In an Ir­ish coun­try house and gar­den

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HE­LEN AN­DER­SON

Lady Edith Vane-Tem­pest-Stewart, the Mar­chioness of Lon­don­derry, had a dragon tat­too ris­ing from an­kle to thigh. Few might have known this, given the mod­est at­tire worn by women be­tween the wars. She and her hus­band, Charley, the 7th Mar­quess of Lon­don­derry and a Bri­tish peer, were re­lent­less so­cialites; their glit­ter­ing par­ties and ex­trav­a­gant din­ners at Mount Stewart, the an­ces­tral home in North­ern Ire­land, were leg­endary.

Al­ways the life of the party, Lady Edith was also easily bored and the story goes that she be­came so frus­trated dur­ing a par­tic­u­lar din­ner with stuffed shirts that she left the ta­ble for the sta­bles, re­turn­ing on horse­back — naked, with her tat­too promi­nently dis­played — and trot­ted through the house. It’s said the party livened con­sid­er­ably.

Lady Edith would have loved the fuss be­ing made of her beloved Mount Stewart this year. The man­sion re­opened in April af­ter a three-year restora­tion by the Na­tional Trust, a pro­ject so de­tailed and ex­ten­sive it’s the sub­ject of a six-part doc­u­men­tary, Mount Stewart: The Big House Reborn. The 18th-cen­tury pile on the shore of Strang­ford Lough is among the top visi­tor at­trac­tions in North­ern Ire­land, sur­passed only by the Gi­ant’s Cause­way and the Car­rick-a-Rede rope bridge.

There are four rooms open for public view­ing for the first time, though the man­sion is so huge a visi­tor could be for­given for fail­ing to get to them; there are knowl­edge­able vol­un­teer guides, full of sto­ries, sta­tioned in the main rooms. Apart from the grand cen­tral hall, with its sculp­tures and oc­tag­o­nal balustraded gallery lit by a stained­glass dome, the house is de­light­fully un­stuffy, its bo­hemian op­u­lence and bold colours re­flect­ing Lady Edith’s un­con­ven­tional tastes. (Long gone are the 3000 antlers, mounted beast heads and suits of ar­mour in­stalled in mid-Vic­to­rian times by the fourth Mar­quess.)

There are real trea­sures here: sil­ver­ware, ob­jets-d’art, chan­de­liers, an equine por­trait of na­tional im­por­tance by Ge­orge Stubbs and 22 Em­pire chairs used by del­e­gates to the Congress of Vi­enna in 1815. King Ed­ward and Queen Alexan­dra would have dined in the room hold­ing those chairs when they vis­ited Mount Stewart in 1903, and by Edith and Charley’s time all the most prom­i­nent fig­ures in Ir­ish and Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal and so­cial life were guests.

I like to think of Lady Edith, though, wan­der­ing into one of the din­ing rooms wear­ing her boiler suit and gar­den­ing gloves, as she of­ten did, wolf­ing down a meal and re­turn­ing to her beloved plant­ings. Edith was a writer, an ac­tivist (awarded the first Dame Com­man­der of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire for her work or­gan­is­ing the women’s vol­un­teer re­serve dur­ing World War I), a horse­woman, yachtswoman, mother of five and grand­mother of a large brood.

“Edith was a com­plex, re­mark­able woman who val­ued courage and had a great sense of hu­mour,” says Neil Por­te­ous, Mount Stewart’s head gar­dener, as we ap­proach the cy­press rows and Moor­ish ar­cades of her Span­ish Gar­den. “These gar­dens re­flect her energy, her love of whimsy and mythol­ogy, her great drive to experiment and cre­ate. They’re re­ally an ex­ten­sion of her per­son­al­ity.”

When­ever her hus­band strayed, which was of­ten, she spent more of their con­sid­er­able for­tune on the grounds, and soon she was spon­sor­ing the great plant hun­ters of the time and de­sign­ing com­plex gar­dens, full of sym­bol­ism and lay­ers. There are im­pres­sive yew top­i­aries in the Sham­rock Gar­den; stone half-beasts named point­edly af­ter lu­mi­nar­ies of the day in the Dodo Ter­race; and amid the Re­nais­sance beauty of the Ital­ian Gar­den is the fig­ure of Edith her­self, aka Circe the Sor­cer­ess, a wily temptress in Homer’s Odyssey. Among miles of paths at Mount Stewart is a par­tic­u­larly lovely cir­cle that takes in The Ladies Walk, a lake, Rhodo­den­dron Hill and passes the fam­ily’s pri­vate burial ground, Tir N’an Og, “Land of the Ever Young” in Gaelic. This is where Lady Edith rests, on a hill over­look­ing her beloved gar­dens.

He­len An­der­son was a guest of Bri­tish Air­ways and Tourism Ire­land.

From top, Mount Stewart’s lush gar­dens; the re­stored home is full of trea­sures; ex­te­rior of the prop­erty; sit­ting room; cen­tral hall

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