There’s a very attractive woodland walk near Delgany, County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. It’s well worth an exploration, but be prepared for the intrusive sound of the main N11 road which runs alongside the path as you set out from the public car park: you will leave it behind – eventually – as you climb up into the trees.
It’s a now rare ancient Irish oak wood, once all part of Bellevue Estate, a 300 acre demesne established by the La Touche family in the mid eighteenth century. Through many generations the Huguenot family was known as an ‘ample benefactor of mankind’ who ‘left a record of noble deeds behind them’. During their heyday the La Touches acquired the lands of Upper and Lower Rathdown on which much of modern Greystones has been built, and their name is familiar in the fabric of that town today.
The beauty of this part of County Wicklow has been celebrated by many artists over the years: here are a couple of examples from the late 1700s showing the Glen of the Downs landscape. Always, one or both of the topographical high-points – the Great and Little Sugar Loaves – are prominently featured.
We have photographic records of the La Touche mansion, Georgian Bellevue House – with its famed hot-houses where many exotic plants were cultivated, before its decline in the 1900s and its eventual demise: the crumbling pile was demolished in 1950 to make way for wheat-fields and a golf course.
Hidden away in the oak wood is a remnant of the once vibrant La Touche estate: today it’s known as ‘The Octagon’ because of its shape. Its purpose originally was a banqueting hall, set high up on a platform looking out over the landscape. It must have been quite an undertaking, bringing food, furnishings and serving staff up from the ‘big house’: there are remains of tunnels said to have been used for this purpose. Most intriguingly . . .
. . . The estate at Ballydonagh comprised 300 acres, with fine views across the Glen of the Downs and towards the Irish Sea. David, the younger La Touche, built his favourite country retreat here between 1754 and 1756, at a cost of £30,000, and called it Bellevue. Beautiful gardens were laid out with winding paths and “extras” built by David and his son, Peter, when he inherited in 1785. Among these was the Octagon, built in 1766, with a panther on springs, which could be made to jump out at unwary visitors. The house was most famous for its huge glasshouse, built between 1783 and 1793, in which many exotic plants were grown . . .
Judith Flannery, The Story of Delgany, 1990
There is no doubt that the building was superbly sited to maximise the good views. Beyond that, it’s hard to fathom how the architecture functioned – and the panther on springs remains a puzzle! Over years of exposure to the elements, and inquisitive visitors, the Octagon has gained a patina of graffiti – which adds, perhaps, to its character and attributes.
The practice of ‘making one’s mark’ seems to have migrated to trees surrounding the site: perhaps some of these can be attributed to people who lived in them once! In 1997 eco-warriors staged a protest campaign when plans were put forward to upgrade and widen the N11 road, involving felling over 1,700 mature beech, oak and ash trees. The protesters ‘occupied’ the trees for over two years (below), ‘climbing down’ eventually when the Courts upheld the highway authority proposals.
The road has since been widened, and the intrusive traffic sound within the Glen of the Downs has accordingly increased manyfold. Interestingly, there are currently proposals under discussion to further improve the N11/M11 route in this same locality – including the possibility of a road tunnel which might even remove traffic altogether. Meanwhile, the trees continue to present us with messages for our own complex times . . .
For all its ups and downs, and possibly mixed messages, the Glen of the Downs woodland walk is beautiful, and well worth a visit. Who knows what – or who – you might encounter among the trees?