The winding drive, down an avenue of beech trees to the front of the house, belies the formality of the garden, not yet visible, at the rear.
The picturesque drive arrives at a formal, almost austere, front façade. And contrast is, for me, the key characteristic of the gardens at Powerscourt Estate, named by “National Geographic” as number 3 in its Top Ten Gardens of the World.
The Powerscourt Estate is nestled in the Wicklow Mountains, an easy drive from Dublin, in an area of breathtaking natural beauty. And it is this contrast, which is particularly interesting at Powerscourt – the formal green symmetrical amphitheatre laid out below,with its terraces, statues and grottoes, wrestling for attention with the natural backdrop of the fields and the Sugarloaf mountain beyond.
And I think it does pull it off – the monolithic statues managing to frame the distant view and mirrored by the mature trees in the middle distance.
One processes in a stately fashion down the grand stone Italianate staircase, with pebble and granite mosaic floor.
Indeed this setting has been featured in over 25 movies, including “Barry Lyndon”, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and the recent series “The Tudors”… at this point I felt I should be gracing the steps in a crinoline instead of hiking boots.
Formal gardens are laid out, right and left, and charming French bronze urns frame the scene.
Ahead lies the Triton Lake with gravity fed fountain , the two pegasii guiding the view.
A stroll around the lake…. and then one looks back to the staircase rising behind and up to the house, a much more rustic façade than the front – again the contrast, a rustic façade with formal gardens and a reverse of the front.
Various paths lead off to the Japanese garden or the charming Pets’ Cemetery, but I head for the “Tower Valley” to see if the rhododendrons are in flower.
The formal landscape now loosens up and we stroll amongst specimen trees and rhododendrons flowering in a setting akin to their natural habitat.
Scrambling past the shrubs, the natural landscape too is revealed in all its glory, gorse bushes ablaze.
The walk continues back up the hill and a little respite is offered – a bench beside a pond and formal fountain,
before continuing into the old walled garden now densely planted with herbaceous borders.
The garden, with its contrasting formal and natural elements, was created in the 18th and 19th centuries – at a time when the 16th century formal gardens were being swept aside by the Landscape movement in 18th century England , followed by the fashion for Italianate terraces of the Victorian era.
The house was said to have had one of the grandest country house interiors in Ireland, until all was swept away by a devastating fire in 1974.
Now, it has been well restored and houses small gift shops and a restaurant.
It is the small details which I often remember in a garden visit – a Cryptomeria japonica near the house planted by the Prince of Wales in 1911 … how much the world was to change soon after that was planted.
The trompe l’oeil gates to the side of the walled formal garden,
echoing the avenue of Araucaria and Ajax statue just visible beyond.
The wonderful marble statues of Diana or Apollo, no doubt brought back from Rome after the Grand Tour.
So what can we learn from this grand garden?
- Borrow from the landscape beyond
- Formal can exist alongside informal
- A steeply inclined garden can be used to advantage
- A garden should reflect the architecture of the house
- Include an element of surprise or contrast in your design
- Incorporate statues, artwork or a fountain but keep them in scale and harmony
“Top Ten” lists of everything are always very subjective – why include that and not this?
The “National Geographic” full list is here.
But I like these lists because they provoke discussion .. and also add to the gardens I would like to see.
I would love to hear if you have a favourite garden or one you’d like to visit.