Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Blooms with a view is the Wicklow Way

It's been a good year for the roses in the Garden of Ireland

It is a wonderful year for roses. They seem to have bloomed as never before. I look at that rarity, Californica, now in a cascading flood of colour, since its habit is to cascade downwards, and imagine brides carrying bouquets of the strangely intense, deep flush pink flowers in their hands as they walk up the aisle. Then there is Frulingspring, now over, or Frulingsmorgen, just at its peak of colour.

At the very beginning of July, Belvedere blooms, its small intense pink buds covering the walls of houses lucky enough to have it growing. It once adorned the Jealous Wall at Belvedere House, near Mullingar and Lough Ennell, but the rose was lost there when the wall was restored. By then, it had been propagated and was owned by lucky people who were inspired by its unique, strong pink colouring. But you will not find it in many rose books.

The same is true of another rarity, Bengal Fire, a wonderful large magenta-red single bloom that seems all over the place -- the buds quite tight, the open flower as floppy as a butterfly. It climbs high and seems to bloom throughout the year.

These are a few exceptional delights. But the whole of Wicklow -- as well as all the other counties in the country -- is alive with brilliant demonstrations of the ubiquity and unfathomable glory of the rose. It is unarguably the greatest of all flowers and lies at the heart of the art of gardening which more people celebrate than any other art form, only partly conscious of it in that way.

It is also a great deal of hard work, of disappointment and of frustrations such as the weather. The weather may have had something to do with the prodigious beauty of this year's roses. The heavy rains a year ago, the hard frosts we endured earlier this year, are just of the exploratory equation about how Einstein's Theory of Relativity may have played a part.

The glories are to be seen throughout Wicklow as it reaches the mid-point of its wisely extensive Gardens Festival. This runs from Easter to the end of September, not quite early enough to catch the snowdrop collection at Altamont Gardens in Tullow, Co Carlow -- loosely included in Wicklow for gardeners' delight -- and not late enough to welcome the first buds on the camellias in November and December, harbingers of the fuller crop that stretches into spring again.

This year was the 20th anniversary of the festival and was opened by that great gardening authority, Helen Dillon (for full details see I have snowdrops from her garden in my own and she has a rose propagated by me growing up the side of her house in Ranelagh. I missed her speech at the opening, but I am sure it was direct and forthright, full of enthusiasm for the art that makes plants known to us and probably touched on the fact of gardening having come into its own this year, with fewer people travelling and the weather providing no excuse at all for not being at work in the soil.

I go regularly into Wicklow for the sake of gardens. I am drawn particularly to Mount Usher, with its glorious walks among azaleas and rhododendrons, wonderful giant eucalyptus trees and the shallow waters of the river flowing through. It was designed -- with the kind of expert help that all garden creation attracts -- by Edward Walpole, a businessman, part of his interest being the linen shop in Wicklow Street in Dublin.

The expert help came in part from William Robinson, the Irish garden designer working at the end of the 19th century, whose main idea was the natural planting of trees and shrubs which is so elegantly achieved in this fine Ashford garden.

Walpole knew it when it was a mill and had just an acre of ground, used for potato growing. He used to visit when on holiday, staying at Hunter's hotel, nearby, and then stayed at the house, taking it over, buying more land and giving us this unique place of beauty.

It should be said that Hunter's hotel has a garden that is part of the festival; a mix of flowers, lawns, shrubs, fruit and vegetables which contribute to the hotel's tradition of robust plates filled for lunches and dinners. You need to book.

Nearby, there is a third traditional garden at the Dower House, Rossanagh, as well as Nun's Cross, Tinnakilly and Villa Mimosa.

No less than 32 gardens participate in the festival and they stretch beyond the county borders into Carlow, Kildare, even as far as Wexford.

My own favourite is Kilruddery Gardens in Lord Meath's estate on the outskirts of Bray. It is the oldest garden in Ireland, the formal layout designed by a Huguenot called Bonnet who had been gardener to Sir William Petty, who mapped Ireland in the 17th century. Bonnet was a pupil of Andre le Notre, the great French garden designer, responsible for the Palace at Versailles.

It is all rigorously formal, the style set and dominated by the twin lakes or canals that stretch away towards a fountain. The background is mountainous in a modest, Bray Head sort of way in that direction with further higher hills framing the vista to the south.

To the right of the two canals, or mirroirs d'eau, there is a wooded wilderness and then, nearer to the house, a serious of enclosed garden spaces, one containing a round pond of water-lilies. There are many statues. One could imagine Watteau or Fragonard painting scenes of voluptuous delight, fetes champetres to amuse people and to help them pass the time in more indolent days long gone.

Returning the last time, this past week, I revisited a garden I knew and had not seen for more than 30 years. It had once been the home of a relation, someone who loved gardening.

To my surprise and joy, it was little changed. The plantings were as they had been. An ancient turning wall for a mill was still full of roses, all in bloom, their heavy heads bowing in deference to their own beauty. Time stood still and then vanished. Aunt Maud called from the door: "Tea is ready and I have made you the scones you love."