I’m strolling through the grounds of Rowallane Garden, a National Trust property south of Saintfield, County Down in Northern Ireland, when I stumble across a wee little cottage, doubling as a pottery studio.
The resident artist is hard at work at his potter’s wheel, moulding clay into these gorgeous terracotta pots I wish I could fit into my suitcase to bring home. I pause to watch, the rhythmic motion of the wheel and my curiosity over the finished product casting a spell. I take a few photos before carrying on, back to the garden.
There’s more to Ireland’s gardens than plants
While visiting a few gardens in Northern Ireland, I discovered that they’re more than just living plant collections.
These well-thought-out spaces are a blend of wild and manicured perfection. They reveal interesting additions beyond what you’d expect from a traditional garden.
A surprisingly moderate climate in this region yields lush gardens with tropical plants you’d probably envision being much further south.
Modern proprietors of these stately gardens, some dating back a few centuries, have likely realized they needed to adapt to attract a more varied clientele than the typical green thumb. This must help to give them a broader reach, attracting more of the tourists who travel through the area.
Outdoorsy types and nature lovers who might not have thought of visiting a garden will be interested by opportunities to connect with the local landscapes in other ways. Like taking a hike, renting a bike or walking through a tropical indoor garden with butterflies flitting about.
In some instances, the gardens, while worth a look, are quite secondary to what’s going on around them.
Unexpected natural wonders
One dreary, rainy morning, for instance, I decide to join a hike up Cave Hill, a rugged, basaltic hill (that’s thought to resemble the shape of a sleeping giant) that served as inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels.
The mist makes it impossible to see the requisite view, but a sudden, brief hint of a rainbow through the clouds makes up for it, as does the fresh air and endless vibrant green landscape (even though it’s soggy).
Mountain biking, hiking and camping
At Castlewellan Forest Park and Peace Maze, I’m quite astounded to discover a giant 161-year-old redwood, which I associate with the hulking forests on the West Coast of North America. Part of the collection at the Castlewellan Arboretum & Annesley Garden, it was grown from one of the original seeds brought to England in 1852.
After my lesson in arboriculture, I discover I can mountain bike the 27 kilometres of trails through the 450 hectares of forest. Rentals, including e-bikes, are available at Life Outdoor Adventure Centre.
If I hadn’t already made plans (and had my gear), I could have camped there, as well. Hikers can also enjoy the extensive trail network.
I stroll past peacocks, proudly strutting around Seaforde Gardens & Tropical Butterfly House, a 400-year-old estate. I peek around crumbling stone walls and through old iron gates to see what other mysteries the property will reveal.
At one point I spot Ireland’s oldest living maze before heading into the butterfly house, where I stand still, delightedly watching colourful butterflies flutter about.
Beyond the formal, manicured gardens of Mount Stewart with their quirky statues, chosen by the equally quirky green thumb Lady Edith, a marchioness who once oversaw the property, lie a couple of kilometres of nature trails.
Planned walking routes take visitors around a small lake. It’s easy to imagine a child with a big imagination being enchanted by the side paths and natural play area. I was quite enchanted myself.
There is definitely more to explore in this little corner of Northern Ireland, and certainly beyond. But as you plan your trip, be sure to see what each garden has to offer its guests. It just might surprise you and enrich your itinerary.
Stay by the sea
Located in a resort town with gorgeous views overlooking the Irish Sea on one side and the Mountains of Mourne on the other, Slieve Donard Resort and Spa makes for a comfortable home base while visiting some of Northern Ireland’s garden gems.
The property won Irish Hotel of the Year in 2017. I missed seeing Van Morrison play at the hotel by a mere week!by