Forty Shades of Green – Irish Gardens in the Springtime, 2

The Argory

The gardens at the Argory stretch down to the River Blackwater which forms the county boundary between Co. Armagh and Co. Tyrone. The gravel and tarmac paths and driveways provide a variety of walks. Before our guided tour of the house we chose the Lime Tree Walk along an avenue of pollarded lime trees underplanted by spring flowers, past the Argory Oak Plantation and returning up the main drive to the house.

There’s a choice of other walks if you have time including a one hour walk to the furthest reaches of the estate which passes the Argory Mosses a peat bog and significant nature reserve where rare plants are growing. A pleasure garden near the house was deemed an essential requisite by eighteenth century country house owners and there are pleasure grounds at The Argory but like the one hour walk I’m saving them for my next visit!

The Blackwater River from The Argory

A two kilometre path developed by the National Trust and The Rivers Agency follows the river bank of the Blackwater. I’m sure there must be a great variety of birds, plants and wildlife on this gentle riverside stroll.

Formal Garden at the Front of the House

Rowallane Garden

Our final visit of the holiday was back in County Down and only about 20 minutes drive from our hotel. After visiting the Argory in the morning we spent the afternoon at Rowallane Garden. There is a house at Rowallane and workmen appeared to working on it, plastering and decorating but it has not been opened to the public. The garden though has been under the stewardship of the National Trust since 1956. The main visitor amenities are centred on a courtyard – shop, refreshments, a potter.

Rowallane – Approach to the Courtyard and The Folly

The garden was created in the mid 1860s by the Reverend John Moore and further developed by his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore from 1903. We picnicked in the shade of the gazebo inside the Walled Garden, smelled the heady herbs here too and I took the longer Farmyard Trail out onto meadows and up a hill to gain a spectacular view of the Mountains of Mourne in the distance.

Rowallane has the remains of Pleasure Grounds, too. There is bandstand which has been restored by the Trust but very sadly recently had all the lead stripped from its roof.

The Walled Garden

The Herb Garden

The Bandstand

Forty Shades of Green – Irish Gardens in the Springtime, 1

If you visit a National Trust House then you are almost certain to visit a beautiful garden as well. This was certainly the case on my recent trip to Northern Ireland. And we had a third garden just thrown in for good measure! I’m no gardener nor connoisseur of plants or trees but I do enjoy the peace and relaxed atmosphere of gardens. I’m also fascinated by the other features of gardens – follies and lakes and water features and topiary – all those eccentric features of an English, or in this case, British garden.

Mount Stewart

Topiary Harp

As I wrote in the previous diary entry: Located on the shores of Strangford Lough Mount Stewart stands in beautiful grounds enjoying a microclimate of its own which supports a lush and green garden of trees and exotic plants. Edith, Lady Londonderry (1878-1959) wife of the seventh marquess was the major force behind the garden design that we see today. She gave the gardens to the National Trust in 1957. The garden is divided up into smaller specialised areas. The Shamrock Garden where the topiary harp (above) stands in pride of place amongst other topiary features that tell a story related to the house. Here is a description from the National Trust :

“One Irish symbol holds another at its heart in the Shamrock Garden at Mount Stewart. A hedge of Irish yew in the shape of a shamrock encloses a topiary Irish harp. Originally 30 topiary figures crowned the top of the shamrock hedge. Today there are eight, reinstated in the 1990s in Irish yew. Up to 4ft in height, they are a varied troupe of two royal crowns, a sailing boat, stags, the goddess Diana, the devil and two creatures from Celtic mythology.”

We enjoyed a walk around the beautiful lake and along the Drive where the rhododendrons were in full bloom.

The most interesting feature however was the octagonal folly – The Temple of the Winds – built by the first Marquess of Londonderry and which stands in a fine position on a small hill. It’s a short walk beyond the entrance and car park, but well worth the effort to see the building and the view.

The Temple may be visited on weekend afternoons and is also a romantic wedding venue.

The Gardens at Mount Stewart are classed amongst the very best in the country if not in the world.

Mount Stewart is one of the most spectacular and idiosyncratic gardens of Western Europe and universally renowned for the ‘extraordinary scope of its plant collections and the originality of its features, which give it world-class status’ – excerpt from Mount Stewart’s listing on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage tentative list.” (National Trust website)

The red squirrels love it here too!

The Irish Country House – Mount Stewart and The Argory

During recent years I have read several books on the theme of The Irish Country House. Titles include We Are Besieged by Barbara Fitzgerald (1946), Troubles by J. G. Farrell (1970), Two Days in Aragon by Mollie Keane (1941), The Dower House by Annabel Davis-Goff (1998). Although written at different times the general themes involve Anglo-Irish families during the first half of the twentieth century, their homes and their vulnerability during the times of trouble. Often the family itself is divided in its loyalties.

I was looking forward to visiting a couple of fine examples of Irish country houses on my Just Go! holiday last week.

Mount Stewart

Located on the shores of Strangford Lough Mount Stewart stands in beautiful grounds enjoying a microclimate of its own which supports a lush and green garden of trees and exotic plants. The house was built in the eighteenth century and has been the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry (the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family) over many generations. Robert, Viscount Castlereagh, the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry made a name in politics in the early nineteenth century and was leader of the House of Commons. Edith, Lady Londonderry (1878-1959) wife of the seventh marquess was the major force behind the garden design that we see today. She gave the gardens to the National Trust in 1957 but the house itself was not bequeathed until 1977.

