ESCAPE TO IRELAND #03 – Wicklow
ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #3 – Wicklow
Map of our route
Our 3rd day in SUNNY Ireland began with another shot behind the wheel of our rental car. Still not accustomed to getting in the wrong side of the car or driving on the wrong side of the road, but at least not jet lagged as on the first day. But, today required us to traverse from the suburbs north of Dublin to an area south of Dublin. Uh-ho that meant going through the city of Dublin which I did not look forward to at all. I was wishing it was a Sunday when everyone was in church for this part of the drive (notwithstanding the fact that less than 2% of the population attends church). But as fate would have it, it turned out to be a Wednesday. So, with GPS programmed, off we went.
As you know, Dublin is on a bay on the East side of Ireland (facing England), so skirting around the city on the east side would be quite wet and going around it on the west side would be way too long a drive so we plowed right in. As it turns out, our faithful GPS navigated us through the more or less industrial port area and through a bunch of suburbs and not through the construction laden downtown which made me very happy. Thank you Garmin. Traffic was certainly present at 10:00 am on a Wednesday but not what I would call heavy. However our route had countless turns up and down dozens of streets, some commercial streets lined with shops and others more residential and some quite industrial. I doubt I’d ever have found my way without help. But after countless twists and turns we emerged from the Dublin metropolitan area and found ourselves on a divided highway out in the country. Ok, now I can start breathing again.
After escaping Dublin our first stop of the day was Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow (less than an hour south of Dublin). The whole estate is 1,000 acres of mostly wild forest land. One area contains the house and gardens, along with a hotel and 2 golf courses. The other area is a couple of miles away and has a campground and picnic area by a decent waterfall.
The house is not all that impressive as such things go in Europe – although Lonely Plant put it in the top 10 houses and mansions to visit worldwide. However, the only rooms that seem to be open in the mansion are the ballroom and Garden rooms along with the stores, shops and restaurants. The rest is private space for the owners. So when one visits Powerscourt one is there to see the garden rather than the house.
Where Powerscourt is today there was once a medieval castle owned by the Le Poer family from which “Powerscourt” took its name. Several prominent Irish families fought over castle and lands in the ensuing centuries culminating in 1603 when it was given to Richard Wingfield by Queen Elizabeth for military achievements. Why doesn’t someone give me a castle? At that time the estate that came along with it was over 40,000 acres. When he was given the castle and estate, he was also knighted and appointed “Marshall of Ireland”. Not bad for lobbing off a few heads from a horse. His family remained here for over 350 years. The house itself was created by the 1st Viscount Powerscourt (“of the third creation” whatever that means) in the 18th century. The gardens were commissioned by the 7th Viscount in the 19th century.
The 68 room original house was completed in 1741 as a two story building. The third story was added 1878 and more was added and changed in the late 19th century. In 1961 the Slazenger family purchased the estate from the 9th Viscount Powerscourt and they still own it. In 1974 a major refurbishment was completed in anticipation of opening the house to the public along with the gardens. But, a fire broke out that November on the top floor resulting in the house losing its roof along with much of the interior also being destroyed.
The house stood as a roofless shell for 20 years. In 1996 it was reroofed, the interior rooms redone and it was opened to the public in 1997.
Powerscourt Mansion from Triton Lake
The gardens are a 47 acre Versailles like affair behind the house with views of Sugarloaf Mountain and the countryside. It is divided into has several different areas. There is an ornate Italian garden, a rose garden, kitchen garden, Japanese garden, hidden grotto’s, and the largest pet cemetery in Ireland (I bet you were wondering where that was).
The gardens are modeled after those at Versailles and Schonbrunn but are not as large or elaborate. At one time sheep and cattle roamed what is now the formal gardens but now days the livestock are kept in nearby pastures, some of which can be seen from the edges of the formal areas.
The gardens were created over two main periods. The formal layout of the gardens was created when the house was being rebuilt in 1743 and many parts of the garden adhere to those designs. However, most of what is there today stems from a design in the 1840’s by one Daniel Robertson and implemented over the succeeding 40 years. It’s said the Robertson had terrible gout and oversaw the construction from the comfort of a wheelbarrow, fortified with a bottle of Sherry. When the bottle was empty, the work ended for the day.
