In a few days we are off to Portugal to attempt to complete the Fisherman’s Trail, the top half of which we enjoyed nearly 4 years ago but before I write about that I thought I’d just throw in a quick missive on our last outing.
We’ve explored the 70 acre Mount Congreve estate near Waterford a couple of times over the years, (the last time during its extensive 1 1/2 year closure for renovation when we couldn’t resist sneaking in through an open fence) and hearing it had reopened this spring we headed off to feast our eyes on the floral splendours.
Recognised as “One of the Great Gardens of the World” it’s magnificent collection of Azaleas, Camellias, Magnolias, Pieris and Rhododendrons make it a particular joy at this time of year but the walled garden, avenues and lawns contain mass plantings of interest throughout the seasons.
Left to the State by Ambrose Congreve when he died in London on his way to the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show at 104 years old, the family motto ” He does not die whose good name lives on” seems very appropriate as does the place of his death, although it’s a pity he didn’t make it to the show first.
Ambrose was the last of 6 generations of Congreve to live on the estate since the house was built in 1760.
In the 60’s when Ambrose moved in he employed Dutch horticulturist Herman Dool who transformed the woodland gardens and set about creating the gardens as they are today including raising hundreds of Magnolias from seed collected in the Himalayas.
We followed the 16 km of trails laid out through the over 3000 species of trees and scrubs, meandering off on little side tracks leading hither and thither. Sweeps of bluebells and white three cornered leek filled the spaces between fine mature trees from the original planting and a carpet of frittilaria lay beneath an avenue of magnolia.
Ambrose and his wife were lucky enough to both be buried in their beloved garden, something that Galway Council have forbidden me, and their final resting place beneath a classical temple has a fine view down to the sweep of the River Suir.
The Georgian glasshouse is in a bit of a sorry state but plans are to restore it next year as well as get a Masters QQI level 5 gardening course up and running in the west wing of the house. It seems that nearly all of the €7 million spent on the estate went into the House, Gift Shop, Visitor Centre and Restaurant with precious little for the gardens or gardeners. Many of the loyal and long term gardening team are about to retire and fear for the future if the plants are left in the care of students and volunteers.
But such is the scale and grandeur of the gardens that although I can imagine some wilding going on I think that Ambrose’s creation will endure for future generations- climate permitting.
We headed off to spend the night in another grand house, Faithlegg, on the other side of Waterford city above the meeting of the Three Sisters, the Nore the Suir and the Barrow.
As is unfortunately often the case the houses parklands had been given over to a golf course but I was able to get down to the tidal river lands in the early morning to explore before we headed off to the Mountain of the Women.
The 720m Slievenamon summit rises isolated from the flat river plain of Tipperary between Carrick on Suir and Clonmel. I had my eye on it while hiking down the Suir a few years ago and have always noticed it’s imposing bulk while driving past on the way to Rosslare ferrys.
So with a fine sunny day forecast and returning home past it- no better time. Except of course my health and fitness are not what they were and all recent hikes have been pretty flattish so with 475m elevation gain it was going to be a challenge. Listed as “Hard” on AllTrails even though our planned route was only 6 km it was a pretty relentless uphill slog.
After a quick sandwich we started up the stony boreen to be greeted higher up by a lovingly created mini garden for insects, flowers and fairies. Maybe because the mountain has been associated with witches, fairies and mythical women or maybe just a farmers child creative display.
Soon after a gate allowed us access to the 5000 acres of open mountain comonage and a chance for a rest on the ” memory seat” before starting the long slog up beside a well worn track eroded into the shaley ground.
It’s a popular route and the good weather had drawn out groups and solitary walkers and more serious fell runners. It seems to be a popular training ground and one diminutive fellow who offered encouragement as he overtook us on his way up was coming up again as we went down. Could have been at it all day.
There was a race in folklore when the fastest woman up won the hand of Fionn MacCumhaill who cheated by helping his favourite, Grainne to the summit. It didn’t do him much good in the end though as she eloped with Diarmuid and the pair of them went on to have rocky “beds” on many an Irish mountain.
After multiple stops to catch my laboured breath we approached the large summit cairn or passage tomb reputed to be an entrance to the Celtic underworld. It’s also where the diminutive and magical race the Tuatha De Danann retreated underground when overcome by the physically superior Milesians.
From the top of the cairn the trig pillar and a standing stone were visible across the rounded mound of the summit. The leaning stone thought to be from monastic period was carved with the date 1848 in commemoration of Thomas Francis Meagher’s rebel rousing speech to 50,000 people on the mountain in support of his Irish Confederation. Following the failure of the Young Irelander Rebellion he was sentenced to be ” hanged, drawn and quartered” but this was commuted to Penal exile to Tasmania.
Time for the descent. The easy bit for me the tough bit for Sallys knees. The views all around were worth the effort of achieving them. The Comeraghs, Knockmealdowns and Galtees ranged away to the south and west whilst the rich farmlands of Kilkenny spread like a blanket to the north.
The day was still cloudless and with a fair few hours of daylight left there were people on the way up as we retraced our steps back to the Memory Seat and the stony boreen to the car. I was pleased to have made it up there. Life in the old dog yet.