County Carlow is one of the smallest counties in Ireland but no less picturesque. To the east of the county are the splendid Blackstairs Mountains, while to the west stretch the lush, fertile Barrow Valley and the rolling Killeshin Hills. These hills offer the magnificent views across the surrounding countryside and to the county's main town, Carlow. It is a lively and rapidly growing town, home to some fine architectural features. The thirteenth-century ruins of Carlow Castle are worth a visit, as are the town's eighteenth-century courthouse and nineteenth-century cathedral. Perhaps the most impressive manmade feature is the Browne's Hill Dolmen, the largest dolmen in Ireland, dating to around 5,000 years ago.
However, Carlow is also a treasure trove of wonderful gardens to visit. Some of the best in the country are here and the county also contains what is regarded as the best garden centre in the country - Aboretum Home and Garden Heaven, which has been continously awarded 5 stars in the Bord Bia Garden Centre of the Year Awards.
'Altamont Gardens' is one of the jewels of the Carlow Garden Trail. The stunning borders in the walled gardens are awe inspiring to all who see them. The gardens are open year round with the exception being Christmas Day. A delightful blend of formal and informal gardens with riverside walks covering over 40 acres. The estate gains much of its character from the many mature trees, both natives in the avenues and woodland areas, and exotic specimens throughout the gardens including Deodar Cedar, Swamp Cypress, Red Oak and the Giant Redwood. The lawns are divided by sculpted yews which slope down to a lake surrounded by rare trees and rhododendrons and lead in turn to a very different garden featuring shrubs and trees introduced from abroad. A fascinating walk through the Arboretum, Bog Garden and Ice Age Glen with its canopy of ancient oaks and huge stone outcrops leads the visitor to the River Slaney.
The original Victorian layout was enhanced by Fielding Leckey Watson (and later by his daughter Carona North), following his purchase of Altamont in 1924. Corona travelled extensively in her search for plants, which continue to flourish throughout the gardens. When Corona North, who lovingly cared for the gardens for over 50 years died in 1999, the gardens were left to the state at her request. Ongoing restoration and maintenance continues under the careful stewardship of the Office of Public Works.
Altamont is a wonderful experience at any time of the year starting in spring with the wonderful snowdrop collection, one of the largest in Ireland and moving on to daffodils and other spring bulbs. In mid-summer the rose collection is in full bloom, followed by the wonderful contrasting autumnal colours and the spectacular silhouettes of the mighty trees in mid-winter.
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