."
"After this, I then worked in a number of finance roles, before returning to study horticulture full time as I enjoyed the outdoor work when studying for my degree. Before coming to Montalto I was a self-employed design and build landscaper."
Peter studied horticulture at Greenmount College of Agriculture and Horticulture in Antrim and was inspired by his grandfather to work in gardens.
"My grandfather lost his sight due to a late diagnosis of glaucoma, but was still able to maintain a small rose garden by touch alone. It's not without its risks, but still amazes me to this day."
Peter is in charge of the budgets and purchasing for the gardens and ancillary areas and reports to both the managing director and operations director.
"Montalto is an enchanting estate set in magnificent, natural surroundings, and opened its gates to the public in September 2018," said Peter. "We wanted to let the authenticity of the estate shine through instead of replicating experiences that visitors could find elsewhere."
"We were fortunate that this landscape is so full of heritage and culture and enabled us to do this. This visitor attraction is about letting people experience the true heart of Northern Ireland and offers captivating trails and gardens, a unique eating environment and a distinctive retail element, all of which work in unison to engage the visitor with a product that will both surprise and delight them."
"There are many other features that visitors enjoy, including a lake, boathouse, bespoke fairy tale style Witch's Cottage and an epic children's play area with towering tree-house. This has been designed to encourage exploration and learning through play," he said.
"The most important thing for us is the reaction of visitors when they visit the estate for the first time. We feel that the estate offers many unexpected surprises and the entire visitor journey from our website, signage, car park, buildings, natural play area and trails is of the highest quality."
Peter has eight staff working in the gardens and can outsource work to contractors or specialists when he needs to.
"We use an arboriculture consultant to help with our tree management plan, and tree surgeons to deal with the resultant survey. They climb and we tidy. We also use N and E Ground Maintenance on an annual basis. They attend and alternate the use of a ground breaker and verti-draining on the grass areas."
"We have 400 acres in total here, which is split into 40 acres of gardens, 125 acres of woodland and the remainder is farmland."
"The only real climatic factor that hits us at the estate is high winds when the stormy season comes. We have a high wind policy with guidelines based on met office weather warnings and meetings between the management team."
"After high winds, our team survey the public areas of the estate before opening to ensure there are no safety issues. Should they identify broken branches, for example, this area becomes restricted until the issue is resolved."
"We are a woodland garden, so we also have some issues with shade. Parts of the garden are also enclosed and can suffer from poor airflow as well," he said.
With such a diversity of areas to look after, Peter and his team follow a detailed maintenance plan to keep them ahead and ensure the gardens look at their best in the different seasons.
Peter explained: "We have different areas with different daily, weekly and monthly requirements. As an example, we would aim to have all the grass cut at least once a week, depending on growth and conditions, and strim fence lines and edges once a fortnight. Spot spraying of beds and hard landscaped areas are continual tasks that always have to be done, weather permitting of course."
"We also have daily maintenance routines and safety checks for opening the trails and natural play area," he said.
Peter's staff are all fully trained to handle the variety of job demands at the estate, allowing him some flexibility when anyone is on holiday.
"We like to have staff that can deal with various tasks so there is always cover if people are on annual leave or sick," he said. "As within all walks of life, some people are better at certain tasks than others or have a greater interest in certain fields."
"If people show ownership for an area or activity, I am keen to let them run with it, as long as it benefits the garden and estate. We have areas of the garden that we are developing for the future and are at various stages of development."
"This will hopefully maintain people's interest in the garden and keep them coming back. There are also new trails in development, one of which is due to open later this summer."
Over the past two years, Peter and his team have been pretty much full time focused on getting the gardens ready for the estate opening up to the public.
"We were focused for the past eighteen months to two years on getting the gardens ready for opening to the public," said Peter. "This included ensuring all new paths and trails were safe and having tree surveys carried out."
"There was also work going on establishing large planting schemes, such as the winter garden, to ensure seasonal interest for regular visitors. For us, opening the estate has been our focus and this has resulted in many new projects having been undertaken."
"The majority of this work has been done in-house. A contractor was brought in to build the trails around the gardens, but we have a skilled and passionate gardening team which means we are in the lucky position to be able to manage almost all of the work ourselves," he said.
Ongoing training for the staff is of vital importance to Peter and the Montalto management.
"We have been doing training courses like spraying and use of a telehandler with a local firm BSD training and chainsaw related courses with Arbortec from Ballycastle," said Peter.
"I have discussed the use of apprentices with the managing director and it is definitely something we would consider. There has been a government led trailblazer scheme introduced, but it has not filtered through to Northern Ireland as yet."
"We have an external health and safety officer through Willis Employment Services and there is a first aider on the gardening team, and the front of house team also has a number of first aiders should they be required," said Peter.
Pests and diseases can play havoc with the management of any sports ground and gardens but the team at Montalto try to stay one step ahead of any issues.
Peter said: "We have recently undertaken a biological pest management programme with Kopperts. They supply nematodes and parasitic wasps for the natural control of a range of pests. We use herbicides though to deal with more persistent weeds."
"Rabbits are on the periphery of the estate but have not been an issue for us yet. The ranger will control these if required. The badgers can cause damage when looking for grubs or bulbs."
"Our gardening team are forever on the lookout for the signs of these pests and take appropriate action," he said.
"We also protect, as much as possible, the wild flora on the estate. There are a few ancient woodland indicators on site like pignut. The team have different environmental policies for wildlife, including bats and tree management."
"Those that need to be felled are left, where safe to do so, as living monoliths for natural decomposition by fauna and fungi. Our ranger, Wilson Johnston, has a number of projects in place including encouraging wildlife to reside at the estate," said Peter.
When it comes to choosing the machinery to be used at the estate, Peter and his team discuss the merits of any potential new equipment additions before deciding on exactly what to purchase.
"Obtaining new machinery, for us, as with most businesses, depends on cost and we would look at the requirement for each piece of machinery before deciding on the purchase of it," said Peter.
"When buying machinery, we use a number of local dealers to see which one can give us the best deal. However, we are not dependent or loyal to just one dealer. We aim to get the best product solution for the task we require and, quite often, this means using different manufacturers."
"There is, on some occasions, the necessity to use specialist help with machines we do not have. Digger work can be hired in, and ground breaker or verti-drain as well."
"Our estate supervisor does the daily and weekly maintenance checks, and annually Darren Clarke of DC Tractors maintains the majority of the larger machinery."
"If there was a magic wand and we could wish for any machinery, I think I would definitely ask for more battery powered Husqvarna equipment such as chainsaws and hedgecutters. This would be very useful indeed for us here," said Peter.
And talking about reconnecting with nature, Montalto Estate runs a very successful restaurant on-site which serves up some delicious home cooked and baked food, but also grows edible plants.
Restaurant head chef David Earle can be seen most days picking plants, including elderflower, to use in his dishes and all in the clear view of diners who can see the garden from the comforts of their restaurant chair.