The Other Side of Eden
Imagine 40 acres of gardens teeming with character lying between an empty country house and a lake on a 100 acre estate. Welcome to paradise, a place where we belong. They’re open all year round save Christmas Day (although we’re sure you could throw your leg over the wall) for free. Even better, nobody’s there. Well clearly Lavender’s Blue are but that’s it. The journey to Altamont Gardens past country houses, the smart Ballykealy Manor (hotel) and the smarter Sherwood Park House (takes guests), reminds us that County Carlow is as horse and hound, or at least horse and lurcher, as a centrefold in The Field. Ireland for the Anglo Irish. Always slightly hashtag awkward, that double barrelled term, whether the bank or the ascendancy.
Annabel Davis-Goff, one of them, writers in her novel The Dower House, “I was thinking of people. You import a fairly large number of English people into Ireland. The strongest, richest men and the prettiest women tend to get first choice of who they’ll marry. From the strongest, richest, prettiest pool they look for other desirable characteristics: a good seat on a horse, wit, nerves of steel about unpaid bills, the ability to hold large quantities of alcohol, a way with words, good enough circulation to live in large, cold houses, and the ability to eat awful food. Pretty soon you’ve got the Anglo Irish. They’re not exactly not English, but they’re different.”
Altamont House boasts a cosmopolitan doorcase with a half umbrella fanlight worthy of St Stephen’s Green in Britain’s former Second City, Dublin. The joy of the entrance front lies in its eccentric gothic trappings on an otherwise straitlaced 18th century Georgian building. The first case of eclectic postmodernism in Ireland? Curious stepped gables with curiouser traceried blind windows rise from the eaves on either side of the canted entrance bay. The two wings to the right of the main block are topped by more stepped gables. Oddest of all the frippery is another stepped gable to the left cut into to make way for a balustraded balcony. This leftfield naïveté suggests an enthusiastic owner got a bit carried away following a visit to church or read a Pugin tract and thought, hey why not? I’ll give gothic a go! It’s all too delightful for words. Let’s hope The Office of Public Works gets some dosh to do it up. Clothed in Wisteria sinensis, the house is a little frayed round the edges at present.
Green, green, oh so very green fields rolling in front of the house past a pair of 150 year old weeping Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) give no clue as to the natural, botanical, cultural and horticultural wonders that lie behind: the Arboretum, Bluebell Wood, Bog Garden, Ice Age Glen, River Slaney Walk and Temple of the Four Winds, much of it inverted in reflections in the lake. The landscape was first developed by Dawson Borrer, son of William Borrer of West Sussex, an early 19th century naturalist, botanist, culture vulture and horticulturalist. This Anglo Irish landlord employed 100 men for three years during the 1840s famine to create pleasure grounds adjacent to an existing walled garden and the late 18th beech avenue called Nuns’ Walk. A wet meadow was dug out to form the 2.5 acre lake. But the present form of the gardens is largely due to its last private owner Corona North who died in 1999. She introduced seas of azalea and scores of rhododendron specimens like augustinii and cinnabarinum. Ever so aptly, Corona was named after her parents’ favourite hybrid rhododendron.