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16 October 2014
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Castledawson Open Farm

Josie McMullen is not a person who likes to be idle. On her retirement from nursing she set up an open farm, where you can now see everything from chipmunks to emus.

Thatched cottage at Castledawson Open Farm

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After forty years of nursing and raising six children, the average individual would probably choose to retire and take a well-earned rest. But not Josie McMullen. Instead she and her late husband Jim decided to make a shared dream a reality by opening a small farm dedicated to rare and unusual animals, presided over by a beautiful thatched cottage housing the couple’s impressive collection of artefacts from a bygone era.

Josie McMullen at the front door of the thatched cottage
Josie McMullen
Always ready with a warm welcome!

Castledawson Open Farm, established 11 years ago, is a treasure trove of weird and wonderful things, a haven to the curious imaginations of old and young alike. Josie herself remains the most interesting attraction. In her seventies, she runs the farm on her own with the help of friends and family, welcoming to any passer-by and humble and modest in her achievements. The farm is situated on the Leitrim road near Castledawson and can be tricky to find, especially after an enthusiastic gust of wind took the original sign hostage. But on arrival it’s well worth the effort and the two pounds admission fee, especially if you indulge yourself afterwards with a cup of tea and a slice of boiled cake or two.

The thatched cottage was a simple animal dwelling before they transformed it into its current splendour. This was achieved using money from the Peace and Reconciliation fund, the rare skills of a thatcher, and their own sheer hard work and determination. Indeed Josie was often to be found painting the walls beyond midnight, but only after the animal feeding and the many daily chores had been completed. Today, visitors enter the cosy dwelling where the peat crackles in the hearth, leisurely pouring over the antiques and old photographs of a long lost period in time. There’s the wooden cradle in the bedroom, the traditional cooking implements hanging from the ceiling and the gramophone that sadly sits in silence, lame in its need for replacement needles.
The cottage is both a venue and a haven for many. Local businessmen drop in on occasion to escape the stresses of work and clear the head, and local children choose it as the ideal place to have a birthday party. Once a year, Josie hosts an open day in aid of various charities, bringing together local musicians playing traditional music, vendors selling cakes and jam, and other worthy talent in a bid to entertain the masses.

The animals on view include the chinchillas, the miniature Shetland ponies, the peacock, the emus, the rare breeds of pigs including the Indian Dwarves and the Belty sow , the Pigmy goat named Skipper, the chipmunks, the Guinea fowls and the Clocking hen to name but a few. A star attraction must be Vickie the fox who was brought to Josie as an injured cub eleven years ago and has been a family pet ever since. Aside from the animals, the garden boasts an operational well, various water pumps and a stunning hand-painted Romany caravan, purchased in County Down and brought back to its original state by family and friends.

Indian dwarf pig
Who are you staring at then?
Indian dwarf pig.

Castledawson Open farm is a unique place to visit and the average visitor cannot fail to find something to stir the curiosity. Open from March to September, time is running out to see it before the gate is finally shut for the year of 2004. So go see Josie and her farm and never again complain that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it. If Josie can run this unique farm on her own, there’s not much excuse for the rest of us!

Click here to open a popup window with a gallery of images from the Open Farm

Josie on the radio

Your Place & Mine reporter John Gregg popped in to see Josie in August 2004 and she took him a tour of the farm. Click on the pictures or text below to eavesdrop on some of their chat.

Sign for Castledawson Open Farm Belty sow

Romany caravan

Vicky the fox Side view of cottage
  Josie's reasons for setting up the open farm.
  John Gregg gets a tour of the farm. Here's a sleepy head!
  A Romany caravan is one of the main attractions.
  One of Josie's favourite animals is Vicky the fox.
  It's a job which involves being out in all seasons.

How to get there

Directions: from Belfast drive to the end of the M2 motorway and take the bypass round Toomebridge. Go past the Elk Inn (on left) and opposite the T-junction cafe is the Deerpark Road on your right. Turn into Deerpark Road and then the second road on your left is the Leitrim Road. Fourth lane on the left is the open farm. (The farm is one mile north of Castledawson.)

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