The Snowdrop Week at Altamont Gardens has become not only the established snowdrop event of each year here in Ireland but it is, undoubtedly, the best. It has run each year for over ten years and there are many reasons it is so successful.

The front of the house with a mature weeping ash underplanted with crocus, winter aconite and snowdrops
At the rear of the house, looking down through the Rose beds with the iconic large specimen yews and the yew arch leading the visitor to the lake

It the first place, it has the wonderful setting of Altamont Gardens, the gardens of the late Mrs. Corona North and now in the hands of the Office of Public Works, and while these are wonderful gardens at any time of the year there is a special delight in visiting in spring as the plants wake for another season. Perhaps it is a rather peculiar comment to make but, though Mrs. North is dead for quite some years, the gardens continue to be her gardens, in her style, with her feeling about them and this is because of the good fortune that the head gardener, Paul Cutler, worked with Mrs. North for some years before her death, became perfectly familiar with her ethos and has continued to maintain and develop the garden in a manner which is loyal to its creator – a very difficult task but perfectly achieved. Though I can’t say for sure, I believe that Mrs. North saw in Paul a gardener with the same vision of gardening as she had and, so in the most practical manner, she ensured the gardens would continue as she hoped after her death. How odd of me to speak of death in the spring of the garden year but it is part and parcel of life.

The Nun’s Walk which is to the side of the garden with a bank of clipped laurel to the left, as we look at it, and a line of beech trees to the right. The beech trees have been underplanted with large numbers of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and a selection of hellebores in a wide range of colours. Some of the mature beech trees have had to be replaced in recent years, as you can see from the photograph.
The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, with hellebores at the foot of a beech tree.
Nature could not have designed it better: snowdrops among the roots of a beech tree.

Another aspect of the Snowdrop Week at Altamont which contributes hugely to its success is the time the gardeners give to the visitors both in preparation and while the visitors are in the garden. The snowdrops are clearly labelled so it is possible to wander the garden and take note of the various cultivars grown there, enjoy them at your own pace, take photographs etc. or you can join the guided tours where the details of the various snowdrops are given in a very clear and informative way.

Snowdrops planted in a woodland setting

A huge bonus for Altamont is the presence of Robert Millar’s “Altamont Plants” in the walled garden and there are very few garden centres which have what I would describe as such tasty plants, desirable and garden-worthy plants. Yes, it is entering the jaws of temptation in a big way to visit but it is so worthwhile. At this time of the year there is always a great selection of snowdrops – Robert, along with Hester Forde, organises the annual Snowdrop Gala when interesting speakers are brought in to entertain the attendees and where Avon Bulbs, probably the best suppliers of snowdrops in the U.K., bring a wide range and large stock of new and interesting snowdrops each season. Those who attend the gala have first bite of the apple, so to speak, but there is still and extensive stock available in the nursery afterwards for the visitors. I came along a few days after the gala and found the rare and highly-desirable Galanthus ‘South Hayes’ – and at a rock-bottom price, thanks to Robert! At this time of year, the display of hellebores is always outstanding and difficult to resist; as are the witch hazels and the wide array of spring-flowering bulbs – there is always something to tempt the gardener!

Galanthus 'South Hayes'
My special prize from my visit: Galanthus ‘South Hayes’

As well as the immediate interest in snowdrops, Altamont is simply a wonderful garden such that even the non-gardener enjoys the experience. There is the short and very pleasant walk around the garden and the lake- which was half frozen this week, by the way – and the further and longer walk through the glen, to the banks of the River Barrow, up the 100 granite steps and back to the gardens either through the arboretum or via The Temple. There is plenty to interest the avid gardener and those “dragged along” all through the year.

The lake is a wonderful attraction – notice the water in the foreground is frozen!
The reflections show off the trees so well
Plenty of space to walk with the children

We had planned our visit for the Snowdrop Week for the Wednesday but sat at breakfast on Tuesday morning looking out at blue skies and brilliant sunshine and decided to make hay while the sun shone as there was no guarantee that Wednesday would bring better weather. As we travelled northwards on the M9, the sleet began to fall just after Kilkenny – over half way to our destination so we decided to persist. The hills of the Castlecomer Plateau were quickly covered in snow and we felt that, perhaps, we had made a bad decision. Altamont is a cold spot – I recall, during the bad weather of spring 2011, arriving at Altamont and saying to Paul Cutler that we had had -7C during the previous night and the replying that he had recorded -17C in the garden.  We arrived and it was miserable, a strong, cold and cutting wind with driven sleet.

A view back to the house from across the lake showing the snowdrops growing in the grass.
Double borders  (2)
In summer the double herbaceous borders in the walled garden are fabulously colourful but there is interest there at this time of year also with hellebores and snowdrops

We had only entered the walled garden when Robert Millar spotted the two drowned rats from Waterford and took us in for a cup of coffee. It was most welcome and heated us up a little before we ventured out into the garden. We went only as far as the front of the house before we decided that retreat might be the better option and headed off for lunch to The Step House in Borris – which was delicious! It looked like the day was brightening so we decided to head back to Altamont for the afternoon but the weather was only worse. We managed a quick run around the snowdrops and headed home. Monday of this week brought a wonderful day – cold but dry and sunny – and we enjoyed a beautiful time in the gardens.

Hellebores  (9)
Some beautiful hellebores in the walled garden

Hellebores  (8)

Hellebores  (3)

Skimmia red berries  (1)
This Skimmia always delights me with it brilliant red berried in mid-winter
The witch hazel gives wonderful colour and scent in mid-winter
Galanthus elwesii 'Helen Thomlinson'  (2)
And, finally, the snowdrop which Paul Cutler has told me is the most admired and most commented on when he gives guided tours of the collection is Galanthus elwesii ‘Helen Thomlinson’

Paddy Tobin

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