‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.
In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.
Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.