Woodstock’s steadfast trees

Kilkenny forest has deep roots

 “I leave Woodstock filled with hope. There has been storm damage but the majority of the trees have survived.” Photograph: Eric Luke

“I leave Woodstock filled with hope. There has been storm damage but the majority of the trees have survived.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 01:01

Driving up the long avenue of Kilkenny’s Woodstock House, high over Inistioge village, a line from Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees roots itself in my mind. “Their greenness is a kind of grief.” Today the gardens of Woodstock are abundant with a greenness. But recently there has also been a “kind of grief” surrounding the estate.

On February 12th of this year, a storm destroyed many of the trees which have attracted visitors to the gardens since the 19th century.

Approximately 120 trees fell, among them Monterey pines, noble firs, beech, silver firs, and lots of hemlocks throughout the forest.

As a result, over the past few weeks, the house and gardens have been closed to the public while a committed team has been working hard to remove hazardous trees and ensure safety for future visitors. Two trees in particular need to be lifted out from a rockery area by crane.

The clean-up is not an easy task,Claire Goodwin, landscape architect and my guide for the day, explains.

We are trudging across muddy paths, branches crackling underfoot. At the breathtaking Noble Fir Walk, trees lean precariously against each other like enormous drunks and Ken Ryan, Thurles tree surgeon and his men – the “A team”,Claire declares – are busy tidying up the debris.

We move on to the long avenue of stunning monkey puzzle trees. They are the nearest living example of trees from the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago, and it is hard not to feel humbled in their presence and grateful that only one of them fell in the storm. Later, I crouch at a fine Japanese red cedar that has fallen – in the past only emperors were allowed to touch them – and I feel blessed to run my hands along its deep red bark.

There remains a magnificent steadfastness to the trees that have survived, each one a testament to their unique place in the history of Woodstock. And what a history! The house, now a ruin, was originally built in 1745-47 for Sir William Fownes by the architect Francis Bindon. In 1804-06 flanking wings were added to designs by William Robertson, and a very decorative iron staircase was added in the 1850s by Richard Turner, the famous ironmaster. The main house was burnt in 1922 after the building had been occupied by the Black and Tans and now remains a lonely object on the landscape, overgrown with vegetation.

But was Woodstock ever a lost garden? “It didn’t just open again one day,”Claire explains. “People always had access to it,”adding, “Woodstock is not first and foremost about making money. It is a public place but the €80,000 we bring in annually will never cover the costs, which amount to roughly €220,000 a year.”

Woodstock operates on a staff of only three. Yet despite the lack of funds, the hard work of John Delaney, the head gardener, and caretakers John Bennett and Liam Curran, is evident throughout. Their maintenance and repairs have brought history back to life again so that it is easier to imagine Woodstock as it might have been. In the walled garden, cherry trees were cut back to recreate the herbaceous borders of the 19th century, originally made to hide the working garden. The central path was the width of two ladies’ dresses. Here I can nearly taste the peaches, pineapples and melons once grown in the glasshouses lining the heated walls – the young boys living in the tiny bothy huts outside, stoking the fires, warm at least during the winters. In the big house the “squawkers” from the Dove House are being roasted for dinner.

I leave Woodstock filled with hope. There has been storm damage but the majority of the trees have survived.

“Growth will continue. Little seedlings are already popping up,”Claire Goodwin says. The herbaceous borders will blossom with daisies and poppies in the summer and visitors will come along the newly restored river path to picnic under the trees or sip tea from china cups in the conservatory. Pine martens, badgers, jays, sparrow hawks, red squirrels will celebrate in their home. And there it is again – Philip Larkin’s poem throbbing in my head as I pass through the gates, head for Inistioge and leave those great trees behind. “Last year is dead, they seem to say,/ begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Enda Wyley is a poet. Her collection New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Dedalus Press later this year.

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