Altamont Gardens, widely regarded as “the jewel in Ireland’s gardening crown”, are a pleasing blend of formal and informal gardens located on a 100 acre estate, featuring rolled lawns lined with sculpted yews sloping down to a romantic lake surrounded by rare trees, rhododendrons and shrubs, a Bog Garden and an Ice Age Glen. A Hill Walk commands wonderful views of the Wicklow Mountains, the Blackstairs and Mount Leinster. Birds and butterflies abound.
Parts of Altamont date back to the C16th, when it is reputed that nuns lived here. Around 1720 the construction of a new road obliged the then owners, the St George family, to turn the house back to front; they made new back and front avenues with handsome granite entrance gates, and planted the beech trees to line the avenue and the old Nun’s Walk.
The C19th saw additions and improvements made to the gardens when, mainly to provide employment during the Great Famine, the lake was dug, walks were made through the ancient oak woods down to the River Slaney and along its bank and a flight of 100 hand-cut granite stone steps was installed up to where the present path winds back through the woods, carpeted with bluebells and wild daffodils in spring.
The property later passed to a family called Lecky-Watson, traditional Anglo-Irish landowners of the “huntin’, shootin’, an’ fishin’” variety (who claimed to have killed the last Irish wolf in nearby Myshall as late as 1850).
The last member of the Lecky-Watson family to live at Altamont was Corona North (1922 – 1999), whose hard work and enthusiasm was responsible for restoring the gardens to their full glory. She bequeathed them to Ireland, and since the end of the last millennium they have been under the care of the State.
Altamont is presumed to derive its name from some now forgotten link with the Browne family of Westport House in Co. Mayo, holders of the titles Marquess of Sligo and Earl of Altamont.
Ballon (Co. Carlow / Central)
Ballon is a lively village and parish in the Slaney River valley, with excellent views of the Blackstairs and Wicklow Mountains. The community has an interesting website.
Ballykealey House, a Tudor-Gothic structure build about 1830 to the design of Thomas A Cobden, is set in several acres of wooded parkland and gardens, with an artificial lake dug as relief work during the Great Famine.
Ballykealey was the residence over the years of various members of the Lecky family, local Quaker landlords since 1649; the last was Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Beauchamp Lecky, who was forced by financial difficulties to move to London with his family in 1953, and disappeared in highly mysterious circumstances in 1957.
Having been used by the Patrician Brothers as a Noviciate for several years, the house has been run since 1988 as the highly rated four-star Ballykealey Manor Hotel, particularly popular for weddings, with excellent accommodation, bar and dining facilities and a number of self-catering guest lodges adjacent to the main building.
Sherwood Park is an elegant Georgian farmhouse in attractive grounds, is nowadays owned by Patrick and Maureen Owens, who provide pleasant Guesthouse facilities at reasonable cost.
Ballon Garden comprises a pretty lawn surrounded by a variety of interesting and unusualshrubs and trees, mainly dwarf conifers, planted over the last half century by Statia O’Neill and her husband. Open to the public on Sundays only.
Ballon Hill, about 137m / 450ft above sea level, is almost uniformly convex in shape, and the views from the summit are said to take in nine counties.
This is believed to have been an ancient venue for events comparable to Scotland’s Highland Games.
Remains of a prehistoric settlement have been found, and an ancient chieftain, Cathair Mor, is supposed to have been buried here in 177 AD. A large number of clay vessels were dug up in the mid-C19th when a quarry was opened.
Cloghan-na-Marbhan (the “Stone of the Dead”), still used as a slide by local children, was excavated by Mr. John Lecky and his brother in law Mr. Smyth in 1852, and found to contain three human skeletons and finely detailed Bronze Age urns holding the remains of animal and bird bones, presented to the NMI in 1928 by Col. Beauchamp Lecky.
Ballon Hill was also the site of an early aviation disaster, when a homemade bi-plane crashed on its maiden flight in 1909. People in the village still have parts of the aircraft, including the engine. Its owner, “Captain Johnnie” Lecky, a great admirer of the Wright Brothers, was subsequently killed in WWI.
His pilot cousin Robert Maxwell Lecky-Pike was also killed in action during WWI, and his nephew David Ebenezer Lecky-Pike was 20 when he was killed in a bombing raid over Germany in 1945.
Molly Lecky, born 1907, was one of dozens of women RAF pilots who flew American-built planes to Britain during WWII, and was presumed killed when a plane she was flying was lost in 1942.
The Carlow Stone Centre carries on the ancient local tradition of stonemasonry, examples of which can be seen in walls all around the Ballon district.
Ballon is within easy reach of Aghade on ByRoute 5.
Fenagh & Nurney (Co. Carlow / North)
Fenagh / Fennagh (Fionnmhach), a handsome village with fine views of Mount Leinster, was home to a Quaker community in the C18th, of which no trace remains.
All Saints’ Church (CoI) dates from 1790 and is still in regular use.
Fenagh Steam Rally, held every September in aid of a cancer hospice, is one of the longest running and most successful such events in the country, with a widerange of steam-powered machines such as threshers and tractors, ploughing competitions, vintage and classic cars, a dog show, stalls, games and great atmosphere. (Photo – www.carlowtourism.com)
Fenagh is not far from Myshall on ByRoute 5.
Nurney (An Urnai), laid out in the C18th by the Bruen family of Oak Park, Carlow Town, is a pleasant village located at the junction of several roads, with good views of the Killeshin Hills.
St John’s church (CoI), a small well-proportioned hilltop edifice with an elegant spire, was erected in 1792 and is still in reguar use.
The Cross of Nurney and another ancient stone High Cross stand in the field behind the churchyard.
The village has an interesting pub, and there are granite quarries in the vicinity.
Nurney is close to Tinryland, just south of Carlow Town.
Clonmelsh is the location of burial ground around vestiges of an ancient church; amongst those interred are members of the Disney family, ancestors of Walt.