Altamont house with its glimmers of its faded glory and resident peacock, emanates a warm and inviting glow as if it grew in the gardens.
Located in the second smallest Irish county of Carlow, it has some history – an earlier late 18th century resident was Charles Altamont Doyle, illustrator and watercolourist, the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s of Sherlock Holmes fame.
Be that as it may, with the sobriquet, “the jewel in Ireland’s gardening crown”, it’s the gardens that Altamont is best known for. Stretching over 40 acres, they’re a charming fusion of formal garden and wild garden in the style of William Robinson.
Altamont garden’s rise to glory began when Feilding Lecky-Watson from a local Quaker family, acquired Altamont in 1924. His earlier career as a tea planter in Ceylon (Sri Lanka nurtured a love of exotic plants, especially rhododendrons. Eventually returning to Ireland he was recognised as an expert in the species, cultivating plants for botanical gardens at Glasnevin (Dublin), Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. He was so passionate about the plants that when his wife, Isobel, gave birth to a daughter in 1922, she was named Corona, after his favourite variety of rhododendron.
With the lake at Altamont already established, having been dug out by hand in the mid-1800s to provide work for people during the potato famine, Lecky-Watson went on to further develop the demesne grounds. The lawns bisected by sculpted yews, slope down via the Broadwalk to the lake, now surrounded by rare trees and rhododendrons and lead in turn to an arboretum and bog garden. The ice age glen sheltered by ancient oaks and flanked by huge stone outcrops leads to the banks of the River Slaney.
When Lecky-Watson died in 1943, Corona took over. She was not particularly interested in the house and poured all her time, energy, devotion and money into the garden, hence the wonderful patina that house radiates. Following her death, ownership of the house and gardens was transferred to the Irish State, and is operated by the (OPW) Office of Public Works.
On a personal note, it was Altamont that nurtured my love and enthusiasm for Irish Gardens and it was during my second visit that I had the pleasure of meeting Corona, a wonderful, warm character. The two featured photographs were shot while on assignment for Tourism Ireland, long after the gardens entered the care of the OPW.