wooden horses

Aldona at Large: …And, They’re Off!

This week we’re racing around then resting up in Ireland, congratulating a good friend on a big award, and celebrating my two new adopted “babies.” So fasten your seatbelts, because I’m hot to trot for the Irish National Stud, located in Tully, County Kildare.

The motto here is “Where Strength and Beauty Live As One” and it’s a great day out for horse- and garden-lovers alike.

Although the horse-breeding activities here date back to around 1900 and the work of Colonel William Hall-Walker, the Irish National Stud company was formed in 1945 to promote the interests of the Irish bloodstock industry. If you are horse-mad, you can see majestic, prize-winning thoroughbreds in ten stallion boxes like this:

or out grazing and gallivanting in the meticulously kept paddocks.

You can also visit the Sun Chariot Yard, named after a Triple Crown winner and used to house pregnant mares and yearlings; or the Foaling Unit; or the Saddlery, Forge, and Intensive Care unit. There’s a small museum to shed more light on “the Sport of Kings.”

But the Irish National Stud isn’t just about horses. It’s also about gardens, such as the Japanese Garden, which celebrated its centenary in 2010 and is considered to be the most beautiful in Europe. The gardens were designed in the early 1900s by Japanese landscape gardener Tassa Eida with the help of Col. Hall-Walker’s farm workers, and tell the story of The Life of Man.

You can tell that these gardens are mature and truly settled into their bones. They simply exude tranquility.

The plant material has knitted together to form a lush, though quiet, tapestry of textures.

When I saw this sign, however, my Puckish mind couldn’t help but wonder: “what if you became so oblivious, you forgot you had even brought your children?!”

Elsewhere on the grounds, there is a newer, much less formal garden. St. Fiachra’s Garden was created in 1999 and named after sixth century Irish monk who was honoured by the French as the patron saint of gardeners. It is meant to represent the natural environment that inspired the sixth and seventh century monastic movement in Ireland. There is a woodland walk, oak forest, and this:

A modern replica of an ancient stone hermitage.

Adjacent to the hermitage is St. Fiachra’s Rock and Natural Spring, with a statue of St. Fiachra himself.

For more information about the gardens and the horses, go to www.irish-national-stud.ie

After walking around for hours, I was ready to head back to the hotel. And what a glorious drive it was, right through the Wicklow Gap.

Gorgeous, windswept, barren—the road took me over the top of the Wicklow Mountains.

The landscape was dotted by stands of Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) and truly looked like the romantic setting of a 19th century novel. Oh Heathcliff, where are you?

Then I was back to the comforts of Hunter’s Hotel, Ireland’s oldest coaching inn dating back to around 1650. It has been run by the same family since 1825. Located in Rathnew, County Wicklow, it too is surrounded by lovely gardens. Imagine how glad I was to enjoy a quiet cup of tea and a nice read out in the sunshine.

The hotel’s gardens go down to the River Vartry. They’re laid out in the Victorian style with formal corners like this knot garden and even a croquet lawn, but also a large kitchen garden and an orchard with 100-year-old apple trees. There are beehives, and the restaurant grows most of its organic produce right here.

Other reasons to stay include comfortable areas for lounging, such as this sitting room with its nightly fire, quiet, well-aired bedrooms with good towels and bathrobes and thick linen sheets, and marvelous service. Over the three days I stayed there, however, not once could I get a decent internet connection, and the old black-and-white TV in my bedroom didn’t seem to work. And you know, it was a happy, happy thing. I was able to rest and relax, have a drink in the snug, and read my books.

The first night for dinner, I started with fresh honey glazed figs and feta cheese with balsamic dressing, followed by Thai prawn and coconut soup, then pan-fried filet of hake with mussel and white wine velouté, and fresh veggies from the kitchen garden. I rounded out the meal with nectarine tarte tatin and vanilla ice cream. All this was washed down with a couple of glasses of wine and a good cup of coffee. And it was all first-rate.

While sitting in the dining room, I noticed that many panes of glass in the windows have names and dates scratched on them—some going back to the 1800s.

Currently, the hotel is owned and run by two affable brothers, Richard and Tom Gelletlie, who carry on the tradition of hospitality begun in the 1820s by their great-great-grandparents, John and Catherine Hunter.

I sat down with Richard Gelletlie for a little chat.

“Was there a lot of pressure for you to follow in the family business?” I asked.

He looked genuinely bewildered. “But I never wanted to do anything else,” he replied.

His education in hospitality has been thorough—four and one half years at a college in Shannon, and then three years in England and Switzerland to learn a business that “my mother learned just by doing.”

“So, any plans to put in a waterpark or an adventure playground?”

He looked at me as though I’d grown another head, then realized I was pulling his leg and burst out laughing.

“No, nothing like that,” he vowed.

Here, the old ways rule. Richard starts many of the organically grown vegetables himself from seed. Whenever possible, all the food is locally sourced. The flowers placed throughout the small hotel come from the gardens. It’s the epitome of quiet, understated comfort, and that’s how it will stay.

Most of the clients are Irish. As Hunter’s Hotel is off the beaten track, I ask Richard if any famous people have ever visited. I sensed his reticence—“We are very discreet,” he said. But after a bit of gentle cajoling, he produced guestbooks signed by luminaries such as Stephen Spielberg, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, Angela Lansbury, Paul Simon, Liza Minelli, Daniel Day-Lewis, Seamus and Mary Heaney, and more—who have sampled the hotel’s old-fashioned hospitality. And so should you. To find out more, visit www.hunters.ie

In 2013, Tourism Ireland is promoting a year-long celebration called the Gathering, and invites everyone of Irish descent, or simply an interest in Ireland, to come visit and the many special events. Here’s the official website: www.thegatheringireland.com

Three Cheers for Sonia!

At the recent Garden Writers Association symposium held in Tucson, my pal Sonia Day, a woman of many talents, was given a highly coveted award: the gold medal for best all-around product for her latest book, The Untamed Garden, A Revealing Look At Our Love Affair With Plants, published by McLelland and Stewart. This award is not chopped liver. Her book was deemed the best of 215 entries, most of them from the U.S. The field included other books, magazines, newspaper sections, and electronic media. Congrats, Sonia, and well done, you!

Things That Make Me Happy

Meet my two new dogs, Willow (left) and Sadie. They were found chained up outside in the Port Severn area and rescued by two kind women. The dogs were emaciated and freezing, and suffering from fleas, worms, and ear infections. Their coats were so filthy and matted, they had to be clipped very short before they could even be shampooed. For several weeks, two couples fostered the dogs while looking for a permanent home.

Naturally, I had no intention of getting one dog, let alone two, but there you are. My daughter, Amy, sent me a Facebook page with a photo, we went to visit them, and that was that. Willow and Sadie are as sweet and gentle as they look and it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could be unkind to them. When I watch television, the two of them snuggle into my lap.

And speaking of lovely things, as of today, the total for our Hearts and Flowers Fundraising Campaign is over $200,000.

It you haven’t yet made a donation, there’s still time to get your year-end charitable tax receipt for any gift $10 or more. And please contact your councillor and the budget committee (we’ll be appearing before them between December and mid-January) to let them know that the TBG matters, and should be properly supported. Thank you, dear friends for all your help. Truly, my cup runneth over.

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