For many years, I've been longing to visit Mount Usher Gardens in Co Wicklow. Those that have been there talk about it with a mixture of enthusiasm and reverence. Considering it's really just down the road (Ashford is less than an hour's drive), it seemed ridiculous to wait any longer, so, on a terrifically rainy day, we set off.
First surprise of the day – the gardens are slap bang in the small village; I assumed they'd be in the wilds of Wicklow, but not so.
Through a gateway off the overflow carpark (it was a Saturday) and you're right into a wonderland of plants for sale, huge urns, chicken houses, potted herbs and all kinds of garden ornamentation.
If you walk away with nothing here, you're a better person than I am. I came away with a lovely plant, native (I think) to New Zealand.
From the garden centre, you enter a rather lovely courtyard, where there's the Garden Cafe (doing a roaring trade), a smaller version of the Avoca shop on Suffolk Street, selling all kinds of gorgeous things and the entrance to the gardens, which is through the gift shop.
My favourite part of Alice in Wonderland has always been the bit where Alice looks through the small door into the beautiful garden, and that's a bit what this felt like. Clutching a large umbrella, we stepped into a beautiful outside space that managed to be both formal (the manicured lawns) and wild (the beautiful foliage).
There's a suggested route through the gardens (starting with the Maple Walk), handily helped by numbered tree stumps and we set off on it but we found ourselves drawn to the river and ambled alongside – admiring its power and beauty as it surged through the gardens.
This is the River Path and affords you a great view of Mount Usher House (it's the kind of house that should be the setting for a Poirot mystery – you know the kind of thing, a game of croquet, tea on the lawn, followed by a gruesome murder).
The wildflower garden just past the 1927 bridge (there are two bridges and one is very bouncy), was a revelation.
One of the advantages of the truly atrocious weather in March and April is that spring is very late this year, which means that now really is the best time to visit.
The carpet of purple wild flowers was glorious in the sun and the apple blossom leaves surrounding the bases of the trees were magnificent. Second surprise of the day – for the whole time that we were in the gardens, it didn't rain. Across the River Vartry, the Technicolor feast continued with strawberry dogwoods, kobushi trees, flowering cherry trees, Himalayan magnolias, tulip trees and Pacific dogwoods sporting a magnificent variety of plump pink, white and yellow blossoms.
Once you've got over this glorious visual assault, take a turn up the Palm Walk, which leads up to the house. Its quiet grandeur will impress you.
From here, skirt around the house and investigate the island with its cunning little stone bridges, miniature waterfalls and beautiful places to sit and savour the silence. And that's another great thing about Mount Usher, it's big (about 22 acres), so it can easily absorb all of its eager visitors.
The Riviera Walk is a tranquil, narrow path right next to the river, which leads down to the last bridge near Mill Road, where you can cross the Vartry with its curved weirs and walk back along the Contra Riviera Walk, which is at a higher elevation.
It's fun spotting the various trees on your journey around the garden, using the Mount Usher Tree Trail (given to you with your ticket). Some of them were planted as far back as 1890 and 1905 and you'll learn lots of interesting facts – such as chewing the bark from the Winter's Bark cured sailors of scurvy back in the day and the Western Red Cedar is traditionally used by native Americans for making totem poles .
Back in the cafe, the staff were serving up great-looking burgers and fat chips on wooden platters, delicious slices of cakes, glasses of wine and coffees. We had tasty vegetable soup and brown nutty bread. Outside, the rain was lashing down and people were trying to hold on to their umbrellas. Welcome to summer in Ireland.
Admission for adults is €7.50
TRANQUIL BEAUTY: Mount Usher Gardens