In Northern Ireland, not only does one make hay while the sun shines, one also gets the hell out of the flat. Last weekend was the nicest one we’d had in more than four months on the island, so we visited Rowallane Gardens on Saturday and made plans to visit Mount Stewart on Sunday.
Mount Stewart, near Portaferry, is more than an hour’s drive away, partly along a coastal road, the water glittering like diamonds in the mid-morning sunshine. It is considered one of the top gardens in the world, according to those who keep various lists. Overall, I still like Rowallane Gardens better; however, Mount Stewart is considerably bigger (nearly 1,000 acres) and features such amenities as a lake, extensive walking paths and an 18th century historic house.
Home to Irish royalty
We started with a house tour, the home and furnishings reflective of their early 20th century occupants, the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Londonderry, Charles and Edith. While Charles was off doing what rich white men did in those days, Edith transformed the house and gardens. She apparently was a tour de force, imposing her design style on the property. She brought in exotic plants, using the blooms for potpourri and storing seeds during the winter in a large apothecary cabinet.
While the house definitely featured lots of bling, we were impressed by its livability. While I couldn’t imagine myself in an office large enough to accommodate two desks (Edith, actually), the house was chock-full of playful touches that were less palace and more home.
Edith’s and Charles’s youngest daughter, Mairi, was nearly 20 years younger than the other children, and she lived at Mount Stewart until her death in 2009 at the age of 88. Mairi’s daughter still lives in the house, which was turned over to the National Trust in 1977, following the bequest of the gardens in 1957.
The house was closed for three years while undergoing an 8-million-pound restoration, which brought back the original sandstone floors in the expansive entrance parlour.
Stay for the gardens
But the impressive gardens are the main draw, for tourists as well as the locals who picnic, play football, walk their dogs and generally enjoy the day in the full sun or in the shade of numerous trees. The heady fragrance of blossoms greeted us in the formal garden in front of the house, and splashes of colour could be glimpsed at every turn of the head.
Playful statuary and topiary create whimsical combinations, as do the gardens themselves. Declan particularly liked the Hand of Ulster flower arrangement the color and shape of a red hand. Topiaries of a ship and statuary of a dinosaur were also favorites.
A one-mile walk around the lake provided new views of the house and grounds. On the back side of the lake, the colorful blooms and bushes were reflected on the water, creating shimmering mirror images. Under Edith’s direction, the lake was expanded, and she installed several new gardens, including the shamrock garden, Italian garden and a special garden for Lady Mairi.
We likely would have stayed longer, but Marilynn wanted to look up a friend in Portaferry and we needed to return the rental car. Mount Stewart, like Rowallane Gardens the day before, definitely did not disappoint.