Sunday, April 09, 2017

Out of town: Altamont Gardens

Only 40 minutes or so from Kilcullen, Altamont Gardens is one of those relatively hidden places of tranquility which seem to abound in the Carlow area, writes Brian Byrne.

Today owned by the Irish state at the wish of its late owner, Corona North, it is managed by the OPW and free to visit apart from a nominal parking fee. And while browsing through the extraordinary, maybe unique range of trees, shrubs and flowers, ponder on a labour of absolute love.

It would have been easy for Corona North — named by her father, Fielding Lecky-Watson, for one of his favourite rhododendrons — to sell up after her mother Isobel left her the house and estate of 140 acres on the bank of the Slaney, and live comfortably with her husband Gary for the rest of her life. But she had inherited something else too, a love of plants and a Quaker sense of work from both the Lecky and the Watson sides of her family. Her father and mother were especially interested in planting, and bringing trees and shrubs to Ireland from various parts of the world.

Growing up, she had lived the comfortable and very social life of a 'big house' gentry family — hunting, racing, parties and everything else that went with her station. But at the start of WW2 she went to England and became a nursing volunteer. At the end of the war she returned and worked with her parents on managing the estate. They raised cattle for dairy, chickens for eggs and consumption, grew fruit, and caught salmon from the river. All these were the foundation of dinners at Altamont which became renowned.

It was at one of those, a party held skating on the frozen one-acre lake in the gardens in the exceptionally cold winter of 1965, that she met her future husband Gary North. They moved into the house from a lodge on the grounds after Isobel died in 1983 at the age of 101. Corona then got seriously stuck in to getting the gardens back to glory. A mission not always appreciated by her husband, who is said to have often grumbled, as he blew a hunting horn to persuade her to come in to dinner, that 'the woman has evaporated again'.

The garden was still pretty much a wilderness, although it had previously been a very impressive formal affair established around an 18th century house originally built by an Anglo-Norman family named St George. As you walk the path around the lake, today resplendent with azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias, it is also worth thinking about how that lake came about. It was a make-work project by the then owners in the 1860s, the Borrors (Burroughes) descended from the de Burgh Normans who settled in England, to help local people affected by the Famine. It was dug with shovels and sweat, and probably meant the survival of many families in the nearby Myshall (where this writer's great-grandfather came from, and hence the particular interest) and Fenagh villages.

Back in the later years of her life's work, Corona established garden holiday courses at Altamont which attracted thousands of visitors and pupils. In order to 'keep the gardens intact for future generations to enjoy, and instil in them knowledge and a love of gardens, wildlife and nature', she succeeded in getting the Irish Government's agreement to take over the property after her death.

She passed away at her beloved Altamont on 7 February 1999, eight years after her deceased husband could no longer blow the hunting horn to remind her that it was time to come in. Prior to her passing, she had planted some new oak trees in an ice-age formed glen downside of the Gardens where there are already oaks hundreds of years old.

On a nice day, think of Altamont for a drive from Kilcullen and a day's tranquil pleasure. And as you walk from the small but very interestingly stocked garden centre to the gardens themselves, you'll cross over a sign in the ground marking a herbaceous border planted in her memory.

Now you'll know who she was. More photographs here.