In the northeastern foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, 19km south of Dublin and less than a kilometre beyond the village of ENNISKERRY, lies the massive Powerscourt Estate, where given fine weather you could easily spend a whole day. Although the estate is now something of an all-round leisure complex, with a golf course, garden centre, craft shops and a luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel, the central attraction remains the formal gardens, whose spectacular design matches their superb setting facing Great Sugar Loaf Mountain.
In the late twelfth century, a castle was built on this strategic site by the Anglo-Norman le Poer (Power) family, from whom it takes its name. However, what you see today dates from the early eighteenth century, when Richard Castle designed one of the largest Palladian mansions in Ireland here, flanked by terraced gardens that were further developed in the nineteenth century. The house remains impressive from a distance, but most of its interior was destroyed by a fire in 1974 (on the eve of a party to celebrate major refurbishment). Parts have since been recreated, notably the colonnaded, double-height ballroom, which is accessible as part of an exhibition, featuring displays on the house’s former grandeur as well as short films on the estate’s history.
The terraced Italian Gardens slope gracefully down from the back of the house. The uppermost terrace, with its winged figures of Fame and Victory flanking Apollo and Diana, was designed in 1843 by the gout-ridden Daniel Robertson, who used to be wheeled about the site in a barrow, cradling a bottle of sherry – the last of the sherry apparently meant the end of the day’s work. A grand staircase leads down to a spirited pair of zinc winged horses guarding the Triton Lake, whose central statue of the sea god (based on Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Barberini in Rome) fires a jet of water thirty metres skywards.
On the east side of the terraces are the curious Pepper Pot Tower (accurately modelled on the pepper pot from the eighth Viscount Powerscourt’s dinner set), surrounded by fine North American conifers, and a colourful Japanese Garden of maples, azaleas and fortune palms, laid out on reclaimed bogland. To the west of the Italian Gardens lies the walled garden, with its rose beds, herbaceous borders and fine ceremonial entrances: the Chorus Gate, decorated with beautiful golden trumpeters, and the Bamberg Gate, which originally belonged to Bamberg cathedral in Bavaria and features remarkable perspective arches as part of its gilded ironwork design.
The estate’s final attraction, Powerscourt Waterfall, is Ireland’s highest at 120m. The falls leap and bound diagonally down a rock face to replenish the waters of the River Dargle in the valley below. It’s 6km further down the road from the main gate, but well signposted.