‘Rowallane is one of the foremost gardens in the British Isles… it’s a unique garden, a place to lose yourself” in the woods and meadows of a 52 acre estate, or, as the Irish call it, a’demesne’. So said the brochure for this National Trust property just south of Belfast, near the town of Saintfield. With that sort of invitation, Rowallane was a definite on our ‘must visit’ list. And what we found was indeed worthy of being called a great garden.
The garden’s history began when the Reverend John Moore began planting here in the 1860s. He continued to develop the garden until 1903 when his nephew, Hugh Armytage Moore, inherited the property. The National Trust took over in 1955 and they have been restoring, maintaining and developing the garden ever since.
- As we entered through the gates, we quickly left behind the busy road to drive along an enchanting avenue of trees that gave promise of the woodland walks to come – as detailed in the brochure.. However, that was not to be for us. Why?
- The whole property was totally waterlogged by all of the rain that had tumbled down over Ireland in June. As one young Irishman said to me,”Ireland is a beautiful country – but what it needs is a roof!” That’s very true, but you can’t have amazing green countryside and lush parks and gardens without rain. What we needed was what every self-respecting Irish person has available in the boot of their car at all times – Wellington boots! But gumboots, as we call them, we did not have. We had all the rest of the wet weather gear required – but we did not have those essential gumboots!
The first sight of the garden after coming through that avenue is of a green and lush treed park. What we couldn’t see was the layer of water lying under the grass. It looked so inviting, but walking here for a closer look at all the conifers, rhododendrons, azaleas, and many other shrubs and trees was just out of the question.
This lingering bloom spoke of the spring that had just been and the promise of the next spring to come. Rowallane is renowned for its spring rhododendron and azalea display with the red flowers of the many lofty tree Rhododendrons and massed banks of lower growing varieties in a wide spectrum of colours. These are probably at their best in May. And with so many deciduous trees amongst the plantings, this must be a spectacular park when in full autumn foliage.
This famous rhododendron collection has been skilfully grouped with other shrubs and trees in the undulating site creating a scene that’s a delight to the eye. This garden is not only for plantsmen but also for the artist within us all.
After the Reverend Moore had transformed the barren hillsides into a wooded parkland and created the walled gardens and ‘pleasure grounds’, his nephew added the skills of a true planstman to develop the garden we see today. His vision was to create an informal garden, one which would be a wildlife-friendly environment, and one which would include plants from all corners of the globe, many of them rare.
He used the landscape of the drumlins to add form to his design. The drumlins (from the Irish word droimnin meaning ‘little ridge’) are in the shape of an inverted spoon or a half buried egg. They were formed long ago by glacial ice compacting the underlying moraine. So although the climate is wet, the plants have naturally good drainage from these rounded ridges. They add interest and shape to Moore’s plantings throughout the park.
At the time of our visit, it was raining intermittently and the grounds of Rowallane’s large park were just too boggy for walking. So we missed out on seeing the natural Rock Garden with its plantings of a wide range of alpines, heathers and dwarf rhododendrons and where meconopsis and primula were in full bloom. We also missed out on the meadows where wildflowers and masses of orchids grow. And we couldn’t walk through the farmlands that include higher drumlins that afford fabulous panoramic views over the Down countryside towards the Mountains of Mourne. Nor could we stretch our legs walking along the paths through the woods of mature trees. Many of those trees were planted in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s and include many rare trees and shrubs. Next time perhaps!
In the years after the National Trust took over, one of the foremost consultants for the garden’s restoration was Lady Jean O’Neill, chairman of the National Trust Gardens Committee. This renowned plantswoman was widow of one time Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill. After her death on July 15th 2008 at the age of 93, her obituary in the Telegraph on 3rd August said of her that she was:
” a passionate plantswoman, capable of identifying everything from a blade of grass to a rainforest liana… Never claiming to be anything but an amateur, Lady O’Neill developed, and retained throughout her life, a photographic memory both for botanical detail and for the overall “look” of a plant; her recall for the latter would enable her to make a swift, positive identification where a professional botanist could only do so on completing a long technical process.
Her wide knowledge won the admiration of (many in the horticultural elite of the time). Jean O’Neill was also greatly interested in the history of plants, particularly of those which arrived in the British Isles from the New World.”
What better person than this to lead the restoration of Rowallane in keeping with Hugh Armytage Moore’s vision. It’s good to know that in the capable hands of the National Trust’s gardeners, the maintenance of this great garden will continue for many years to come for the pleasure of all. And for this alone, it is worth being a National Trust member, as we are.
On our day at Rowallane, one of the few dry areas was the old stone and brick stables, built by Reverend Moore.
The soft earthy colours of the stable wall makes a good background for the plants in the larger walled garden.
Even the stones themselves provided horticultural interest with ferns, mosses and lichens finding a niche to grow.
A different patterning of the stones and bricks was used to build the outer surrounds of the outer walled gardens.
Another of the Reverend Mooore’s projects was to improve the house. During 2012, it has again been under renovation, to provide better offices for the National Trust’s regional headquarters and better facilities for visitors and conferences.
In 1903, when the ‘demesne’ of Rowallane was inherited by Reverend Moore’s nephew, Hugh Armytage Moore, the garden itself inherited a very knowledgable and keen plantsman. Not only is his name well respected in Irish horticulture but also, in 1942, the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain awarded him the ‘Victoria Medal of Honour’. He raised many of the plants in this garden from seeds collected from various parts of the world, particularly in China and the Himalayan regions, by such well known plant hunters as Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdom Ward. He established important connections with Botanic Gardens throughout the world particularly in Edinburgh,Scotland and Kew, London. And throughout his years cultivating plants, he gave many new cultivars and hybrids the name ‘Rowallane’ such as the Candelabra Primula ‘Rowallane Rose’.
This is the original Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Rowallane’, grown by Hugh Armytage Moore from seed collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson in Eastern Asia where viburnum originates. This tree is just one of many in the gardens that bear witness to the horticultural skill and expertise of this great plantsman.
Unfortunately, we saw this special Viburnum just at the end of flowering – the petals, somewhat damaged by rain.
But we could see how these flat-topped pure white flower clusters are made up of an outer ring of large, sterile florets surrounding a central mass of small, fertile flowers.
Although the boggy conditions meant that we did not experience all that this great garden has to offer, we were able to spend a lot of time in the two excellent walled gardens. Our trigger fingers were kept busy photographing some fascinating plants and flowers – some of them with that real ‘wow’ factor. In my next journal, we’ll look at some of the plants that attracted our special attention that day. It was so pleasing to see that these walled gardens are kept in excellent condition by the National Trust gardeners. We know that many gardens are not being well maintained in these times of economic downturn, but Rowallane has kept up its very high standards. We recommend it highly.
Photography © JT for jtdytravels