Woodstock is like Neverland. It’s as if Tinker Bell scattered fairy dust along this tree-mendous trail of Titan like Red Woods, hooky Monkey Puzzles, weeping Irish Beech and bowing (Japanese Emperor’s) sacred trees. Arboretum is such a non-word and forest so plain. Woodstock is much more than the sum - it never leaves you; whether its the creaking of the thick torsos in the summer breeze; the scent of wild woodbine beneath them in autumn; the sound of river water, the birds.......
Everyone adores it, yet we are all guilty of taking it for granted, not making more use of it; of not exposing our children to this most appetising feast of the senses. Why not rediscover the magic and just go....
Wonderfully haunting with magical forest walks and two breathtaking avenues; one of Noble Fir and the other of Monkey Puzzle trees; bordered by the River Nore and a place where the red squirrels thrive; where a woman of substance brought about a Renaissance like revival and who was the beneficiary of the first ecumenical funeral in Ireland.
Lady Louisa Tighe only died in 1900 and she was the real guiding force behind this place of beauty, grace, reputation and most of all, blessed trees.
Her godfather was one Horatio Nelson, Duke of Wellington of Waterloo fame and her father was a heavy drinking duellist.
Woodstock also has a strong association with a wonderful, possibly lesbian, pair of unconventional Victorian women (the Ladies of Lalangollen ). The burning of the big house here was the epitome of hatred and bitterness in the country during The Troubles. With these Victorian types, there were always shady goings on of a possible sexual nature.
At Woodstock, the women (bored) dressed up as milking parlour maids in a game at the “Baths” where they could not be seen except by those seated on a number of stones behind where we presume the men folk watched them. One of the seats also had a little waterfall which ran over the person sitting. It could well be a scene out of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Set here too is the saga of the great Tighe family who have left us with so much to enrich our lives. Unexplained deaths, murder, intrigue and financial difficulties hit them hard.
And Kilkenny County Council take a bow. The vision to buy this place after being spurred on by former Fine Gael Councillor Andy Cotterell and the rest of those involved in a Fas course there, was inspiring. County manager Paddy Donnelly was always innovative as was the newly appointed county engineer of the time, Don O’Sullivan while the county secretary back then, Philip O’Neill facilitated the local people anyway he could. It has borne fruit. The 50 acres were sold for a nominal £100 by Mr Anthony Tighe of Northants in England around 1998-99. He has proven a great friend to Woodstock over the years and of course the rest of the huge estate has been leased out to Coillte.
Today Woodstock is a hugely popular visitor attraction with children’s playground, tea rooms and many exciting features to keep everyone happy.
Head gardener at Woodstock, John Delaney from Ballyragget explained the essence of the place: “It’s the trees.” And as he spoke, looking down the walled garden,with the fog lifting over Woodstock, landscape architect, Claire Goodwin, nodded her head in agreement. The other gardeners; Tommy Smyth, Matt Drea, Patrick McGrath, John Bennett and Liam Curran do a fantastic job and to think there are 30 acres of grass to be mowed before you do anything else. It is a labour of love and a true vocation.
They understand they are the trustees of the best tree-garden in Europe, a fact agreed by experts the world over.
The work at Woodstock never stops and you have to keep on top of it or it will go feral again.
It is the magnificence of the trees that is at the heart of Woodstock. It conjures up the image of far-flung ships bringing back priceless seeds, saplings and plants from exotic places for re-planting at Woodstock under the watchful eye of Lady Louisa. For others, Woodstock is epitomised by the Turner designed conservatory where the toffs enjoyed afternoon tea.
Or is it the dove- cote, providing six week old chicks for the dining room table to the pampered or is it the exquisite walled garden, once heated by giant fires at the back which warmed the specially placed bricks at the front that released heat and where there were glasshouses growing such exotics as melons. There is a micro-climate at play in the walled garden and here everything was grown from flowers for the displays to the spuds to the herbs. Today, thanks to the TLC of John Delaney and his team it looks magnificent and worth the price of admission on its own.
