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Sunday 22 January 2017

A welcome sight in beautiful Ards

Serenity of Mount Stewart gardens is a far cry from my last experience of the North during the Troubles

Published 14/09/2010 | 05:00

One of the many ornamental buildings and follies that are found throughout the gardens at Mount Stewart, on the Ards Peninsula
One of the many ornamental buildings and follies that are found throughout the gardens at Mount Stewart, on the Ards Peninsula

In the late 1970s, I sold 28 bullocks to be slaughtered in the meat factory in Whiteabbey in Belfast. A few days later when they were collected, I followed the lorry and trailer up to the North.

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I have always felt that it is a bit silly to feed cattle for six months or more and then not bother to be around when they are weighed, graded and killed.

Being a slightly suspicious sort, I also preferred to have lorry loads of cattle weighed live in order to have a comparison with the carcass weights after slaughter. You can call that suspicious or prudent, I don't really care, because when you are selling something as valuable as a double of 600kg bullocks it seems silly not to spend half a day at the factory to see them weighed and graded. It's too late to whinge about prices, weights and grades when you receive the cheque and the cattle are hanging in the cold room, which surely applies whether you are selling one cow or a load of U-grade bullocks.

In the 1970s, things were not exactly quiet in the North and it was with some anxiety that I drove there, especially given that my number plates and accent clearly identified where I was from. Passing through the Border was quite intimidating in those days, with rolls of razor wire and grilles protecting the customs buildings and sullen-looking soldiers, armed and dangerous, watching everybody's movements.

Tension

You could sense the tension everywhere and, despite a really friendly welcome at the Whiteabbey meat factory, things got worse just as dusk was gathering -- when I left to return home. Having a hopeless sense of direction, I managed to quickly get lost and found myself driving down roads with names that were scarily familiar from the scenes of violence on TV. In the doorways of houses, people stood with folded arms, silent and watching. There was no way I was going to ask for directions in that tense environment but, fortunately, just as I was getting really anxious, I spotted a sign for Dublin. Never have I welcomed a road sign as much as on that evening.

The contrast between travelling to Northern Ireland 33 years ago and now is quite remarkable. The Border is no longer marked and you speed along on the motorways without sight of soldiers, helicopters or burned-out buildings.

This time around I was travelling with some friends to visit the famous gardens at Mount Stewart near Newtownards in Co Down.

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The frost-free climate where the gardens are located along the Ards Peninsula provides an ideal home for many wonderful but less-hardy species that cannot be grown successfully further inland.

The formal gardens were laid out in the 1920s and contain some famous features such as the Rhododendron glades, the Shamrock garden with its immaculate topiary, Tir na nOg containing the Londonderry family's burial ground, the Temple of the Winds overlooking Strangford Lough and numerous other exotic features of stonework and landscaping. There are also many magnificent older trees that were planted in the mid 1700s, when the original house was built, and are spread throughout the gardens and woodland, which covers a total of 80ac.

Wealth

The wealth that allowed for the creation of Mount Stewart came from coal mining, linen and some judicious marriages down through the years to further add to the Londonderry coffers. Like so many other magnificent gardens, both north and south of the border, it was built during a time when some well-placed individuals had extraordinary power -- a time before democracy replaced aristocracy and merit was rewarded over any perceived right of birth.

But while we might feel aggrieved at the means whereby people in the 18th Century and later held and retained power, we cannot deny the beauty and value of our heritage of great gardens and houses, virtually all of which are now open to the public. They should be visited and enjoyed whenever possible.

Phantom

Driving through Co Louth on the way home, we again passed near the Cooley Peninsula, with its stunning scenery, reminding us of the phantom sheep that roamed there prior to the inspections that followed the foot and mouth outbreak nine years ago.

Perhaps, in time, their ghosts will become part of our folklore in the same way as did the famous cattle raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge, when Cúchulainn and Queen Medb did battle for the mythical Brown Bull. There are many versions of this tale, almost as many as there are of the modern fable regarding the origins and whereabouts of the silent Cooley flocks that drew down all those subsidies and untold hardship on many decent local farmers.

Irish Independent