Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mount Stewart Gardens - early March

Most people who visit Mount Stewart wonder at its design, its architectural detail and its rich and varied planting, and today I will touch on telling you a little bit about the Formal Gardens at Mount Stewart.  It all stems back to one dynamic Lady’s vision.   It was the work of an energetic lady, Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and her very able Head Gardener, Mr Thomas Bolas.

As you enter the garden there are various varieties of Hellebores.

Lady Londonderry was the architect, designer and planter; Mr Bolas attended to the practicalities. Thomas Bolas was originally from Derbyshire and trained at Chatsworth. Certainly by 1911 he was a gardener at Mount Stewart for Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess of Londonderry, who used the house for only a few weeks a year. Bolas understood the favourable micro-climate here at Mount Stewart.

Mount stewart is situated on the narrow Ards Peninsular in a south westerly facing natural amphitheatre on the east shore of Strangford Lough, there are few persistent frosts. This part of Ireland is the sunniest and has a near idyllic rainfall, some 35” per annum.

Clematis armandii

This must be one of the topiary sculptures under construction.

This is the view as you approach the house, however today we are staying in the gardens and in another post, which I will post some time later, I will tell you about the fantastic renovation project of inside the house.

Mount Stewart is situated on the narrow Ards Peninsular in a south westerly facing natural amphitheatre on the east shore of Strangford Lough, there are few persistent frosts. This part of Ireland is the sunniest and has a near idyllic rainfall, some 35” per annum. Mount Stewart was used as a convalescent home for service men during WWI and in 1921, with the help of 21 demobilized men, The South Terrace and Italian Garden were laid out by Thomas Bolas under Edith Londonderry’s direction. It is inconceivable that Lady Londonderry did not have a master plan for the various gardens because they relate, in terms of level and proportion so perfectly, but to date, no overarching plan has come to light. That Edith was a scholar of garden history is evident throughout her designs, with many features adapted from the more famous gardens of Italy.

A lone Hooded Crow was on the main lawn overlooking the front of the house.

This is a view of the Sunk Garden which was excavated after the South Terrace and Italian Garden in 1921 and ostensibly completed by 1922.  Centred on the ‘Little Dining Room or Breakfast Room’, the Sunk and in some ways the Shamrock Garden beyond (I will show you later) are the only parts of the garden visible from the ground floor of the house.  The following 7 shots are taken in this garden.

The pergola surrounding three sides of the Sunk Garden is clothed with a mixture of exotic climbers and wall shrubs mixed with more common subjects. This is a key hallmark of Lady Londonderry’s planting style, the latest rare discoveries with the best of the horticultural mainstream.

The southern walk of the Pergola is known as the Polemarch Terrace, one of Lord Londonderry’s race horses, who won the Thousand Guineas, St. Ledger in 1921 coming in at 50:1 and is commemorated by an inscribed stone.



This is the entrance to the Shamrock Garden beyond the Sunk Garden and are the only parts of the garden visible from the ground floor of the house. 

Lord Londonderry’s bedroom immediately above this has a panoramic view over the Sunk Garden and reveals the Red Hand of the Shamrock Garden and in times past, a long view to Scrabo Tower, built by the tenants of the 5th Marquess.   Of course, at present is has been replanted and as far as I could tell probably with red wallflowers.  I think then they replace those with red Salvia.  Certainly that was what was planted last year.  If you wish to see how the gardens looked last year, click here.

Over the steps, the Shamrock Garden beckons. Here are complex allusions to Irish mythology and folklore.

The surviving Formorian, a half human, half demon has now become an abstract, but was originally more menacing, blowing a trumpet, with wings folded on his back and a dragons tail, this figure is made from Irish Yew grafted on to a double round plinth of English Yew. Its brother, now departed, but soon to be replaced, was of similar composition, but the figure depicted a giant Anteater rearing up on its back legs, possibly an allusion to her nephew, Anthony the Anteater, director of Regent’s Park Zoo.

The large Irish harp in English Yew commands the scene. Originally, one of three 14’ high topiary pieces.

The Red Hand of Ulster, here represented as a left hand, is in commemoration of Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, who brought financial stability to the family when she married the 3rd Marquess. Their crest contains a gauntleted right hand face down with the thumb to the left. She was an ancestor of Hugh O’Neill, the last King of Ulster.

