Summer time is for long walks with the family, for picnics on manicured lawns, for hide and seek among the conifers, for scones and tea in the café, for happy and tired children falling asleep in the car on the way home.
We wait all year round for summer and when she comes, the countryside in Ireland’s Ancient East is a sight to behold. The Wicklow hills are daubed with gorse yellow while the grasses of Kildare grow high and sway in the summer breeze. The sun is shining, there is nowhere better in the world, and even when it doesn’t shine, there’s plenty of history, lore, stories and friendly faces to ensure an unforgettable time.
With many of these gardens within easy reach of Dublin, why not take a few days and put together your own garden itinerary and discover a wealth of history and a legacy of garden splendour from a more decadent and aristocratic era in Ireland’s Ancient East.
Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow
Designed in the 18th century and beautifully situated in the Wicklow mountains just south of Dublin, Powerscourt Gardens and grand Palladian House have come to worldwide attention, voted 3rd in the World’s Top Ten Gardens by National Geographic. “We were thrilled,” says Head Gardener Alex Slazenger, who recalls his idyllic childhood growing up exploring one of the most magical and exciting gardens in the world, rolling down the hills and playing in secret hollows around the 47 acres with his cousins at Powerscourt Estate.
His childhood playground has now become his life’s passion and he and his team manage, re-imagine and constantly develop the sublime blend of rambling walks and formal gardens including the Italian Garden, the Dolphin Pond and the Japanese Gardens, carrying on the vision of the original designers.
This stop-off on Ireland’s Ancient East has walled gardens, ornamental lakes and beautiful tree-lined arbors. The cascading terraces and formal landscaping are influenced by the great estates and gardens of Germany, France and the Italian Renaissance.
The seasons bring dramatic and beautiful changes to these gardens and there’s always something to see. The double herbaceous border is the longest in Ireland and there are 60m tall trees, higher than many of the tallest buildings in Dublin. There’s a Pets Cemetery and the Pepperpot Tower and many other features to this wonderful Estate, along with the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s highest at 121m (387ft), 6km from the Main Estate where Handel is said to have received inspiration.
A classical oasis in the wilds of Wicklow
A classical oasis, hidden in the wilds of Wicklow, Powerscourt Estate and Gardens is now one of Ireland’s top visitor attractions. It’s open daily all year-round (apart from December 25th and 26th) from 9.30am to 5.30pm (dusk in winter) and there’s an Avoca restaurant with artisan fresh food, shops featuring the best of Irish design, fashion and furniture, and a garden centre, where you can buy the same plants that you’ll have been inspired by in the gardens.
Who better to guide you around the Powerscourt Gardens than the families who have owned and tended to the gardens for the past 400 years? Free audio guides are available from Powerscourt House in English as well as Spanish, German French and Chinese. There are two audio guides available: “Garden of the Gods” for the grown-ups and “Family Action Quest” for families with children. They bring you around the garden pointing out the features, flora and fauna that make Powerscourt so special – a real behind the scenes look at these amazing gardens.
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Viscounts and their Vistas
Inviting visitors to “come and just switch off and interact with nature”, Alex Slazenger points to his “heroes”, Richard and Mervyn, the 6th and 7th Lords Powerscourt, whose legacy he is determined to build on. “They, along with their architect Daniel Robertson, created these gardens, seamlessly interacting with the landscape and planting thousands of wonderful rare specimen trees from around the world”
Once a private home, nearly 7 million people have now visited Powerscourt House and Gardens. The rocky Sugarloaf mountain soars over the lush forest parkland providing a stunning backdrop to one of the most magical places in Ireland.
Ashford, Co. Wicklow
There is nowhere quite like Co. Wicklow in the summer when the countryside sings with lush vegetation. It’s a time when the wonderful Mount Usher Gardens outside Ashford really come into their own.
The gardens were designed in the ‘Robinsonian' tradition and were laid out by the Walpole family. The Walpole’s had made their fortune in the thriving linen industry of the 19th century. Edward, scion of the family in 1880 decided to create something of a lasting legacy and set himself to designing a ‘wild’ garden at Mount Usher.
Over four generations the Walpoles cultivated an extraordinary tamed wild garden which today has a unique variety of trees and plants, some 5000 in total, including the largest collection of Southern Hemisphere conifers in Ireland (28 species).
