By Lisa Johnston, Tour Guide, Belfast City Sightseeing
Belfast Castle nestles in the slopes of Cavehill which dominates the skyline of north Belfast. It is situated about 400 feet above sea level with incredible views Belfast Lough.
It is one of the most imposing buildings in the city with scores of visitors flocking there to enjoy afternoon tea in the Castle Tavern or to enjoy a stroll around the beautiful, landscaped gardens.
The Castle dates back to 1870 and is said to have cost much more than its original estimate of £11,000. It was commissioned by the 3rd Marquis of Donegall after he remarried in 1862.
However, as the Donegall fortune dwindled quite rapidly the Castle was in danger of being left unfinished until the Marquis’s son-in-law, Lord Ashley, the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury, stepped in and paid for it to be completed. When the Marquis died in 1884 the Estate passed to the Earl.
The sandstone building was constructed in the Deerpark in the style of a German-Scottish Baronial castle. It was ostensibly designed by Charles Lanyon who designed many of the buildings in Victorian Belfast but is generally regarded to be the work of his younger partner W H Lynn who modelled it on Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
The word ‘Victorian’ is often applied to all buildings constructed during Queen Victoria’s long reign. But, in fact, there isn’t a single architectural style throughout those 63 years and buildings can generally be classified as being of the Low Victorian Era (1837-1867) or the High Victorian Era (1867-1900).
Belfast Castle falls into the High Victorian Era as building work began in 1867 with it finally being completed in 1870. The great square tower, which closely resembles that at Balmoral, rises a full six storeys. The entrance façade faces the steep slope of the hillside and has a porch with decorative Doric columns.
In 1894 the principal rooms were connected with the terrace below by an Italian style serpentine outside staircase the architect of which is unknown. The staircase was a gift from the 9th Earl of Shaftesbury to his mother. The Donegall coat of arms appears over the Castle’s front door and on the north wall of the building and the Shaftesbury crest appears on the outside serpentine staircase.
The Castle was presented to the City of Belfast in 1934 by the 9th Earl of Shaftesbury who, unlike most of his ancestors, had spent the earlier part of his life in residence there and had become Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1907. From the end of the Second World War until the Seventies the Castle was a popular venue for wedding receptions, dances and afternoon teas.
In 1978 the Castle was closed and Belfast City Council began a ten-year restoration programme that cost £2 million. It reopened in 1988 and is used today for functions, conferences and weddings. The Cellars of the Castle have a Victorian atmosphere with narrow, paved ‘streets’, shop fronts and gas lights.
There is also a Visitor Centre and Cellar Antique Shop, the Cellar Restaurant and the Castle Tavern.
Belfast Castle has always had a special place in my heart as my Mum and Dad held their wedding reception there back in the late Fifties. And I still treasure the old black and white photograph of them sitting down to their Wedding Breakfast in the very grand surroundings of the Castle’s function room!