Rose Martin finds herself gushing during a two-day garden tour that was full of colour and sunshine.
I’ve come a little late to the garden tour malarky — too much work, too little time, but isn’t it the most relaxing and uplifting pastime? Especially when the quality of the gardens visited are of national, if not international quality.
Just to be clear — this was a press tour organised by Wicklow Tourism and in the normal course of events, acceptance means we reserve the option “to astonish with our ingratitude”.
But, without inducement, I’m going to have to gush, as this garden tour, (a new concept by Wicklow Tourism’s FredericVerdier), is a sure-fire winner.
Our very small group had a particularly fine week to take a tour around the Garden of Ireland.
Two of the profession were of the Pale and therefore, quite familiar with the landscape, but I hadn’t been for years, so it was a complete change from the usual terrain of black and white cows and electric green grass.
The soft, enclosing hills provided a gentle atmosphere and the sun shone. First off, we landed in June Blake’s garden in West Wicklow, which is famous among plants people and gardeners from around the country.
Funnily enough, June started off as a sheep-farmer, but decided to downsize to a small garden. I wonder is she sees the irony in this now. There’s a helluva lot of work in this collection of gardens, outbuildings, cafe and holiday lodges.
Quite simply, June’s garden comprises a large, raised cultivation area divided into a number of different beds, which in turn creates interesting walkways, from shade to full sun, allowing a broad range of plants.
The raised perennial borders are set against a background of old woodland (her house and grounds were part of a much larger estate) and wildflower meadows, but it looks like her heart is with perennials.
I asked her if she had an actual map of her beds in the office behind — showing the various plantings — no, was her tart reply.
June Blake doesn’t do PR bullshit — she’s fit as a flea, nut brown and has the wiry, nervous energy of the dedicated gardener— one who never sits down.
However, when hot scones and homemade jam were produced after our wander, she warmed up with the morning sun and talked about her father and the role he played in the sixties pushing development in West Wicklow and how some of the ideas he came up with, like creating joinery workshops, are still around — in the kitchen manufacturer, O’Connor’s of Drumleek, as one example.
The Blake’s modesty, Mere et Fils, belies their superb design eye when it comes to every element of the offering here: the gardens speak for themselves, the food is great, while the cafe, June’s own home and the surrounding outbuildings, have been made over by exceptional craftsmen to designs by architect, Michael Kelly. Indeed, The Cow House won an RIAI Best House award in 2014.
This garden is original on so many levels, it’s well worth a dedicated trip on its own.
For more see [url=http://www.juneblake.ie/cms/www.juneblake.ie[/url]
From there is was a short hop to her brother Jimi’s ‘Hunting Brook Gardens’ where the structure disappeared into a whacky, woodland design encompassing fields of daffodils and bluebells, a cactus garden, herbaceous perennials and shrub beds around a hippy-dippy wooden house.
Jimi is a plant hunter of note and one of a very few who head off to remote parts of the world to bring back rare species to Ireland, under licence.
Haring through lush narrow lanes, up hill and down dale, there are a lot of large estates and some very wealthy property owners in Co Wicklow, most of whom secure our architectural heritage for the next generation by investing in, and taking care of, our old estate houses and demesnes.
One of the most famous of all the Wicklow houses, Russborough, (for reasons other than two major art thefts, including one by the General, Martin Cahill), was the next stop on our list, after a delicious lunch at Grangecon Restaurant in Blessington, where the young husband and wife team of Jenny and Richard Street offer quality, locally produced food in a relaxed, family atmosphere.
Highly recommended www.grangeconcafe.blogspot.ie
We were going to Russborough to see the Rhododendrons in flower and any ordinary person would think — huh? Rhodos are rhodos after all — they’re killing them all over Killarney, aren’t they? Well, you would be wrong — these are splendid, aged varieties that dwarf the person in size and magnificence.
This garden was created by James Russell a famous, 20th century landscape designer in the early 1950s and work went on there up to the 1980s when the grounds went into decline and the value of the collection went unnoticed until 2012.
Then, the Beit foundation put resources into restoring the north-west corner of the estate, a pleasant uphill walk through old and new woodland until one suddenly enters a clearing of blazing colour, with 40-foot high trees in a range of hues and types.
The garden is famed for its evergreen, R. macabeanum which was going over, (and which I could happily forgo), but the stunning fragrant varieties were in full bloom.
Best of these, (and I’m guessing here) was R. Loderi King George, which is softly pink in bud, opening to huge white flowers with a heavenly scent.
