A garden of delights at Tullynally Castle
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Tullynally Castle Gardens should be high on everyone’s list of spots to visit in Westmeath this summer. Located just outside Castlepollard, it has recently reopened its gardens to the public and is an idyllic place to spend a few hours.
The castle has been home to the Pakenham Family, later Earls of Longford, for over 350 years. It is a private residence, inhabited since 1964 by Thomas and Valerie Pakenham. Thomas is a remarkable character. In his late eighties, though with the energy and verve of a man twenty years younger, he is an author and a passionate environmental activist. Valerie is also a writer, as well as an avid gardener. Though the layout of the magnificent estate dates mainly to the early 1800s, they have firmly put their stamp on it and have added many new attractive features with a cheeky sense of fun.
Here’s what you can expect from a visit – acres of beautifully maintained and serene 18th century gardens, forest walks, statuary, walled flower gardens and ornamental lakes. Noteworthy varieties of mature trees have been allowed to grow undisturbed and there are quirky features to be found in every nook and cranny.
The estate is located at the end of a tree-lined avenue. Upon first approach, you can’t fail to be wowed by the magnificent castle which punctuates the skyline with a series of towers, spires and tall Tudoresque chimneystacks in an attractive hodge-podge of architectural styles.
A key-coded gate leads to the Pleasure Ground and Woodland Garden. From here, manicured terraced lawns slope away from the main house leading to arresting views of the surrounding countryside with the mound of Knockeyon visible in the distance. The estate doesn’t feel at all fussy or formal. Rather, there is a controlled wildness to it which makes it all the more appealing.
Thomas’ love of travel and his adventures around the world have influenced the development of the natural environment. The woodland gardens have been enriched with a wealth of exotic trees and plants in a riot of colour, many collected as seed from as far afield as China, Tibet and India. Recent additions to the grounds include lilies and a collection of rare magnolias.
Make sure to pick up some information leaflets at reception which will tell you what is in flower, and where to find them on-site. The Tullynally Tree Trail guide was also very useful – expect to find species such as Japanese Cedars, Red Maple, Weeping Willow and the exuberant Copper Beech.
Your first port of call should be the Grotto, built c.1830 of eroded limestone from nearby Lough Derravaragh. A local woodcarver Antoine Pierson has decorated the interior with some wonderful carvings. Kids will love the Tullynally Discovery Trail with fifteen fun things to search for. Count the number of goblins, look out for the hungry wolf or the wizard looking down from above, and don’t miss the hobgoblin carved in a yew tree. Just around the corner, a family of llamas is an unexpected find and will spark joy in adults and children alike.
Make your way to the Kitchen Garden and in front of a small summerhouse you’ll find two Nandi, or sacred Indian bulls by the wonderful Mel French from Streete, who was also responsible for the sculpture of Maria Edgeworth in Edgeworthstown.
Along the lower path of the Flower Garden is an unusual lily pond with a fountain designed as a “weeping pillar” - apparently a late Regency device. A long Gothick summerhouse runs along the upper terrace, complete with two wooden thrones. A number of brightly painted red benches are strategically placed to take full advantage of the garden views.
Just around the corner lies the Tibetan Garden, an absolute haven of tranquillity featuring a replica Tibetan summerhouse, brightly painted in red with two dragons fighting on the ceiling. Almost all of these plants were grown from seeds brought back from Tibet by Thomas including a blue Himalayan poppy. A stream flows gently past, broken up in places by tiny waterfalls.
Stone steps will take you down to the Upper Lake where a picture-postcard landscape can be enjoyed from a wooden summer hut. The air is redolent with the scent of flowers, and weeping willows skim the water as ducks float nonchalantly past. Kids should look out for the Crocodile on an Island, perched on a patch of green in the middle of the lake, also by Antoine Pierson.
A personal highlight was the Chinese Garden, a little Zen paradise in the middle of the forest. A vibrant red pagoda houses a figure of Buddha who surveys the landscape from his elevated position. A pond snakes through the grass with trees and exotic plants on either side; a mini waterfall provides a calming soundtrack and is a soothing balm for the soul.
In a clearing on the way to the Lower Lake you’ll find the Gingerbread House, built in the 1990s for the owner’s grandchildren. It is almost hidden from view by trees and framed by two rare magnolia bushes in full glorious bloom.
Back on the Discovery Trail, the Lower Lake is home to a pair of swans, nesting on an island in the middle. There are two fabulous viewing points of the castle at this end: from the Viewing Hut at the far end of the lake, and from the newly constructed Viewing Mound. The route back to the main house is well-signposted throughout.
Guided tours of the house have been put on hold for the foreseeable future due to Covid-19 restrictions, but the gardens are well worth a visit. They are operating an online timed-ticketing system to ensure safer visits for all.
Tearooms are currently open for takeaway - more info here
Everything you need to know can be found on their website here - http://www.tullynallycastle.ie/