Accessible Tourism Review: Hillsborough Castle

Hillsborough Castle is the official royal residence for Northern Ireland, as well as the official home for the Secretary of State, which was taken over by Historic Royal Palaces in 2014, and is now open for the public to visit.

It has a fascinating history, which stretches right back to the 17th Century — but it also has the legacy of being the place where negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement were conducted in 1998, and it has played a really important role in the Peace Process.

Despite living all my life in Northern Ireland, I only visited Hillsborough Castle for the first time in August, when I visited it along with my mother, my Canadian cousin, Vicky, as well as my carers.

In this blog, I’m going to review Hillsborough Castle and its gardens, while also describing how accessible it is.

Luckily, we went up on a really lovely day, when the sun was out but there was also a good bit of cloud cover. This gave us a mix of slightly cooler and warm weather, but because Hillsborough is in a really hilly part of Northern Ireland (hence the name), and I was there in my manual wheelchair, as we didn’t know how accessible it would be for me to go in my electric wheelchair, none of us were exactly confident about how we would get to the main part of the castle, for the start of the tour.

But luckily, we didn’t spend too much time wondering about how long it would take us to get round to the other part, however, cuz one of the staff members, Gary, approached us and asked if we needed any help getting to the building. Unsure about what he meant, we asked him more about what he was offering, and pointed out how I can’t get out of my wheelchair when it became clear that he was offering us transport to the other side. But it turned out that there is a fully converted mobility van on the grounds of Hillsborough Castle, which is there to transport disabled people and anyone with them over to. So we all got transported over (my medical supplies which we bring around in the trolly were brought over after).

The van had a ramp at the end which got me into the part where my wheelchair would be clamped down, and there were spaces beyond that, where mostly everyone else sat. The last place in the van was the driver’s seat — where Gary sat to bring us over — but where other people could sit as well, if you have any other people with you.

So I did feel like that was a good feature, but as someone who also has an interest in accessible technology, I was slightly uncomfortable with there being no seats beside me, which is something that I am just not used to with my own mobility van. Luckily, my ventilator didn’t pop off at all while we were in the van, and we did have someone skinny with us who would be able to jump round to put it back on if something were to happen, but it’s just something to be aware of if you have someone with you with very serious disabilities.

Moving on to the house tour, however, it was very interesting learning about all the families who have owned it throughout the centuries, and about the history that has taken place on the grounds. I enjoyed hearing about the Hills and the Magennises (as well as who their descendants are), but also finding out more about when the American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, was hosted at Hillsborough by Wills Hill, as well as its more recent history.

But by far, as a very big fan of Georgian history, my most favourite part of the tour was everything that touched on the Georgians, and admiring the historic art and painting that was around the place.

After the tour, we went out and looked round the gardens, where organic fruit and veg has been grown — following orders from King Charles III, including when he was Prince of Wales — and it is this fruit and veg which is also served alongside the food served in the canteen.

Even the canteen was accessible — with a 4, 6 and 8 setup, which means you only have to take one chair away to fit in a person in a wheelchair. This also makes it useful for parents who are out with children in prams and buggies, or who will also need to set up high chairs.

The food was very nicely served, with each of the salads adding a nice flavour as well, and service was quick.

Something else I was pleased with, however, was the layout of the shop, which had breakable products placed somewhere safe, while nonbreakable objects were placed in front.

So overall, I am impressed with how accessible Hillsborough Castle is, and it really surprised me, because a lot of castles we have been to before haven’t been the best for accessibility. It’s good that they have carer tickets — even if it would be good if these could actually cover two carers — and I also like how staff undergo autism training, so autistic people will also be able to enjoy a trip up to the castle as well. But by far, some of their best features are a van being available for wheelchair dependent visitors, as well as their Changing Places facilities, which I think helps it look more friendly for disabled people.

A full list of the accessibility features at Hillsborough Castle include:

  • A carer ticket for one carer to attend free of charge
  • Pre-Visit guides. sensory bags and games are given to help aid in engagement with castle environment
  • Trained Assistance dogs welcome (including medical alert dogs)
  • Changing Places facilities (requires a radar key to use)
  • Van up to the castle for wheelchair dependent visitors and their carers

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