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Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews

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Sunday Herald Magazine (April 2006)

Grand Designs by Jennie Macfie

Lush Woodlands and beautiful rhododendrons make an impressive statement at Glenapp Castle.

I thought it was just in the Highlands that winter was slow to release it's grip this year but a recent trip through Dumfries and Galloway consoled me that spring was running a good month later there as well. Graham and Fay Cowan, who live in and run Glenapp Castle, had kindly invited me to spend a night.

The castle’s 30 acres of lush woodland frame sea views where Ailsa Craig looms and, on clear days, the Mull of Kintyre sits on the horizon.

The castle was once home to the Earl of Inchcape, who evidently liked to keep and eye on his P&O ferries as they shuttled between Stranraer and Ireland. Everything about Glenapp is impressive, particularly the fact that 10 years ago the Cowans rescued the castle and gardens from a state of total neglect and, in five years, turned it into Scotland’s Hotel of the Year.

The gardens were originally planted during the great age of the plant hunters; some of the rhododendrons which were just coming into bloom are so rare they are the only recorded specimens in the UK.

I know it’s a bit heretical, but I have never been a huge fan of the genus rhododendrons, thanks to the diabolical R ponticum which rampages around these isles creating swathes of no-go areas for our native wildlife. These specimens, however, were so astonishingly beautiful that I experienced a sudden Damascene conversion. Vibrant reds, imperial purples, delicate pinks and pure white blooms, all with an extraordinary variety of leaf shapes - how could I have resisted them for so long? Here they were, beautifully laid out on the gently rising slopes, with plenty of space, interspersed with trees (some equally rare), neatly kept grassy paths and flower beds, so everywhere there was freshness and life.

As well as tending the extensive policies, head gardener Bobby Cunningham, with only two assistants, supplies the hotel kitchens from the walled gardens housing herbaceous borders, lawns, large herb beds and an extensive fruit cage. I made a beeline for restored greenhouses which run for 150 feet along one wall, housing traditional peaches, nectarines, grapevines and orange trees, as well as an exotic tomarillo vine festooned with dark red fruits even at this time of year.

Arrays of vegetable seedlings were waiting to be planted out in the polytunnels beyond the walls. Every spare inch was filled with houseplants for the castle, many grown from seed. Degrees in horticulture not withstanding, great gardeners are born, not made and I could have listened to Bobby talk for hours.

Graham Cowan told me, with understandable pride, that nearly all the produce used there s sourced wither from the gardens or from local farmers and growers, which is why Glenapp’s food has that extra dimension of taste.

To get that quality, you simply have to grow it yourself as a labour of love. So, get sowing.

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Glenapp Castle Hotel, Ballantrae, Ayrshire, Scotland KA26 0NZ
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