Inside a cupboard in the Entrance Hall of the house used to be kept a set of croquet balls and mallets, and outside is the croquet lawn. Garden Croquet was a popular game for weekend visitors staying at big houses like Mount Stewart in the 1920s and 1930s (nowadays P Diddy is a fan as is John Prescott.) A sort of awkward sort of way to hit a ball and during the occasional game organised during event days, I usually ended up with bruised shins and a very low score – no wonder one team gets the black and blue balls. In Alice in Wonderland they used flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, but I think I’ll stick to the putting green at Donaghadee where my score is not much better but at least my ankles remain intact.
In addition, country house weekends at Mount Stewart offered tennis courts, and a golf course near the Temple, as well as fishing brown trout in the lake, sailing, riding, or swimming in the pool across the road. You might even get taken up for a spin by the 7th Marquess in an aeroplane to admire the garden layout from the air. Wet days could be spent doing jigsaws, playing cards, reading in the Study, being entertained by one of Lady Mairi’s plays, or a singsong with composer Duncan Morrison playing the Bechstein. But if you were caught doing nothing, whether prime minister, prince, or famous author, you could find yourself sawing logs or trundling a wheelbarrow for a dungareed Lady Edith.
Amongst the many famous people who came to stay probably the most prestigious were King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra who visited in July 1903. Their daughter Princess Victoria wrote candidly in the visitors’ book, ‘…beautiful place, but very damp….’ so presumably she got stuck into the jigsaws. There is no record of them playing any sports, but I suppose you could say they did a bit of gardening as the Royal Couple planted the two beautiful purple beeches, Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea, chosen for the occasion by Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess. Both are in full colourful leaf just now on either side of the drive, the larger King’s tree bordering the croquet lawn.
You can see the commemorative plaque with the date underneath, set in between the huge roots. In Celtic mythology Fagus was the God of beech trees. In days gone by, beech leaves were used to relieve swellings if you boiled them to make a poultice. And appropriately as this tree is beside the croquet lawn, the hardness of its wood makes it highly suitable for making wooden mallets! Bet the flamingos are relieved.