Roslyn Dee: 'This secret garden unveils new delights in all seasons'
I found myself alone there in the early morning just a few days ago. Overnight had delivered what my grandmother would have called a 'watery frost', and the swathes of grassland were glistening with pearl-like water droplets, transforming them into twinkling fairy lights as the sunlight streaked through the surrounding trees, illuminating the grass.
A pastoral picture, resplendent in all its emerald glory. I stopped where I always stop when I walk here, just to take it all in - at the junction that leads, left, up the hill past a line of ancient oaks that seems to stretch to infinity, or, right, into the wide, yew-tree avenue, carpeted with chocolate-brown earth and overhung with the branches of the old-as-time yews where they bend to greet each other across the divide. It's a particularly tranquil spot here among the yews - melancholy, almost, but with something nonetheless uplifting, godly even, in its atmosphere.
Kilmacurragh. That's the place. A Wicklow wonderland where I often walk, and where I'll walk again today - with some other post-Christmas walkers, no doubt - on this, the feast day of St Stephen.
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Under the auspices of our National Botanic Gardens since 1996, but established as a planters' paradise back in the 19th Century, this Wicklow arboretum still remains something of a secret garden. Which means that it's rarely overrun with visitors. Especially in winter.
Once an estate of some 5,000 acres, it was the Acton family demesne for three centuries. And it was through these lands that Cromwell led his men on his Wexford-bound rampage back in 1649. In fact, it was in lieu of military wages that Thomas Acton, having served under Cromwell, found himself the first Acton owner of the lands at Kilmacurragh.
To wander around the 52-acre site that defines the Kilmacurragh arboretum nowadays is to walk in the midst of astonishing botanical beauty - the result of seeds and specimen shrubs having been carried home by botanists over the centuries from all corners of the globe. From Japan and Asia Minor, from Chile and China, and the Himalayas. Like the rhododendrons that were transported here from that Himalayan region, resulting in what is now the most complete collection of the Himalayan species on the continent of Europe. And what a sight they are in the month of May, those giant trees dotted throughout the estate with their cascading blossoms of brightest cerise.
In winter - right now - apart from the general greenery of the vista, that kind of colour is in somewhat short supply, although you'll still see a few unexpected flashes in the lovely walled garden area.
Not that you need to be any kind of botanical expert to enjoy the simple pleasure of walking here. For me, Kilmacurragh is simply about its own sense of place - and the feeling of peace that it offers to those of us lucky enough to have discovered its existence.
I love just to walk along the pathways, or sometimes, with my little dog at my heels, I like to head into its 'wilder' knee-deep-in-grass environs. Or to follow a path that leads to another path, and to peep through the slats in some of the locked gates and wonder what lies on the other side, in that forbidden, looking-glass world.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter - the secret garden of Kilmacurragh never disappoints. It may still be December, but already I can picture February's clumps of whiter-than-white snowdrops. And I can hardly wait for the purple-crocus meadow and daffodil-strewn grasslands that, in this special place, year in and year out, never fail to lift the heart as they herald the arrival of spring.