The Castle is a place of tranquillity and escape surrounded by the beautiful and extensive Castlewellan Forest Park. The grounds provide a safe haven for all, with the opportunity to relax and enjoy the breath-taking Mourne scenery.
The potential of the Castle…
…as a site for a Christian Conference Centre was first brought to the attention of Rev. John Rosser. the Director of Cloverley Hall Ltd, at a time when he was in Ireland running a programme of young people’s evangelism. He recalls “One of the teams we operated was a beach mission based at Kilkeel and Cranfield and in 1973 I was being driven from the airport by two team members who were taking me to Cranfield where I was due to speak. On the way they told me of a building that would make an ideal conference centre at Castlewellan and later that night, as darkness fell, I was shown the Castle. One of the team members knew a Forest Ranger who took us round by torchlight.
“The potential was immediately apparent and negotiations with the owners, The Forestry Division of the Department of Agriculture, continued over the next year. A lease was signed in the summer of 1974 and, at about that time, we started renovations.
“Part of the building had been damaged by an explosion. All of the area around the main staircase had been destroyed. There were several outbreaks of dry rot and the general dilapidations that had resulted from the property being empty for ten years and not used to the full for some time prior to that. There was a considerable amount of voluntary help especially in the early stages. Various Christian firms helped by giving professional services free or by quoting competitively for aspects of the work. About £170,000 was spent in the initial period and some grant aid was received from the Tourist Board and the Historic Buildings Council. Many Christians from the Province supported the venture financially in the initial stages.”
Those of us who know and love Castlewellan Castle, thank God for his vision and dedication and thank him for providing a haven for the Christian people of Northern Ireland.
That then was the start of the dream. A dream that is now very much a reality; A dream that might not have been so had it not been for the vision, dedication and practical help from so many men and women who so willingly and freely gave of their time and talents.
Among those who helped so much to get the venture off the ground were two families, Stuart and Ellsye Rowell and Dave and Helena Stevens. Each couple moved into a caravan on the site in 1974 from where they carried out the early major renovations. Working in a largely derelict building with the windows all boarded up, they used up paint by the gallon, sandpaper by the ream and elbow grease by the bucketful! Muscles ached in places where they did not even know they existed! Dave and Helena stayed until 1977 when they went to Peru on missionary service. Stuart and Ellsye stayed to welcome many of the first guests and remained in charge until December 1979. Although the official opening was not until June 1976 the first group came to stay in August 1975.
Mrs Netta Halyburton, who was the manageress until 1994, came originally from Cambuslang in Scotland, and joined the rest of the staff in January 1980. Netta was a women of many talents, and had a huge impact upon guests and staff during her faithful tenure.
The current management team of Andrew & Lorna Forson have been in place since 1994. They work mainly in the background, along with their team of full and part-time staff, seeking to ensure guests are comfortable, well fed and enjoy ‘Space to Grow’.
If you were to ask Winston, who has been there since 1981, what his job was then, he might reply ‘grass cutter, wood chopper, bed mender, painter, decorator, carpenter, dish washer and so on’ depending on the time of day you enquired. If you asked him, now, it would probably be exactly the same … a general factotum!
It has been a blessing for the Castle staff to observe the impact God has made on so many people over the years. Many have accepted God’s offer of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Others have been strengthened in their faith and some have felt called to serve in Christian ministry throughout the world.
(Richard Wallace’s ‘History of Castlewellan Castle’ is available to purchase in the Castle Gift Shop.)