Walk of the week: The Mount Stewart Lake
The mild climate of the Ards Peninsula served Edith, Lady Londonderry, wife of the 7th Marquess, well when she decided to transform the gardens and lake back in the 1920s.
Now the World Heritage Site-nominated gardens harbour all sorts of plants typical of more southerly climes - kiwi fruit growing in profusion, tiny Japanese bananas, and bunches of grapes winding their way across the pergola around the Sunk Garden.
The National Trust estate lies on the shores of Strangford Lough and the Lake Walk is open throughout the year, giving visitors a chance to see the changing seasons reflected in the flora and birdlife of the area.
What to bring
As a general rule, it is best to be overprepared than underprepared. Waterproof and windproof clothing are advised for inclement weather at all times of the year. Sensible walking shoes or trainers will be adequate.
Mount Stewart lies five miles south-east of Newtownards and 15 miles east of Belfast, and is well signposted on the north side of the Newtownards to Portaferry road (A20).
Starting from the main reception area, go to the north front of the mansion, where a Monkey Puzzle, a very fine Californian Redwood tree and Australian Cordylines give the first indication of the remarkable variety of species to be seen here.
Entering the wide gravelled path past the clipped bays and beeches planted by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1903, walkers can enjoy rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias.
Look out for the Magnolia campbellii planted in the 1920s and flowering for the first time on April Fool's Day 1956. Lady Londonderry spotted the magnificent pink bloom on the highest branch and thought that someone had played a joke on her but it was the first of many blossoms to appear every springtime since.
As you ascend, the expanse of the seven-acre lake comes into view. The lake was created in the 1840s by Charles, 3rd Marquess, but the surroundings were not landscaped until Edith, Lady Londonderry's time. Now the banks are planted with primulas, irises and other water-loving species, as well as the huge-leaved gunneras. On the left is a summer flowering evergreen tree, Weinmannia trichosperma, a native of Chile.
Passing the little wooden jetty, you come to a bank with a seat set into a wall. The paved surround here used to be the old horse-pump for the water supply to the house. Along the lakeside path is the Davidia involucrate var. vilmoriniana, known as the Dove Tree or more usually the Handkerchief Tree.
Further on the left rises the south facing 'hot bank' of Tir N'an Og, Land of the Ever Young in Gaelic. This is the family's private burial ground, with the graves of Lord and Lady Londonderry guarded by a turreted wall, ornamental gates and statues of Irish saints.
On the slopes of this hill are plants that favour a hotter climate, including Japanese maples, blood-red Australian Leptospermum scoparium 'Nichollsii', and two olive trees, one grown from seed brought back by Lady Londonderry from the Mount of Olives. Mount Etna broom with bright yellow flowers and Frank Kindgon-Ward's Berberis hypokerina from Burma, the silver holly, can also be found here.
Lady Londonderry sponsored many of this intrepid plant-hunter's expeditions to the Far East where, amongst other adventures, he survived an impaling on bamboo, a fall off a cliff and a 9.6 Richter scale earthquake.
At the bottom of the hill you can either follow the Rock Walk or the gravel walk alongside the Jubilee Avenue. Planted to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary's reign in 1935, the avenue's dominant colours reflect the red, white and blue of the Union Flag. Don't miss the White Stag of legend - a clue to Lady Londonderry's interest in Celtic tales.
The lakeside path takes you along the natural outcrop of rock with rhododendrons, Japanese maples and the Chinese Populus Wilsonii. Azaleas and primulas fringe the waterside. By crossing a little stone bridge over a stream you reach the Ladies' Walk. Lady Londonderry disapproved of the cairn of stones built from rocks taken from the Giant's Causeway in 1800 by a former Lady - "a most reprehensible habit". More to her taste was a Japanese Pagoda, which she and Lord Londonderry brought from Japan in 1904.
Turn right along the Ladies' Walk to return to the mansion house. It was along this original path that 18th century ladies would take their outdoor exercise. Here are Oregon Douglas fir trees, one of the oldest and largest Himalayan Rhododendrons, the red R. arboreum, and the Lily of the Valley Tree. A good view of the house can be seen before the path descends steeply to the stone vase and north lawns.
Step across the stone bridge onto the tiny island and sit for a few minutes in contemplation of the beauty of the lake and the view of Tir N'an Og opposite.
At the cork tree, the path rejoins the gravelled driveway towards the north front of the mansion. Handing over the gardens in 1956, Lady Londonderry noted "Gardens are meant to be lived in and enjoyed and I hope they may long continue to be a source of pleasure to those who visit them¿"
Mount Stewart comprises an 18th century mansion house with 19th century additions, an important neo-classical Temple of the Winds, and 98 acres of award-winning gardens. The site enjoys the remarkable climate of the Ards Peninsula, being happily situated on the east shore of the important conservation area of Strangford Lough.
Scrabo Hill to the west and the Mourne Mountains to the south provide a scenic backdrop to a green and silver eiderdown of drumlins and water inlets teeming with birds and marine life.
When Lady Londonderry first visited Mount Stewart it was wintertime and she found a house "bullied by trees" and the surroundings "the dampest, darkest and saddest place" in which she had ever stayed.
Some 10 years later when she came to live in Northern Ireland she discovered an area blessed by a favourable climate, the house facing almost due south and the peninsula influenced by the flow of the Gulf Stream. Nowadays, Mount Stewart Gardens are noted for year round colour and the variety and luxuriance of Lady Londonderry's planting.
Buzzards have recently returned to the Strangford area and can been seen lazily circling the treetops. A colony of red squirrels survives on the estate and pheasants wander at will.
The full transfer of the gardens to the care of the National Trust was completed by Lady Londonderry and her daughter Lady Mairi Bury in 1955, and the mansion house and some contents were donated by Lady Bury in 1977.
The gardens feature National Collections of Phormiums, Libertias and Dianellas. Both house and gardens are open to the public from March to October with part of the gardens including the Lake Walk remaining open all year. Viewing of the house is available by guided tour and groups can be catered for by special arrangement.
For further information on walking or any other outdoor activity, contact Countryside Access and Activities Network at 028 9030 3930 or www.walkni.com.
Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) in association with Belfast Telegraph have provided this information. Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy of the information. CAAN and Belfast Telegraph, however, cannot accept responsibility for errors or omissions but where such are brought to our attention, the information for future publications will be amended accordingly.
Walk name: The Lake Walk at Mount Stewart
Area: Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland's first Marine Nature Reserve
Nearest big town to start point: Newtownards
Distance: Up to two miles
Terrain: Pathway and lawns, mostly level access, some gravel.
Access restrictions: Motorised wheelchairs are available by prior booking with Visitor Reception. The lake is not suitable for paddling or swimming. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on their leads at all times.
Refreshments: The Visitors Reception area has a restaurant for snacks and meals. Groups are advised to book in advance. On special event days there may be extra catering in marquees. Picnics are welcome but please carry your litter home.
Publications: A garden guidebook is available for purchase from Visitors Reception and the shop stocks a wide selection of books. Simple maps are included in the estate leaflet that is given out with entrance ticket receipts.
Walk developed by: The National Trust Mount Stewart staff.
Ordnance Survey Map: Sheets 4 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discovery Series, available from OSNI Map Shop, Colby House, Stranmillis, Belfast BT9 SBJ (www.osni.gov.uk)