A Passion For Rhododendrons


SEVENTY-three years ago something went wrong with the drains in the Lacky Watson family home, Lumclone, in Co Carlow. Luckily, Mrs Lecky Watson had discovered a house just eight miles away that was for rent: a house with a magical, mysterious lake at the bottom of the garden.

The grounds of the house, Altamont, were wild and unkempt, and foot-high grass crowded in the drawing-room windows, but the glassy lake captured her heart the minute she saw it. They took Altamont for a year, and the new baby - who had been made ill by the drains - grew healthy and hearty.

Well, the new baby will be 74 this summer, and she is still at Altamont, for her parents never left it after the drains were fixed at Lumclone. The lake had proved irresistible to Corona North's mother, while her father, Feilding Lecky Watson, had found that the soil was perfect for his passion: growing rhododendrons. An old greenhouse inside the Victorian walled garden provided ideal conditions for germinating and growing on the seeds that he received from botanical expeditions.

As a younger man, Mr Lecky Watson had been a tea-planter in Ceylon and it was here that he fell for the Rhododendron genus. But, upon his return to Ireland for a spell of leave, a dreadful, two-year bout of malaria left him partially paralysed and unable to take part in the expeditions that he would dearly loved to have joined. Instead he became an expert propagator of seed, growing on rhododendrons for the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Kew and Edinburgh.

His daughter Corona was just as smitten as he by this diverse family of woody plants. So much so, that when she was demobbed after the second World War - during which she served as a driver - she told the demobbing committee that she would like to learn to hybridise rhododendrons.

"Ah, yes," they agreed. "What we'll do is send you to an agricultural college." They were as good as their word, and at Cirencester in Gloucestershire Corona was assiduously taught "to grow very good carrots and cabbages, and that sort of thing. And nobody even mentioned hybridising rhododendrons!"

Corona's father died in 1943, but his legacy lives on at Altamont in the numerous rhododendrons that be grew from seed, and in the indomitable spirit of his daughter. When she came back home in the late I940s she set about planting trees around the lake - where nature had again gained the upper hand. "It was a sheet of briars, it was completely choked up. I just made holes where I thought things would grow." And grow they did, despite the vicious frosts that attack almost every year.

But the frosts brought a pleasant surprise to Altamont too. One year a house party from nearby came to skate on the frozen lake, and when Corona looked out she saw "a beautiful skater, sailing around the ice, while everyone else was fumbling and in fear of failing over". He was a "varminty-looking young man in a deer-stalker hat and knickerbockers, and I said `Gosh! Who's that? Someone really can skate!'"

She married her varminty young man, Garry North (they spent the first night of their honeymoon in Henry VIII's and Anne Boleyn's bed chamber in the Tower of London) and they moved into the keeper's cottage on the other side of the lake. Corona continued to work in the gardens, creating a ribbon arboretum and a bog garden along the path that connected her cottage to the big house.

And over the years she has gradually pried Altamont from the all-too-eager embrace of nature. Now it is one of the most romantic and beautiful gardens in Ireland where vast lawns outlined by box hedging roll down to the lake, where old-fashioned shrub roses billow with blossom and where thousands of remarkable trees and shrubs fill the view. And Corona herself, at a time of life when many of us are settling down for a well-earned snooze, is still planning - and planting - for the future. A new wildlife area has just been constructed, and last Thursday an elegant-triple-arched bridge built by FAS workers - was opened.

"I just do all this because I want the garden to continue," she says. And to ensure that it does, forever, Corona North will be giving Altamont to the nation in the not-too-distant future.