The gardens of Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland are a sight for sore eyes. Voted as one of the top 10 gardens in the world, these gardens are works of art and definitely worth visiting while travellling through County Down.
I’m strolling along a path by a tranquil lake, enjoying the solitude and view in the gardens of Mount Stewart House. Swans glide by gracefully, gently rippling through the reflections of the maple trees in the water. The view by the lake is straight out of a picture book. The water lilies are a bed of green and pink.
As I turn a bend, I almost collide with a woman walking five beautifully groomed Shetland collies. Her beautiful rust-coloured hair is almost the same shade as the dogs’ coats.
Being a dog lover, I’m down on my knees patting the collies and exchanging dog stories.
“You must be from Australia then,” says the dog lady with a musical lilt.
“My cousin Michael O’Donald migrated to Perth last year. Tall fellow with red hair like mine. You don’t happen to know him do you?”
It would have been serendipity of the highest order to have literally bumped into a friend of a friend while walking in a garden in a foreign country. While it has happened to me once before, this time it’s not to be.
“Well, you just never know,” she says, undeterred. “We have the luck of the Irish and strange things do happen here.”
Luck of the Irish
It’s this Irish bon vivant and joy towards life that makes travelling through Northern Ireland an uplifting experience. You see it in the people you meet and feel the vibe in the places you visit.
Mount Stewart House is one of those beautiful places with a magical ambience and a fascinating story.
When Edith, wife of the seventh Marquess of Londonderry arrived at Mount Steward, her first words were: “I thought the house and its surroundings were the dampest, darkest and saddest place I had ever stayed in during the winter.”
It was a inauspicious beginning for a historic property that would one day become one of Northern Ireland’s grandest public gardens.
She set to work to transform the cold dark house into a home with modern conveniences and equipped it with electric lights and central heating.
She ordered painted wallpaper imported from China and added bathrooms to the grand old house. The bedrooms were completely redesigned and named after great European cities.
By the 1930s, Northern Ireland’s high society flocked to attend Lady Londonderry’s exciting house parties at Mount Stewart.
The Gardens at Mount Stewart
Guests came to ride, swim, play tennis and play golf. Well-dressed society ladies came to tea in the drawing room. Bridge games and amateur stage shows were a regular event.
Like the house renovations, the gardens were remodelled on a grand scale and were absolutely radical for the times. Most Irish gardens of that period had open landscapes with gardens away from the main residence. Mount Stewart’s gardens are based on themes and built close to the house.
Later, I find myself in the Mairi Garden where a fountain with a statue of Mairi, Lady Londonderry’s youngest daughter is surrounded by bells and cockle shells. Baby Mairi was often left to sleep in her pram in this garden, which is designed after the nursery rhyme “Mairi, Mairi, quite contrary” and planted with pretty blue and white flowers.
Next to the Mairi Garden, the Dodo Terrace has four large dodo statues on pillars and a huge Eucalyptus tree. Dodos symbolise the distinguished political figures that belonged to Lady Londonderry’s Ark Club during World War I.
There’s the Italian Garden, with its colourful summer colours ranging from ruby reds, pinks and mauves to yellows, oranges and blues, the formal Spanish Garden designed around a pond and the Peace Garden, with a rare New Zealand tree Phyllocladus glaucus. This tree confounded all the experts by thriving here in the cold Northern Irish weather.
I follow a path above the lake to a private family burial ground locked away behind heavy iron gates. The sign says it’s called Tir Nan Og, which is a play of words on the mythical Irish spirit world Tír nan Óg, meaning “land of the ever young.”
Although the locals like to wander around informally through the gardens, specialised garden walks and guided tours of the house are also available. Throughout the year, there are drama, music and craft events. The Grand Garden and Craft Fair is on each May with a host of events and activities including show gardens, plant pavilions, gardening talks and floral stalls.
A short distance away from the house is the Temple of the Winds, an 18th-century banqueting hall with views over Strangford Lough. Once used by the family as an informal retreat from the main house, it’s a beautiful venue for weddings.
Mount Stewart House was donated by Lady Londonderry to the National Trust in 1955. “Gardens are meant to be lived in and enjoyed and I hope they may long continue to be a source of pleasure to those who visit them,” she said. Many years later, it’s evident the gardens of Mount Stewart House are well and truly enjoyed by people from around the world.
Mount Stewart House is located at Portaferry Road, Newtownards, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Phone + 44 28 4278 8387.
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