Mixing Profit and Pleasure


Despite its French name, the concept of the ferme ornée is of English origin and is usually attributed to the garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer.* His 1715 book The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation criticized the overly elaborate formal gardens derived from French and Dutch examples, and proposed laying out grounds that were attractive but also functional: ‘By mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable in the Interior Parts of my Designs and Paddocks, obscure enclosures, etc. in the outward, My Designs are thereby vastly enlarg’d and both Profit and Pleasure may be agreeably mix’d together.’ In other words, working farms could be transformed into visually delightful places. One of the earliest examples of the ferme ornée was laid out by Philip Southgate who owned the 150-acre Woburn Farm, Surrey on which work began in 1727. ‘All my design at first,’ wrote Southgate, ‘was to have a garden on the middle high ground and a walk all round my farm, for convenience as well as pleasure.’ The fashion for such designs gradually spread across Europe as part of the adoption of natural English gardens: perhaps the most famous example is the ferme ornée is the decorative model farmy called the Hameau de la Reine created for Marie Antoinette at Versailles in the mid-1780s. The most complete extant example of this garden type in Europe is believed to be at Larchill, County Kildare.
*Incidentally, Stephen Switzer was no relation to the Irish Switzers: whereas his family could long be traced to residency in Hampshire, the Switzers who settled in this country in the early 18th century had come from Germany to escape religious persecution.





Larchill was created in the mid-18th century on part of an estate then owned by the Prentices, a Quaker merchant family whose adjacent country retreat, Phepotstown, still stands. As was typical with members of this sect, the house is very plain (the Quakers disapproving of unnecessary ornament) in striking contrast with the buildings on their farm. Here they followed the principles espoused by Switzer, Southgate and others, erecting structures both utilitarian and attractive around a gothick-style yard. However, it is across the surrounding farmland that the greatest, and most conspicuous, effort was expended. The focus of this enterprise is an eight-acre lake to the south of the farmyard. Several buildings are located around this stretch of water, while two others stand on small islands. That to the east is a small temple-like structure, its outer wall marked with decorative recesses, while inside a circle of columns surrounds an open space which may have been a well (the columns supporting a roof that directed rainwater into the centre of the site). A bridge, perhaps composed of pontoons, linked this island to the mainland. Meanwhile to the west, a larger island holds a miniature fort known as Gibraltar, the name deriving from an unsuccessful siege of the peninsula that ran for more than three and a half years from 1779-1783. The fort may have been erected to commemorate the fact that Gibraltar withstood this assault by Spanish and French forces. Between the two islands used to stand a statue of the ancient Greek hunter Meleager: more recently it has been replaced by a similarly-proportioned figure of Bacchus. here…





The statue of Meleager once found in the middle of the lake now has pride of place in the Larchill’s restored walled garden. The south-west corner of this space is occupied by a three-storey battlemented tower, the interior spaces of which – lit by arched gothic windows – have walls covered in shells, reflecting a fashionable pastime of the period such as can be seen inside the cottage decorated in a similar fashion during the same period by Emily, Duchess of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare which stands not far away. Further to the east of this wall is a three-arched loggia which once served as an ornamental dairy, the interior once lined with 18th century Dutch blue-and-white tiles. Like the rest of Larchill, the walled garden has been restored over the past twenty-years by its present owners. The Prentices, who had created the core of the ferme ornée were forced to sell the place, which was then bought by another family the Watsons who maintained and even added other features to the grounds such as the Fox’s Earth, a folly apparently built by Robert Watson, a well-known Master of Hounds who feared reincarnation as a fox (having been responsible for killing too many of them). However, during the 19th century it would seem the ornamental aspects of the parkland were neglected so that it returned to customary agricultural usage. The buildings fell into dereliction, the lake dried out, or was drained, and the special character of Larchill lost. Only after being purchased by the de las Casas family in 1994 did work begin to restore the site. Many of the buildings were carefully cleared of undergrowth and trees, the lake re-established and the distinctive character of this ferme ornée recovered. Thanks to their labours, today it is once more possible to emulate the precedent of Philip Southgate and to walk around Larchill ‘for convenience as well as pleasure.’here…

Larchill, County Kildare is open to the public. For further information, see: https://larchill.ie/

An Italian Hour


Looking positively Italianate in the early autumn sunshine, the west end of the garden front at Abbeyleix, County Laois. A series of terraces descend to a final series of circular stone steps, an architectural device highly reminiscent of similar work designed in 1906 by Edwin Lutyens for Heywood barely five miles away: might he have had a hand in this too? A sunken area immediately below contains what was once a swimming pool but more recently has been converted into a lily pond, at one end containing a bronze statue of a nude on horseback made by  Irish sculptor Olivia Musgrave.