A glorious way to spend the day - in dappled sunshine and away from the desk. We managed to get a quickfire tour of Russborough House too and again, I’ll be back, as this beautiful place has so much to offer and there wasn’t enough time to take it all in, in half an hour.
We also managed to visit the National Birds of Prey Centre and while the tour was engaging and informative, not quite sure I feel okay about these majestic and totemic creatures being held in cages for our amusement.
The last visit of the day was to Pattana gardens in Kiltegan, near Baltinglass, created by artist, TJ Maher and including the sexiest potting shed ever — let’s just say it played Mozart and had clay pots, with pristine tools hung on the walls like in an art gallery and a quiet nook in which the gardener might rest.
This is a village garden, the main house faces directly onto the road and entrance is via coach house gates into a third of an acre of lushness.
A pergola wreathed in climber defines the pathways, (supported by old steel uprights for the old sheds), while old granite walls create a sheltered micro-climate in which deep beds of perennials flourish.
The garden is open one-day a week from now for the summer and at other times by appointment, but its not to be missed for a mix of old world loveliness with the best of the modern.
Finally, at day’s end and with evening coming, we made our way to Macreddin, which could be described as a Celtic Tiger construct in a hidden Wicklow valley, but that would be to do it a discredit, as this created village/resort has settled quietly into its surroundings.
We were to stay at Brooklodge Hotel and Spa, which has the distinction of being the country’s only certified organic restaurant, while also employing its own forager — indeed, the fermenting fervour is strong here.
The food was superb and while we were readying for dinner, a helicopter flew in and flew out — someone had popped in for a spot of lunch and was being collected, so it was a little reminder of the good old days.
Don’t be put off by this though, is just goes to show how good the kitchen is and how quiet and peaceful the location.
The next morning, we took off among the Wicklow Hills again to make our way to Skekina Sculpture Garden, which has up to 700 visitors a year and which was officially opened by President Higgins.
It’s creator, Catherine McCann turned a visit into a little therapy session on the senses and then sent us off individually to experience the garden, with the strong direction that we were not to talk to each other.
It turned out to be one of the best garden visits — being told to take time to be on your own, go barefoot to feel the grass, sense the air, hear the birds and listen to your senses. Tune in; turn on; drop out — without the drugs or the mess.
Wonderful. Catherine McCann is a most unusual and interesting woman and she has a number of books to her credit.
Check her out on: www.shekinasculpturegarden.com
The last garden on the trip was Kilmacurragh, now in the hands of the State and under the benevolent care of the National Botanic Gardens.
This time round, we were in time for a tour given by a very knowledgeable guide, who sketched in the background to the house, (Cromwellian family, the Actons granted the estate; in situ until 1910; house rented, mired in legal difficulties; disrepair to dereliction; taken over by the State).
Kilmacurragh House is a roofless wreck, but the money has just been set aside to give this significant piece of our architectural inventory a new roof and hopefully, a restoration in time.
There is something about this place: it’s warm, sheltered and has a great energy and it’s no surprise that is was used as an unofficial test site for the Botanic gardens back in the 1800s.
Those beautiful plants are now fine trees, or prime specimens of endangered plant species; or mother plants from which many clones have comes, like the Taxus fastigiata.
According to our guide, this Kilmacurragh tree may have been the forebear of our modern upright Yews, while another Taxus Baccata, the ancient Irish yew, could be over 300 years old.
See more on Kilmacurragh here: www.botanicgardens.ie/kilmac/kilmhome.htm
And finally, just before the car park that is the M50 and the train home, we took one last sup of that beauteous county in a place redolent of another age.
Maeve Binchy used to come here to write her Christmas cards and it’s one of the reasons why Daniel Day Lewis picked Wicklow as a place to live and the King of Sweden was a regular visitor.
Where is it? Hunters Hotel at Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, is a place that probably hasn’t changed much in 200 years of being in the same family’s hands.
Its roots go back to a 17th-century coaching inn and there’s significant age and charm in the building. From the road, it looks like any old style hotel, but take a walk through and you find yourself surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens.
Divided up into little bowers with various seating areas around the grounds, you can’t get in here for Sunday lunch, apparently, and on a sunny weekday, it’s certainly where the retirees like to go for lunch al fresco.
A no-nonsense vegetable garden, taking up another acre to the rear of the hotel, produces seasonal food for the kitchen. Chintzy, creaky, with great food and old school charm, this is a must for your garden tour of Wicklow.