These are some of the flowers seen in the Shamrock garden.

The Shamrock hedge surrounding this garden used to be 4’ taller than it is today and hosted some twenty four topiary pieces, telling a whimsical children’s story, a collaboration between Edith and the artist, Edmund Brock. Edith had previously published the ‘Magic Ink Pot’ in 1928 with illustrations by Edmund Brock.

The inspiration for the design of the figures came from Queen Mary’s Psalter or to be more precise, the marginalia, the doodles of the monks when they were bored with transcription. The story begins with the Stewart family coming to Northern Ireland in a curragh, Edith at the stern blowing a horn, the three younger children, Helen, Margaret and Mairi under the rigging and Edmund Brock at the bow with a bottle of whisky and the blue and yellow Macaw, Edward on his shoulder.

This is a rider blowing a horn – Edith was a great equestrian. They are hunting the White Stag, who take the souls of the deceased to Tir na n’Og, (note the Scots Gaelic spelling). If all the figures were present, there would be dogs and huntsmen with bows pushing some of the younger children in pushchairs. Then Edith is depicted as an Amazon, bow in hand having just ‘haunched’ the White Stag with an arrow. Gone now is the Scottish Deerhound about to bring the stag down. All this being essentially pagan, The Devil now gets involved by calling down the hawks of the air to disrupt the hunt and rides the wounded stag to safety. If all the figures were present, the last would be of a boy walking home disconsolately, with nothing but a skinny hare on a pole.

It is Mount Stewart's goal one day to return the hedge to its original height and depict the story with all twenty-four topiary pieces.

These 2 crown on top of the hedge lead you into a more Formal garden.

I thought this tree was very unusual and I didn't know the name of it when I first posted however Lesley, a gardener from Mount Stewart emailed me with the name.  It is Stachyurus praecox.  Thank you Lesley.

There is much more  information and photographs however I think I have posted enough and they will have to wait to a later date.

I hope you have enjoyed this part of the Mount Stewart Gardens today.

Thank you for visiting.

Many thanks for comments left on any of my posts.


  1. Wow. And I found myself yearning for a head gardener of my own.

  2. what a wonderful place to visit; great series Margaret

  3. Lady Londonderry had extremely good taste! What a wonderful place. Thanks Margaret.

  4. An interesting and informative post Margaret. Looks like there's lots of work needed to keep the garden up scratch? I wouldn't like to be the bod who has to keep all those hedges and topiary trimmed!!...[;o)

  5. Great looking place! I approve of the Guinness Harp (?) and, of course, the name!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  6. Certainly gardens to visit. So much to see. Thank you for the tour . . .

  7. What an amazing place to visit Margaret, especially all that topiary.

  8. What a wonderful garden to visit, and those topiaries are so lovely. I love the richness of color in that first shot, and love the look of spring!

  9. I would like a garden like that, ha ha.

  10. Oh my, what a delightful place to visit. Such artistic topiary and varieties of flowers. I thought the succulent plants growing attached to the stone wall were amazing. Some things can grow anywhere. Thanks for sharing.

  11. These are exceptional shots. The rain adds a special atmosphere, I would love to be able to walk around the grounds and take some shots myself.

    Mersad Donko Photography

  12. A great post Margaret with lots of outstanding and varied photos. I love the look of this place. I've also never seen a hooded crow before, very interesting.

  13. Great photos of a fascinating place. Very interesting that the only bird you saw was the crow. As I write this comment the Australian equivalent is sitting and screaming in a near-by tree!

  14. Wow Margaret!!! I bet I could spend a DAY there and not see everything. I like how you shared the upcoming/still in the construction stage of the topiary. How very interesting. With your help showing us this, I learned a bit how it is done.

  15. Margaret, what a lovely place to visit! The flowers and sculpted trees are wonderful.. I love the hand.. Thanks for the walk around the gardens.. Lovely photos.

  16. Wonderful photos and history Margaret!
    I think I could get lost on those grounds for quite sometime. What a lovely place.

  17. Beautiful garden with such lovely flowers.

  18. Hi Margaret, I revisited your wonderful post because I knew you had some beautiful flowers here. I would like to ask you if I may paint a small art card from your photo of the Hellebores you have here? I need to practice to get back into the swing of things and I like to start with art cards. I just love the color of this flower. Thanks!