Culzean Country Park is operated by the National Trust for Scotland and comprises over 600 acres of woodland and formal gardens, as well as three miles of coastline. At its heart is Culzean Castle, one of the finest buildings in Scotland.
Culzean Castle and Country Park together comprise one of the country's most popular visitor, and one of the most rewarding and varied. You can choose to tour the castle and visit the country park, or just visit the country park for a lower entrance fee (see panel, right). In our view it is well worth the additional cost to tour the castle: you can have a great day out in the country park without doing so, but will inevitably leave with the sense of having missed something worthwhile.
Culzean was designated as Scotland's first country park in 1969. Its origins date back to the development of Culzean Castle by David Kennedy and the architect Robert Adam in the years from 1776. Their aim for the surrounding landscape was to create a picturesque and dramatic setting for the castle: and without a shadow of a doubt, they succeeded.
Today's visitor has a choice of parking areas. One gives direct access to the castle and the centre of the park, while another, a little to the north-east, is close to the visitor centre in the castle's restored home farm. Further parking areas to the south-west give access to the walled gardens and the the area around the swan pond and pagoda.
The most dramatic first sight of Culzean Castle is from the central car park, near the estate's deer park. From here a purpose-designed "ruined arch" intended to remind visitors of the Kennedy's ancient lineage, frames an eastern view of the castle itself, and leads to a path over a viaduct of six arches. This takes you at an elevated level past the formal gardens, giving superb views of the castle en route. The viaduct concludes with a further arch, which frames a view of the castle's north-west end and gives access to the clock tower courtyard.
The clock tower courtyard is perhaps the focal point of the entire estate. At one end is the main door to Culzean Castle itself. At the other is a wall complete with gateway which leads to the clock tower. This in turn forms an arch through which you can pass to the old stables and beyond. The courtyard itself is extensively grassed, and is home to three large mortars: cannons designed to lob large projectiles high into the air to drop on the heads of anyone attacking the castle.
The seaward side of the courtyard offers superb views across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran. You approach the wall here with some trepidation, for the parapet is low and you are very aware that the castle is close to cliffs that drop 150ft into the sea. What you find comes as something of a surprise. Beyond the courtyard wall is a lower level walkway designed to allow servants to pass backwards and forwards to the castle without coming into sight of guests arriving in the clock tower courtyard.
Passing under the clock tower brings you to the castle shop and, beyond it, to the cafe in the old stables. From here paths take you above the shoreline to the castle's home farm, also designed by Robert Adam, and beautifully restored by the National Trust for Scotland in the early 1970s. En route it is easy to overlook a path that leads down to the shore immediately to the north of the castle. Here you find the gasworks that once produced the gas to light and heat the castle from coal brought in by boat; and access to an attractive and sheltered bay.
As you approach the visitor centre from the castle you pass the estate's second-hand book shop on your right, in a converted estate house. The castle's home farm comprised a large courtyard accessed through archways at each corner. On each side of the courtyard stood single storey buildings with, a little back from each side, a two storey building turned end-on to the courtyard. Today, one side of the courtyard is home to the visitor centre, while on a second is Culzean's main restaurant. Close by is the large car park referred to above.
The castle and visitor centre are close enough together to jointly form a pleasant and fascinating walk, especially if you also include the formal gardens and orangery that lie immediately to the south-east of the castle itself, and the west green battery and boat-house that lie beyond the (private) west wing of the castle. But other points of interest on the estate are a little further away and many visitors will find that they make use of the parking areas close to each.
The walled gardens were first laid out between 1775 and 1786 and, like everything else at Culzean, were built on a "no expense spared" basis. The purpose of the gardens were twofold: to provide food for the castle and estate from the kitchen garden, and to provide a pleasure garden for guests, in which exotic plants that could be grown because of the internal heating of the spine wall against which a number of greenhouses were built. Today one of these greenhouses is home to the vinery.
Some distance further south-west again (and it is about now that you begin to appreciate just how large Culzean Country Park actually is) you find the swan pond. This is a classic scenic lake of the sort found on many great estates. At Culzean it lies close to the aviary, still used to house exotic birds (though leaving you wondering whether they might not be better off in a rain forest somewhere) and a superb ice cream and tea shop. Overlooking the swan pond is the pagoda. Along with the camelia house, near the walled gardens, this is perhaps the largest of some 40 assorted buildings and follies scattered across the estate to add interest and amusement for the Earls of Cassilis and their guests: and, today, for the rest of us too.