We had a fascinating tour of the house which is currently undergoing renovations but is open to the public in spite of this. I loved the library with its shelves and shelves of books – many looking not so very old at all – some members of the family still use the house and many of its rooms. But on closer inspection what looked like shelves right up to the windows are actually trompe l’oeil painted shutters.

It’s hardly surprising to find evidence here of a love of the ‘sport of kings’. Horse racing has for a long time been popular in Ireland and with the aristocracy but to see the huge painting of Hambletonian by George Stubbs hanging above the staircase comes as quite a surprise.

 There’s another racing picture in the house, also reproduced in the above link to Thoroughbred Heritage. It’s a painting of the Hambletonian/Diamond Match run at Newmarket in 1799. We were told the story of the race by our guide. The version we heard differed somewhat from that of the Thoroughbred Heritage story.

 The Argory

Later in the week our journey took us well into central Ireland and to a less grand but equally interesting house – The Argory. Argory means Hill of the Garden and to my mind it was more the kind of Irish country house that I have in mind when reading those novels I mentioned above.  Again we were given a warm welcome to the house  and a small group tour by one of the local volunteers.

The Argory Door Knocker

The Welcoming Argory Porch

Taken on by the National Trust in 1979 not much has changed in the house since 1900. To quote my guidebook ” the eclectic interior still evokes the family’s tastes and interests”. These include a large selection of Waterford crystal and a fantastically ornate  organ on the first floor. Click here to view the Argory Organ Gallery and other virtual views of the house.

Despite it’s inland location there’s a nautical connection here. Captain Shelton, the 2nd owner of The Argory, was aboard the H.M.S Birkenhead when it sank off the coast of Africa in February 1852. One of the most documented maritime disasters before the Titanic, it was also the first ever liner to exercise the phrase ‘Women and Children First!’ We were told how the Captain survived swimming the two miles to land in his mackintosh which protected him from sharks and the cold.

These actions later to be known as The Birkenhead Drill were immortalised later by Rudyard Kipling in his poem ” Soldier an’ sailor too” (1896)

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too

One excellent feature of National Trust properties these days is that they almost all now have secondhand bookshops. My eyes lit up in Blackwater Books at the Argory. They had a section just labelled ‘Old Books’. Here’s the selection that I came away with :

A Bridge, Rocks and Old Bushmills Whiskey – a Day on the Antrim Coast

Last week I went on my first ever coach holiday. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a very enjoyable experience. In mid-2011 I received a mail shot through the post from the National Trust advertising coach holidays in the UK in conjunction with the company Just Go! If you follow the link you will see the wide selection of holidays available. The brochure last year arrived too late to consider booking in 2011 but I hoped the experiment would be repeated for this year. It was and my first choice “Welcome to Northern Ireland” was available with bookings from Leeds during May. Perfect! Although in the end we decided to fly out from our local airport and take a taxi from Belfast City Airport to join our party at the Hotel La Mon in the countryside just outside the city.

The first day dawned somewhat misty and overcast but as we got underway, heading north through the Belfast traffic, the sun appeared and the sky turned blue. The week continued in the same vein.

Our first destination was Carrick-a-Rede on the north Antrim coast. From here we had a clear view of Rathlin Island and the Scottish mainland – The Mull of Kintyre. My previous visit to Northern Ireland had been 45 years ago when I spent just over a week at Girl Guide camp at Magilligan Point a beautiful and remote spot on the County Londonderry coast. (Sadly, it became an internment camp and prison during the recent troubles.) From there we visited north Antrim coast and I made my first walk across The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Today the whole area is owned by the National Trust. There’s a large car park and cafe-cum-shop and there’s a one mile walk along the coast path from there to reach that wobbly bridge.

The Rope Bridge was originally erected by local fishermen and links the mainland of County Antrim to the rocky outcrop 20 metres away. The chasm between the two is 30 metres deep. It’s an exhilarating walk, challenging crossing and satisfying achievement to arrive on the island where there are great opportunities for birdwatching and more spectacular views.

From Carrick-a-Rede we headed slightly inland to the nearby town of Bushmills where the Old Bushmills Distillery is open to group tours. Making whiskey here is huge business and it has been carried on since the first licence was granted in 1608. The tour is very well done and very professional – you get to see the process of Whiskey making step-by-step and you end up in the ‘pub’ at the end where you may claim your nip, or hot toddy or (in my case) soft drink.

Then it was on to the final stop for the day – the Unesco World Heritage Site of The Giant’s Causeway.The Causeway today is a very busy place. Besides all the visitors, there is a lot of building work going on. The National Trust is building a whole new visitor centre and car park behind the Causeway Hotel where the present shop and facilities are located. For our walk to the Causeway we were accompanied by a volunteer guide who was well-versed in Irish mythology and legends and possibly also in geology and coastal geomorphology. The few facts have been lost amidst the mass of stories connected with Giant Finn MacCool and the unusual rock formations.

The Camel

The Organ

Tall Rock Formations