If you follow the suggested walking route, the first spot you come to is the uppermost terrace overlooking a series of other terraces that cascade down the hillside to a lake. These terraces form the Italian gardens on either side of a grand set of stairs leading you to the lake. It took 12 years and 100 workers to carve out these terraces which were completed in 1867.
Terraces & Part of Italian Formal Garden
Triton lake with Terraces and Italian Garden behind
Triton lake from Upper Terrace
As you move along the route suggested on the map, you next come to Tower Valley and Pepper Pot Tower. This woodlands valley boasts many species of trees and shrubs but the stand out feature is Pepper Pot Tower. The tower is of the Rapunzel variety modeled on a pepper pot in the Viscounts dining room. It was built to commemorate a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1911 and is partly constructed from stones taken from a crumbling church on the grounds. To add “authenticity” it was decorated with historic cannons – some of which are from the Spanish Armada and the Battle of the Boyne. Tower valley, once called The American Garden, is adorned with many specimens of North American conifers, planted from seed – some of which are quite rare in Ireland but are doing quite well.
Pepper Pot Tower I
Pepper Pot Tower II
Pepper Pot Tower III
At the lower end of this valley is the Japanese Garden. It was laid out in 1908 by the 8th Viscount and his wife in an old bog and was the most recent addition to the grounds and was completed over 180 years after work had first commenced on the gardens. This is mostly a flower garden in the Japanese style with plenty of spring color coming from Azaleas, Japanese maple and other flowering plants. Scattered around are stone lanterns, a small pagoda arch bridges and a gurgling stream running through the whole affair. It’s really quite lovely with plenty of paths to wander.
Off to the side is a grotto carved into the side of the hill. As the Japanese garden is near and below the lake, water from the lake seeps down and trickles out through natural springs. The Grotto was carved out where these springs hit the surface so the walls are covered with a sponge like moss
Japanese Garden I
Japanese Garden II
Japanese Garden III
Japanese Garden IV
On the other side of the gardens is a pathway called the “Rhododendron Walk” which meanders through a forest covered with massive Rhododendron’s. These things are massive, many being the size of a mountain cabin. Along this “walk” one gets glimpses of nearby horse pastures and views across the valley to Sugar Loaf Mountain. This side of the gardens also feature a dolphin pond (stone dolphins, not real ones), a grand pet cemetery, a walled garden and Julia’s Memorial. Way too much to talk about here
As mentioned, this estate is huge – over 1000 acres. To get to Powerscourt Falls one must exit the property and drive nearly 5 miles to arrive at the falls area. Powerscourt Falls is much like State Parks in the USA we’re used to. It has a campground, picnic area, snack bar, hiking trails and of course a cascading waterfall. The waterfall itself is 398 ft. (121 m) high which makes it the tallest waterfall in Ireland. While nowhere near as impressive as waterfalls in places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Niagara or the Canadian and US Rockies, it is nice nonetheless and makes for a great backdrop to your picnic.
Powerscourt Falls I
Powerscourt Falls II
WICKLOW GAOL (JAIL)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, each county in Ireland was required to have a jail (or Gaol in Irish). As we couldn’t get in to see the one in Dublin, we decided to head on over to the one in Wicklow which – according to its own brochure - is the best one in Ireland. This was a 20 mile (32 km) drive from Powerscourt Falls mostly along a 4 lane divided highway with little traffic.
The jail was opened in 1702 to house inmates sentenced under the repressive laws of the time and continued in operation until 1924. After that the building fell into ruin before finally being restored in the 1990s in recognition of its historic significance.
This infamous jail was renowned throughout Ireland for the brutality of its keepers and the harsh conditions suffered by its inmates. The smells, vicious beatings, shocking food and disease-ridden air have long since gone, but adults and children can experience a sanitized version of what the prison was like on the highly entertaining tour, now one of Wicklow's most popular tourist attractions. Only a portion of the full facility is still standing but it gives a good sense of what it was like.