Over the years the dedication of some inspirational gardeners has seen the garden pass ownership to the Jay family and the today is managed by Avoca Handweavers. The Avoca Café serves its signature food which has seen it garner a worldwide reputation and with the addition of the courtyard shops provides another dimension for people looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Dublin for a few days away in the idyllic tranquility of the Mount Usher Gardens.
Bray, Co. Wicklow
Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland, is breath-taking in the summer months and most of its glorious gardens are within easy driving distance from Dublin, making it the perfect destination for a summer getaway. Just like Killruddery House and Gardens. Comprised of a Great House with walled garden and a working farm, there is so much to discover in the heart of one of Ireland’s most picturesque and lush landscapes, such as the Angles (find out why they are affectionately known as goose feet), the Long Ponds, the Wilderness, the Sylvan Theatre, Lime Walks and the Beech Hedge Pond.
Killruddery House and Gardens has been home to the Brabazon Family (the Earls of Meath) since 1618. The house was remodelled in 1820 in the Elizabethan style. The gardens and demesne extend to 800 acres and is owned by the 15th Earl and Countess of Meath and include the Walled Gardens, the Tea Rooms and the Orangery. The Orangery houses a collection of marble statues brought back from a Grand Tour of Italy from 1830-1850 by the 11th Earl including several classical sculptures and busts of Napoleon, Socrates, William Pitt and Wellington.
Killruddery hosts the Farmers Market every Saturday from 9am to 3pm where you can source the best in season natural produce direct from local farmers as well as some foreign delicacies and yummy artisan baked buns and cakes.
Kilmeadan, Co. Waterford
Waterford is known for having some of the very best coastline in Ireland but this hidden gem can sit comfortably alongside any of Ireland’s great landscaped gardens. Mount Congreve is just a short distance outside Waterford city and was built by John Congreve in 1760. John was the son of Ambrose who played an important part in the development of the city.
Ambrose Congreve had been a successful merchant, banker, politician and land developer, and his son was following the trend for a successful businessman to acquire a country estate when he bought a tract of land a few miles outside the city from the Christmas family of Whitfield. Here he built, on a spectacular site overlooking the River Suir, what became Mount Congreve (the original Irish name, Bruachaille, means “the edge of a cliff”).
The gardens consumed him with a passion and he dedicated his life to cultivating 30 hectares of intensively planted woodland garden and a four acre walled garden brimming with rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias and rich and varied collection of flora from every corner of the world.
Johnstown Castle Estate, Co. Wexford
Wander down the paths at Johnstown Castle to discover stunning woodland gardens and peaceful lakes. The landscape of this garden is influenced by its three lakes. Follow the meandering paths through the trees to find your way to each of the lakes. The lake that faces the castle is fringed with tall elegans, fine redwoods and majestic Monterey Cypress trees, some of the oldest and largest in Ireland. Over the years, waterfowl have made the lakes their home. Look out for mallards, mute swans, moorhens and coots on the water.
The real surprise at Johnstown Castle and Gardens is another flock who can be seen on the grounds: a muster of peacocks. The peacocks can be spotted anywhere on the estate from the garden paths to the castle. The peacocks are so much part of the fabric of Johnstown, the tea rooms have been named the Peacock Tea Rooms! After a walk around, stop in for a cup of tea and a scone.
Adjacent to the castle is the Irish Agricultural Museum which has exhibits from as far back as the 18th century. From the development of the tractor to examples of pony-drawn mowers that previously tended to the sprawling gardens, there are plenty of cool things to see. Don’t worry if you aren’t a farm fanatic, there is a section on the domestic life of women in a country kitchen and a display of bikes from 1885 to 1965 including cycles from local bike-makers Pierce’s of Wexford.
Although anywhere in these stunning gardens would make a perfect place to lay out a blanket and enjoy a picnic with your family, a top tip is to take your basket to the sunken garden for an afternoon dining al-fresco.
Kilmuckridge, Gorey, Co. Wexford
Wells House and Gardens in Wexford is a great day out for the whole family. The mature gardens surround a Victorian tudor gothic house which was designed in the 1830s by Daniel Roberston, of Powerscourt, Kilruddery and Johnstown Castle fame. The English architect turned his hand to landscape design to make some of the most remarkable and fascinating gardens in all of Ireland. Robertson became known for designing his houses and gardens in Italianate style, taking his cue from the surroundings making sure his creations both featured and complimented the Irish countryside.
