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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Fun of the Fair

A great day out at Cottesbrooke Plant Finders Fair, in the award-winning grounds of Cottesbrooke Hall, just north of Northampton. Specialist nurseries from as far afield as Bristol are there all weekend with a wide variety of plants - many of them unusual and eyecatching - so there's lots to tempt you. My only gripe was the queues. The caterers seemed unprepared for the demand for drinks, and a limited number of ticket-sellers at the gates meant a long tailback of cars waiting to get into the grounds. We ground to a halt about two and a half miles from Cottesbrooke, and spent the next half-hour inching our way forward. Let's hope that the situation improves for visitors during the next two days.
Cottesbrooke Plant Finders Fair, Cottesbrooke Hall, Northampton, NN6 8PF
Open 10am - 5.30 pm each day. Admission £7.50

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Emerald interlude

The rhododendrons now brightening up borders everywhere remind me of a magical visit to Ireland last July. After landing at Dublin, we'd headed south to Co Wicklow for lunch at Avoca Handweavers in Kilmacanogue. I knew their gardens would be spectacular - they were once attached to the house of the Jameson's Whiskey family - but was bowled over by the glorious colours on these bushes right outside the Avoca restaurant entrance. The setting is a real plus for visitors who go there for the award-winning food and the Irish knitwear, cookbooks and gifts on sale. There's also a garden centre with a wide range of speciality plants - I left wishing I lived locally and could stock up on a regular basis.

Co Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland - and with good reason. Not far from Avoca, in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, is the hauntingly beautiful Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded in the 6th c by St Kevin on a site between two lakes. Walking trails take you past Celtic cross gravestones and the ruins of ancient grey stone buildings. The 30 metre high Round Tower (pictured) still dominates the site, while a well thought out heritage centre gives a insight into the area's history.

The next day we found more echoes of Ireland's past at the World Heritage Site of Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb in Co. Meath (above). Some 3,200 years ago, its builders had the skills and knowledge to exactly align the passage so, at the winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the central burial chamber. You can enter only with a guide, who, for a brief moment, will extinguish all lights apart from the one which mimics the sun's rays shining through a portal. It's a profoundly moving experience.
There are more passage graves (one reputed to be around 5000 years old) in the grounds of Loughcrew House, also in Meath, but what really caught my eye there were the beautiful gardens with their unusual sculptures (above). There are six acres to stroll around, laid out by past generations of the Naper family, who've lived there since 1665. In 1997 Emily Naper began the major task of their restoration.
She's created new borders (this one backs on to an old wall), terraces and woodland walks, and has turned the grounds into a venue for weddings - in the romantic ruined church of St Oliver Plunkett - summer concerts, opera, and festivals.

All these beautiful sites are just an hour or so's drive from Dublin - but a world away from that city's buzz and bustle. Just remember to keep an umbrella handy for the showers that make Ireland the Emerald Isle.