As you follow a route through 4 levels of the facility you enter various rooms and cells where there are manikins of the specific, named, people who worked or resided there. As you enter each room or cell a voice recording plays. The recordings are made by actors playing the part of the inmate or jailer who talks to you as if you were just a visitor at the time that came to see them. It’s actually quite dramatic. They talk about their supposed crime, how long they’ve been there so far, and what it’s like being there or doing that job in the jail.
On the top floor they’ve created a mockup of the hold of a sailing ship that was used during the famine to ship inmates to other countries. As in the other areas of the jail there are manikins representing various crew members as well as various specific, named, people being, as they say, “Transported”. The light in here is very dim as one would expect in the bottom hold of a sailing ship but as each person tells you their story, they are illuminated so you can see them and what their area of the ship might have looked like.
This museum is actually quite well done but a little over the top in the hype. For example with signs that say ‘See the dungeon IF YOU DARE” or “”BEWARE ALL WHO ENTER” – sort of like the things you’d expect to see at a Halloween haunted house attraction.
Typical Cell in Wicklow Jail
Mock up of Sailing Ship Hold used to “Transport” prisoners to Australia or North America
After our jail experience we headed off to find our B&B for the night. As it turns out, the B&B was right by the entrance to the Powerscourt Estate, so we pretty much back tracked but on slightly different roads, following our trusty GPS. After leaving the highway we navigated along narrow country lanes (about 1.5 car widths wide) passing farms, little villages and clusters of homes. Eventually, the GPS had us turn into a small housing development with our destination being a 2 story single family home. This can’t be right, our destination was a B&G Hotel with over 80 rooms. No signs, no cars, just a typical house. Well, now what. Well, conveniently enough I had added an option to my cell phone plan for a bunch of minutes in Ireland so we called the Hotel.
As the lady who answered had never heard of the street our GPS said we were on we had a long and not too fruitful conversation. I didn’t know where they were (most places in rural Ireland don’t have actual addresses), they didn’t know where I was and the lady had no concept of North, South, East or West. She kept saying “When you get to the intersection turn left”. At which point I said coming from which way and she didn’t know. We finally got on the same page when I said I could get to the entrance to the Powerscourt estate. She said, “Great, just turn left” so around that conversation we went again. So I said, OK I’ll call you when I get there.
So we navigated back to the Entrance to the Estate – which was only about a quarter mile - and I drove in along the estate driveway, made a U-Turn, went back to the stop sign and pulled off the road at which time I called the Hotel again. “OK. I’m just coming out of the Estate, I’m at the end of the estate driveway at the stop sign. I can go left, right or straight. How do I get to you?” Now we made some progress. “Go straight across the road. There will be a school on your right and a grave yard on your left. Just past the grave yard you’ll see our sign for a driveway on the left.” Got it!
As it turns out this was the same road we had just come down going the other way from where we were on our first call so were heading back to where the GPS had taken us the first time. But wait, just past the graveyard, and before the little housing development was the sign and a driveway hidden in the woods. Ah-ha. We had gone right by it but in their infinite wisdom you could only see the sign coming from the graveyard side, not coming from the other way. So, we took the driveway and arrived at our Hotel. As it turns out, the place in the housing development where our GPS originally took was just over the fence from the parking lot of the hotel – maybe 100 ft. away. Close, but no cigar and we just couldn’t see the hotel from there due to trees.
However the B&B/Hotel was quite lovely and we wound up in “The Ambassador Suite” which was a quite large room and quite nice. This hotel is used a lot for weddings and is called The Summerhill House Hotel
The lost B&B
One of several sitting rooms
The Ambassador Suite
The Ambassador Suite
So ends our 3rd day in Ireland, again Bright Sun, mid 70’s (f), and no rain
Next on our agenda – Glendalough, Kilkenny, Rock of Cashel
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.
- Images of this trip will be published on my website in the near future (I’ll let you know when they’re posted), but photos from other adventures are there now.
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: County Wicklow, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogIreland, Ireland, Powerscourt Falls, Powerscourt Mansion, Powserscourt Gardens, Summerhill House Hotel, Wicklow Gaol, Wicklow Jail
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