With two woodland garden walks of verdant mature plants and trees, there are plenty of woods to get lost in on the Lady Frances Woodland Walk and the Mogue’s Woodland Walk. Walk between the trees and shrubs on the 1.2km Lady Frances Walk but keep a look out for the original wishing well, fairy doors and even a fairy castle. The Mogue's Woodland Walk is an educational journey through the woodlands to teach children about the plants and animals of Wells House.
You might be taken up with the serenity of the gardens at Wells House but it is the perfect place for the kids to let loose. There is a state of the art playground with swings, slides and plenty to climb on. For younger children, Wells House has its very own animal farm with lots of cute small animals like bunnies and guinea pigs. The older kids can spend the afternoon doing archery in the only 3D archery course open to the public in all of Ireland. Once the kids are tuckered out after all that fun, drop by Mrs Stone’s restaurant for a cup of tea and some afternoon treats.
Brallistown Little, Tully, Co. Kildare
At the very heart of Ireland’s racing industry and set in the heartland of the Irish equestrian tradition is the National Stud. It is a remarkable facility that consistently produces some of the world’s best thoroughbred horses that compete at the world’s highest levels, but it is also a haven of tranquillity that is the perfect place to while away a day with the family.
The working stud farm set on well-manicured land shelters the Japanese Gardens, be whisked away to the orient in the heart of Kildare. The Japanese Gardens are an exquisite example of the meeting of Eastern and Western cultures, a Japanese garden with a hint of English influence as was the fashion for gardens in Japan in the time it was designed between 1906 and 1910.
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Essential to any Japanese garden is establishing balance and at the National Stud, the minimalist St Fiachra's Garden is the perfect contrast to the ornate Japanese Gardens. Named after the patron saint of gardeners, St Fiachra's Garden takes inspiration from early monastic settlements and mirrors the Irish landscape in its rawest state. The garden centres on limestone rocks and water complimented by ferns and orchids. A beautiful spot at the National Stud to take a deep breath and enjoy a moment to relax in nature.
While the gardens at the National Stud are stunning distractions, the heart of this place has to be the horses. Over the years, some of the world’s best horses have left those paddocks to win the biggest races in the industry. The National Stud have now welcomed them back after retirement as part of their ‘Living Legends’ attraction to bask in the sun in the stables across from St Fiachra’s Gardens. It is a real treat to see such beautiful and historic horses like Hurricane Fly and Rite of Passage up close.
With the gorgeous gardens and historic horses, you might be surprised to hear there is even more magic at the National Stud. It has become home to Irish Fairy Door Company fairies who help the gardeners and caretakers at the National Stud. Using your fairy map, work your away around the gardens spotting all the fairies then finish your hunt by stopping off at the playground. Don’t forget to sit on the wishing seat and wish for something really special!
Athy, Co. Kildare
Burtown House is still in possession of the family that built it. Tended by three generations of the same family, and originally laid out by Isabel Shackleton, first cousin to the famous Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, it has over the last 20 years been extensively reclaimed and expanded.
The house sits on 12 acres of garden which includes large herbaceous borders, shrubberies, a rock garden, a yew walk divided by a pergola, a sundial garden, an old orchard, a more formal stable yard garden and a large woodland garden surrounded on all sides by water. This woodland, known as the Nutgrove, hosts a fine collection of candelabra primulas, hostas, ferns and iris, amongst other plants. There are many old roses, peonies and clematis and a walled organic vegetable garden that has been in continuous production for over 150 years. If you feel you’d like to make your visit a longer affair, the Stable Yard provides gorgeous accommodation for up to 6 people in three bedrooms.
The Green Barn is a Scandinavian barn style restaurant serving fare made from the freshest in season locally produced ingredients. In fact, almost all of the ingredients have come straight from their garden that morning. The menu is influenced by the seasons so it changes to reflect what is happening in their garden. Simple, fresh, organic food is what the Green Barn is all about. Located just inside the entrance to Burtown House with a view of the walled Kitchen Garden, it is a restaurant that lets the garden in in more ways than one. Filled with natural light The Green Barn is a hugely popular attraction and people travel far and wide to dine there so book ahead.
Take in the gorgeous views, breathe in the fragrant aromas, run your hands through the long grasses, hear the birdsong and taste the flavours of all that grows in the gardens of Ireland’s Ancient East this summer. As the gardens come into bloom, all they are waiting for is you.