Genius loci

In ancient Rome, a genius loci was the spirit which protected a place, a territorial guardian angel of sorts. Nowadays, it is a phrase used in reference to garden design and was first enunciated by Alexander Pope. He contended that garden or landscape designs must always be adopted to the location for which they are intended; that design should always take account of the spirit of the location.

He wrote in his Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Altamont (27)
The lake is at the heart of the garden at Altamont and draws the visitor.
Altamont (12)
A wintery view across the lake today
Altamont (5)
The Nuns’ Walk, great beech trees now under planted with hellebores and snowdrops


I believe a similar principle ought to be applied to the continued development of a garden following the creator’s death when, for example, the garden has been left to the state. The spirit of the creator should continue to infuse the garden and guide its development. I would not contend that the garden be preserved as it was in the lifetime of the creator for every gardener will continue to develop and change their garden – the creator would have done likewise – and it is to be expected that those charged with its care should be free to do likewise, but informed by the creator’s style and approach to gardening.

Altamont (33)
The house at Alamont Gardens in the process of restoration by the Office of Public Works
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The iconic yew hedges along the central axis of the garden

This is a challenging task for the inheriting/caring gardener and, indeed, so very often lays them open to criticism – John Lydgate’s, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, comes to mind. However, there are wonderful exceptions and Altamont Gardens always spring to my mind in this context and the gardens today are as I imagine Mrs. North would have developed them with her style and spirit continuing to infuse the garden. The gardens have simply continued to develop since her time and have not changed in any way which jars with her approach. This, of course, was facilitated by the fact that the present Head Gardener, Paul Cutler, worked with Mrs. North and was perfectly familiar with her gardening thinking. He has continued to garden in her spirit and the garden has continued to improve year on year.

Altamont (1)
A mature specimen of pendulous ash, underplanted with crocus of various colours, in front of the house
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A view across the lake back to the house
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Bridge, water and reflections

It is a garden which is beautiful and worth a visit at any time of the year and is especially interesting and beautiful at this moment as its Snowdrop Month is coming to a close. You can join Paul for a guided tour of the snowdrop collection, with much additional general comment on the garden and its creator, for the remainder of this month at 2p.m. each day.

Altamont (29)
The Nuns’ Walk – planting of hellebores and snowdrops under giant beech trees.
Galanthus 'Green Lantern' (2)
One of Altamont’s special snowdrops: Galanthus ‘Green Lantern’


For more information on events at Altamont Gardens and elsewhere in Co. Carlow:


12 thoughts on “Genius loci

    1. We have a much milder climate here in Ireland and don’t experience the extremes of seasonal temperatures which you have. The Pacific Northwest is closest in conditions to those in Ireland – plenty of rain, mild temperatures etc, which allows for a good range of plants.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You caught the spirit of Altamount in those. Lovely photographs. I’ve been away for a few days with Austin in SEVILLE so if you called the absence wasn’t intentional. Hope to see you both soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s another aspect to many great gardens, seeing the potential. The lake is a simple earth bund of a small stream, easy to do, but the inspired thought of doing it was wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations Paddy in a fantastic piece. It was written beautifully and the pictures were superb. Great examples of some of the fine pieces of garden and design around in Ireland. Some of them should be used for tv. I like the way you write about the vision of the gardener and how his work should continue on after he’s gone. Your piece is so eloquently written. I live close to Glenstal abbey and the gardens there on the summer are as equally stunning then your examples. I would love to see more of your work if you publish again. I will keep a lookout for them.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your very kind comments, Chris. It is a few years since I have been in Glenstal though I pass reasonably close to it as I have a son and family living in Limerick. Paddy


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