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Hillsborough Castle & Gardens brings imagination to life with innovative new play trail

The grounds of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens have come alive with the sounds of tweeting, burrowing, buzzing and fluttering as the royal residence’s new extensive and interactive play trail officially opens.

Funded by Tourism NI and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Imaginary Menagerie uncovers the stories of the animals and birds that have lived at the Castle in centuries gone by alongside the wildlife that continues to make Hillsborough their home, all through the power of play.

The trail officially opens on Saturday 26th June with Imaginary Menagerie Alive!, a weekend full of falconry, arts and crafts, live music* and picnicking on the South Terrace garden. The team at Hillsborough Castle are encouraging families to visit, delve into nature and immerse themselves in all the senses the new attraction brings.

Laura McCorry, Head of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens explained Imaginary Menagerie is the first of an exciting schedule of events the historic residence will play host to throughout the summer, as part of its efforts to recover from the devastating impact the pandemic has had on visitor attractions.

After re-opening following a £24m restoration project, the castle was closed for much of 2020.

“It has been a challenging year”, says McCorry, “but we’re focused on our recovery and new plans for visitors now. One thing the pandemic has shown us is the value of being outside and in nature – and we have that in abundance at Hillsborough.”

“The grounds bring so much history and heritage to life, so we are grateful to have received funding from Tourism NI and The Heritage Lottery Fund to create Imaginary Menagerie. The interactive, engaging and fun activities will give children – both big and small – a greater understanding of the wildlife, pets and animals that have graced the gardens and lakes of the Castle, while enjoying various elements of physical adventure and exploring play.”

Imaginary Menagerie is split into two trails, Kingfisher (around the lake) and Robin (around the gardens), each providing opportunities for adventure, hands-on play and a wonderful day out.

Shan McAnena, Public Engagement Manager at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens added:

“The Kingfisher Trail takes the visitors around the lake where they can enjoy a barefoot walk, get muddy, explore our sensory table and even take in some bird watching in the custom-built bird hide. They can also say hello to Hillsborough’s local rare breed cows and listen for the buzz of our honeybees in our three hives.

“The Robin Trail encourages our visitors to stray off the beaten track to find the giant birds nest, test their knowledge of the sounds of nature in our ‘talking tubes’ and explore the Crannog hideaway.”

The Robin Trail also includes a custom made, 17 ft. bird cage which has been created with local blacksmith, Ballinliss Forge in Newry. The birdcage is in honour of the menagerie of exotic birds Wills Hill dreamed of when he built the Castle in the mid-1700s, after which Imaginary Menagerie is named.

Included in the bespoke pieces of art for the trails is local artist Kevin Killen’s Shoal of Fish, a sculpture which commemorates former Governor of Northern Ireland Lord Erskine’s passion for his pet tropical fish and can be seen leaping from the lake on the Kingfisher Trail.

As part of Imaginary Menagerie, a special weekend of Round Robin games will be available for visitors to enjoy on the 10th and 11th July, with further events to follow throughout the Summer.

Laura McCorry finished: “Our schedule for the summer has been created with the staycation in mind, and there really is something for every member of the family - whether we’re on your doorstep or you’re coming from further afield. We’re delighted to be able to offer a safe environment to enable visitors to maintain their connection with nature, which many have treasured over these past months.”

Imaginary Menagerie opens Saturday 26th June with a special weekend of live games and is available to visit daily thereafter. Booking is available via


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