Authors and their Gardens by Paddy Tobin

A review of A Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors, by Jackie Bennett, with photographs by Richard Hanson – descriptions of nineteen gardens with the added interest of information on the authors who gardened in them.

For some of the authors in this book their garden was a place which provided inspiration – Beatrix Potter at Hill Top and Jane Austen at Dogmersham – for others the garden was a place in which they found the peace to write – Roald Dahl at Gipsy House and Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House –  for some the garden was purely functional, providing for the household – Thomas Hardy at Hardy’s Cottage and  Robert Burns at Ellisland -while others were devoted and ambitious gardeners who invested their incomes heavily in their gardening passion – Walter Scott at Abbotswood and Charles Dickens at Gad’s Hill Place.

The Writer's Garden

As with any selection of gardeners, the authors and gardens selected for this book had a variety of levels of interest in their garden, many differing approaches to it and their gardens reflected this.  This is part of the essential interest of gardening – we all start off with a patch of ground and a similar selection of plants and yet no two gardens will be the same.  This is the basic interest of the book, a description of nineteen different gardens. That well known authors created the gardens adds to the interest giving them a social connection and, in this case, a literary connection.

It struck me that for the purposes of assembling a book such as this that the gardens of poets would be more suitable for inclusion. Quoting a chunk of prose alongside a description of a garden is rather cumbersome – and not done in this book beyond a line or two – whereas a verse of poetry can be included so very easily and can say so much more in a very few words. I would have liked the inclusion of far more poets and far more poetry as it would have brought the literary content of the book to a far more enjoyable level.

The book is very pleasantly written if unexciting; it is agreeable and does not criticise nor appraise the gardens too rigorously. Indeed, few of the gardens would be regarded as great gardens, their claims to fame lies with their one time owners rather than in their designs or plant content.  It is heart-warming to read that these gardens continue to be cared for and, generally, are open to the public thanks to the work of either local societies or the National Trust.

The photographs used in the book are excellent, giving an insightful view into these gardens and capturing their atmospheres very successfully. Alongside the main text and photographs in each entry there are side panels with biographical information on each author with a listing of works written at each garden.

All in all, this is an enjoyable book, nicely written and well illustrated with a richness of interesting facts about the authors and their gardens.

A Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors, by Jackie Bennett, with photographs by Richard Hanson, Frances Lincoln, London, 2014, Hardback, 176pp, £25. ISBN: 978-0-7112-3494-9

Paddy Tobin

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Snowdrop Time is with us again!

The major event of the snowdrop season is the open week at Altamont Gardens in Co. Carlow. The gardens are open to the public completely free of charge and Paul Cutler, the head gardener, gives a guided walk of  the garden twice each day pointing out the various cultivars grown in the garden and telling of their origins and distinguishing features.

Over the past number of years Paul has built up an interesting collection of snowdrops and has taken a particular interest in snowdrops of Irish origin so it is a good place to view these.


Many of my age will recall with great affection the days when the gardens were in the hands of the late Mrs. Corona North. This was her family home and they created a wonderful garden here. The layout and comfortable atmosphere of the garden is a great credit to her. Since her death the gardens have been in the hands of the Office of Public Works and I often reflect that she would be delighted with the gardens as they are today. Her original layout, planting and the feeling she created in the garden has not only been maintained but has been improved and this is a great credit to the present gardeners at Altamont.


There are three main plantings of snowdrops in the garden. On entering from the carpark area – we will skip the walled gardens for the moment – the first view is of the “Nun’s Walk”, a line of beech trees underplanted with Galanthus nivalis, G nivalis flore pleno along with a sprinkling of cyclamen and hellebores with all bordered by a white-flowering periwinkle (Vinca). Some of the older beech trees have had to be replaced but the area still has the atmosphere of great age and of peace and quiet.


The central axis of the garden is lined with box hedges which have been brought back from bad health and are now looking wonderful again. Behind the hedges are the rose beds which run down a gentle slope from the house to the lake. The roses are underplanted with a wide selection of snowdrops and the snowflakes – Leucojum vernum var carpathicum – which Mrs North loved so much. The iconic yew arches of the garden are also on this axis.


Parallel with the main axis there is an small area of woodland which houses an excellent selection of snowdrops in a most natural setting. The snowdrops are interplanted with hellebores with a generous sprinkling of winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, all followed by the feathery soft foliage and flowers of corydalis.



The non-snowdrop lovers on your outing to the garden need not want for enjoyment as a walk around the lake is a delight – and you needn’t mention that there are several good plantings of snowdrops on the way round. Half way round one comes on a set of steps running down to the glen. This is an area where the only work done by the gardeners has been to facilitate access. It is an area of running streams, small bridges, large rocks, high tree, fallen trees with moss, greenery and shafts of overhead sunlight.


The end of the pathway through the glen brings one to the banks of the River Barrow, to open skies and views along impressive stretches of the river. The return to the garden is via “The One Hundred Steps” – yes, 100 granite steps set into the hillside and I have checked the count on several occasions with my sons when they were young enough to wish to come with us and on my own accord regularly just to be sure all is as it should be.


After completing the tour of the garden it is time to visit the walled garden where the double herbaceous borders, originally designed and planted by Assumpta Broomfield, are a feature of summer visits. At this time of year they are home to a collection of very interesting snowdrops and to Robert Millar’s outstanding plant sales area. I know of no better place in Ireland to find interesting snowdrops as Robert has been collecting now for many years, has built up many varieties in good numbers, and has a large range available for sale. This really is the place to go to purchase snowdrops and this is a great benefit as you can see the snowdrops before you purchase them and be sure they are true to type and are in good health – and I can assure you that they are.


Presently, along with the snowdrops, there is a fabulous collection of hellebores in the most amazing colours – the yellows were especially amazing –  with stocks from Ashwood and Harvington Nurseries in the UK. Other delights were the witch hazels and the spring flowering irises.

Enough said – as you can gather I really enjoy my visits to Altamont and particularly enjoy the gardens at snowdrop time. Come and visit the gardens any day through this week and enjoy a guided tour with Paul Cutler and follow up by treating yourself at Robert Millar’s plant sales.


Paddy Tobin

Some dates of interest:

IGPS: “Snowdrops in an Irish Garden”, a talk at the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin on 12th February

Naomi Slade at Bellefield House on 14th February. Naomi Slade is the author of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops, an excellent book (Review).

IGPS members are visiting Altamont on Sunday 15th for a guided tour with Head Gardener, Paul Cutler.

Assumpta Broomfield at Burtown House a “Walk and Talk” of the garden featuring the snowdrops in flower on Sunday 22nd. The gardens will be  open from March 14th to April 1st from 10a.m. to 4p.m.

Primrose Hill, Lucan is open all this month in the afternoons – the home of Irish snowdrops!


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