CORONA NORTH turned the wilderness she inherited at Altamont, Co Carlow, into one of the great gardens of Europe. Her single-minded passion has evoked comparison - with certain qualifications - with Scarlett O'Hara's at Tara.
When, in 1983, Isobel Lecky- Watson died at the age of 101, she bequeathed Altamont House and 140 acres of beautiful but mostly unserviceable land on the banks of the Slaney to her two daughters, Diana and Corona. Everyone - not least Corona's husband, Gary, and Diana herself - assumed that the estate would be sold and that the proceeds would ensure a comfortable and leisurely old age for the two sisters.
They had not banked on Corona. A passionate plantswoman, she set about restoring the largely derelict gardens, took the arable land back in hand and, by dint of her own unceasing labours and by chivvying, bullying and cajoling others, contrived to turn Altamont into one of the best-loved and most-visited gardens in Ireland.
Altamont boasts many rarities, but it is its diversity which makes it unique. Man's - or, more usually woman's - hand has touched it only so much, for Corona North's passion for the red squirrels and the ravens which haunt the woods and the eels and otters of the riverbank equalled her enthusiasm for plants of better recorded pedigree. Immediately beneath the 18th-century house are the formal gardens with their rosebeds and pergolas, a giant Wellingtonia surrounded by Portugal Laurel, planted to commemorate Waterloo, a peony walk, wistaria walk, tulip trees and handkerchief trees.
Rare azaleas, rhododendrons and magnolias surround the one-acre lake which was dug in order to create labour during the famine of 1845. Beyond, the stream and the garden plunge into an ice-age glen of sessile oaks and giant granite boulders. Here are rare camellias and hollies, Chilean fire-trees, ferns and bog-plants, but here too unofficial fungi, wild daffodils and bluebells in season, and startling vistas of the river below. All this North nurtured through drought, storm and frost. She planted the last of her collection of rare oaks a week before her death.
She was born Corona Lecky- Watson in 1922 at the height of the civil war. The family's several houses were spared because they were known to be Quakers and good landlords, but two doctors deputed to attend at Corona's birth found their way blocked by trenches and trees felled by rebel forces, and had to run cross-country, Gladstone bags in hand. A few weeks later, a band of masked, armed men stormed the house and searched it for arms. They demanded that they be given permission to search the nursery. Isobel stood at the threshold and invited them to shoot her sooner than enter the room and terrify the children.
Amidst the chaos, the naming of the new arrival somehow slipped the Lecky- Watsons' minds. It was a nanny who pointed out the deficiency some months after the baby's birth, and Fielding Lecky-Watson glanced out of the window and selected the name of his favourite rhododendron.
As the daughter of a noted family of "thrusters" - the Watsons had been masters of the Carlow for a century and had hunted and killed the last Irish wolf at nearby Myshall in 1850 - Corona grew up in Molly Keane land, hunting, fishing, dancing and making the annual pilgrimages to Badminton, Punchestown, Cheltenham and Galway. The Lecky-Watsons, however, had a less public passion. The family had been amongst the more discerning patrons of the intrepid plant collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries, and many of the azaleas at Altamont are descended from these early gleanings.
Corona, like all her kind, scorned the "Anglo-Irish" appellation. She was Irish. On the other hand, Ireland was part of the British Isles and her links with England were strong. When the Second World War broke out, therefore, she "naturally" caught the ferry and enrolled as a Fani. She recalled often the pleasure of coming home on leave on a train which would run out of fuel and have to wait until the passengers had cut enough turves to build up a head of steam.
Returning to Ireland after the war, Corona gradually took over the running of the demesne. She was never able to make a good thing of the farm, but resisted all attempts to sell the land, in part because she loved her Channel Island herd and the gloriously mixed fowl which strutted about the gardens, in part because she loved their produce. She would drink cream by the half-pint, and the menu at her many lunches was nigh unchanging - pate made with Altamont chickens and poteen, served on Altamont soda- bread with Altamont butter, fresh Slaney salmon or, out of season, beef, and Altamont fruit, again with cream.
In 1965, when Altamont's great lake froze over, Corona held a party at which she was struck by the stylish skating of Colonel Gary North, late of the Buffs, a visitor at a neighbouring house. They married the following year and moved into the old steward's cottage above the river, which Corona extended ad lib with a characteristic blend of elegance, impulsiveness and impracticality.
It was on her mother's death, however, that Corona North's life's work began in earnest. To her husband's grumbles, she moved to the big house and then all but neglected it as she worked to clear beds and woodland, to plant and to prune. Dawn would find her feeding her fowl, working in the dairy, then putting in an hour or so in the garden before breakfast in the bow-windows overlooking her handiwork. Way into dusk, she could be found - or rather, in general could not be found - in baggy corduroy trousers, battling with bracken or briars in the glen. Gary would summon her with a hunting horn, explaining, "Woman's evaporated again."
This labour of love was rewarded by thousands of visitors and pupils at the garden holiday courses she initiated, and, at the last, by the Irish government's agreement to take over the gardens after her death and continue to manage them according to her principles: "We want to keep them intact for future generations to enjoy and to instil in them knowledge and a love of gardens, wildlife and nature, and the necessity to care for and protect their heritage."
Corona North's last words to her oldest friend, Rosemary Skrine, were, "Well, I've achieved what I wanted to achieve. It's safe now."
Corona Deane Lecky-Watson, gardener: born Fenagh, Co Carlow 7 July 1922; married 1966 Gary North (died 1991); died Altamont, Co Carlow 7 February 1999.
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