To think that 150 years ago, young boys stoked the fires behind the walled garden all night to keep them burning while sleeping overhead and sharing their lodgings with spailpins and journeymen gardeners who came to marvel and to learn.
The long since quenched fires explain the chimney on the corner of the west side of the walled garden.
Our story starts with the British Military and the Tighes who were high ranking officers and their quest for something different - far away trees for their arboretum at Woodstock.
Lady Louisa supervised everything and worked with the head gardeners to make Woodstock the envy of all others.
And when the best known collectors of rare specimens, the Menzies were offered the seeds of the Monkey Puzzle tree to eat at a dinner party hosted by the Governor of Chile, their mouths opened in awe not hunger and they put them straight into their pockets. The same seeds form part of the staple diet of the red squirrels at Woodstock.
As you walk around the pleasure lawns, past the playground on the left, the popular and Latin names are written in little plaques at the bottom of each tree.
Take your time and imagine the Tighes in the big house coming out on the front lawn for a game of croquet and checking the health of the latest specimen brought back from Mexico or The Russian Steppes.
Think of the path in the walled garden, made to allow two women in dresses to pass with tall borders on each side to ensure they did not see where the vegetables were grown.
In her delightful book, The 100 Best Gardens in Ireland, Shirley Lanigan shares her enthusiasm for Woodstock with the readers: “All over the pleasure grounds, clearances have revealed gardens not seen properly for nearly a century; the yew walk and kitchen gardens, only barely discernible until lately...” There is a charge of E4 per car and once you park, consult the illustrated lay-out of what’s ahead of you.
The length of your stay will depend on how fit you feel and how much time you have. There are a number of walks but I would recommend doing the full circle from Woodstock down to the river passing close to the Red House, built as a shooting lodge by the Tighes and where people tied their boats directly below. It is idyllic and as you get to within striking distance of the village, on your left, high up the fir covered slope, is Mount Sandford Castle. A folly built in 1769. It has the best views of the river and the village.
Before that, is the Ice House on the same side of the walk from where the ice was carried up to the big house. It is now home to a roost of Daubenton’s Bats. Walk in, the bats won’t bother you.
Back to the arboretum. The American red woods (150 years old) which are native to a small area of California where John Steinback set many of his novels, will keep growing for hundreds of years to come and will dwarf every other thing living at Woodstock and might climb as high as nearby Mount Alto from where fresh water steams feed the estate.
My favourite tree is the Japanese tree of life (The Emperor’s Sacred Tree) between the winter garden and the walled garden and a woman walking at Woodstock on Saturday as the Operation Transformation event was being held, said she once saw some visitors bowing in courtesy at the tree.
Enhancing Woodstock never ends. All the original garden furniture at Woodstock was sold at auction in the 1950s.
Much of it has been replaced and by using old photos, it has been done so authentically.
The most important piece of this jigsaw is the Conservatory that was completely dismantled and sold for scrap. All that was left were the stone bases, and even they were smashed by vandals.
The restoration was expertly carried out to the highest standard by the Powers of New Ross. In essence, the council had to start from scratch and the work so far has been top class. One of the most memorable views at Woodstock is from behind the seat facing the conservatory with the terraced garden in between. The gardeners dug it all up and found the original circular borders with the cinders and that is what you see today.
It is important that if you visit Woodstock, you also go to the Church of Ireland in the corner of the village square and more importantly into the old abbey and graveyard yard behind which has been scrupulously cleaned up by local people.
What an example to the rest of the county on what can be done with a bit of co-operation and common sense.
There is a tomb here to the poet Mary Tighe while, more importantly, the tombs of both Lady Louisa and her husband William are in the tower of the old abbey and this has been sealed. Why I don’t know. The place looks like it could collapse at any stage and is worth visiting. And it is then that you realise Lady Louisa’s hand is everywhere. The fountain in the middle of the square was erected by her in 1879 in memory of her husband William. When she died in 1900, the local Catholic clergy and the Church of Ireland bishop were present and the Union Jack placed on her coffin.