Happily Disposed in the Most Elegant Taste


Heywood, County Laois has featured here before (See To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014), the focus on that occasion being primarily the terraced gardens designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1906. However, both Lutyens and his client, Colonel William Hutcheson Poë, did not start with a virgin site. On the contrary, they were working within a landscape that had been carefully laid out more than a century earlier. The main outlines of the estate here were created by Michael Frederick Trench, son of the Rev. Frederick Trench. Of French extraction, the first of the family arrived in Ireland in 1631 and purchased the land and castle of Garbally, on the outskirts of Ballinasloe, County Galway: ultimately this line would become Earls of Clancarty. In the early 18th century, a younger son William Trench settled in Laois and acquired land there which was initially developed by his heir, the Rev. Frederick. The English antiquary Owen Brereton wrote of the property in 1763, describing it as ‘a sweet Habitation’ with ’24 Acres Walld round 10 feet high. The ground naturally in fine Slopes and Rising, large trees properly disperst, a River of very clear Water running through it. Pouring Cascades, upon which I counted near 100 Couple of rabbits & 100 of Brace of Hares which are in this Grounds…very extensive Views.’ Both the habitation and the grounds were enlarged by the Rev. Trench’s son Michael Frederick Trench who in 1773 built a new house which he named Heywood after his mother-in-law’s maiden name. A wealthy barrister and amateur architect, Trench is believed to have been primarily responsible for the building’s design although James Gandon may also have had a hand in the work. In 1771 a drawing was shown at the Society of Artists exhibition of the ‘Front of Mr Trench’s house in Ireland…from a design of Mr Gandon’s.’ On the other hand, Sir Charles Coote’s Statistical Survey of the Queen’s County (1801) states that the house was built after Trench’s own plan. A view of the building’s façade (c.1789 and attributed to James Malton) shows it to have been a neo-classical villa: this was engulfed by a much larger house in the late 19th century and the whole was destroyed by fire in 1950. We will probably never know.




If Michael Frederick Trench took an active part in the design of his country residence, the same is likely to have been true of landscaping the demesne which then followed. Heywood sits on high ground about a mile from the village of Ballinakill lying to the south-west. Trench laid out the grounds so that they could be enjoyed both from the windows of the house and during a drive or leisurely walk from the building down to Ballinakill. Large earthworks had to be undertaken in order to create a suitable landscape: today the Lutyens terraces (which sit directly below where formerly stood the house) rest behind large buttressed stone walls. When Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a year after Michael Frederick Trench’s death, he was able to call Heywood a ‘richly varied demesne ornamented with plantations and artificial sheets of water.’ In contrast to the classical severity of the building, the grounds were deeply romantic, and resolutely looking to the past. Setting the tone, the main entrance featured gates set between a pair of Gothic polygonal towers, their rooflines generously castellated. From here the drive winds to the first folly, a slim hexagonal gothic column of limestone column which serves both to commemorate Trench’s close friendship with his distant cousin and fellow-patron of the arts Andrew Caldwell, and also to mark the distance to various locations including Ballinakill and – somewhat further away – Dublin. The column is also close to the point where the first of three lakes rises: these follow close to the line of the drive, with a number of (now over-grown) rustic bridges allowing views down to the village. Moving close to the latter and in contrast to the gothic column one reaches a plain classical gazebo called Claude’s Seat, its name perhaps derived from Claude Lorrain whose pastoral scenes are evoked by the view across a lily-strewn lake. Directly behind the building is a small chamber with the remains of plaster stalagmites on its coved ceiling: this may have served as a hermitage.




Moving back towards the house, on a bluff above the drive and facing each other are two more substantial Gothic follies created by Michael Frederick Trench. One of these is a small sham castle with circular corner towers and castellated parapets. A triple lancet-arch window lights the modest interior, with a corresponding arched opening beneath. Directly opposite is can be seen what are intended to look like the ruins of a mediaeval church; the fine traceried window is said to be 15th century and to have been brought from the former Dominican friary at Aghaboe, some twelve miles away. Above both was another, more finished structure, a Gothic orangery built of red brick with limestone hood mouldings and obelisk pinnacles along the roofline. Today this is just a shell but other buildings that once could be seen in the Heywood demesne have gone altogether: for example, on a hillock to the south of the house stood an Ionic Temple of the Winds. For many years, this landscape and its diverse follies was neglected and allowed to fall into ruin, but of late much work has been done to clear back the vegetation and allow Trench’s original scheme be understood. As Sir Charles Coote wrote in 1801, ‘The demesne of Heywood deserves particular attention; except in the irregularity of ground, this charming spot had few natural advantages to recommend it to even the most experienced and judicious taste, which Mr Trench the proprietor must be acknowledged most eminently to possess. Nature has been so truly copied by him, that in none of the numerous elegant improvements is seen anything of artificial appearance. In each of the approaches the most delightful scenes are presented to the eye, and the senses of some voluptuaries would indeed be ravished with views of such exquisite beauty. The water, which appears from so many vistas, is all artificial and covered with wild fowl in the season. Several architectural ornaments of true classic merit are happily disposed in the most elegant taste; the ruin has all the appearance of gothic antiquity, and its view from several partial spots of the demesne has the best possible effect.’

‘A Tall, Unlovely Block’


‘It was in the sixteenth century that Robert Martin, one of the long and powerful line of High Sheriffs and Mayors of Galway, became possessed of a large amount of land in West Galway, and in 1590 Ross was his country place. From this point the Martins began slowly to assimilate West Galway; Ross, Dangan, Birch Hall, and Ballinahinch, marked their progress, until Ballinahinch, youngest and greatest of the family strongholds, had gathered to itself nearly 200,000 acres of Connemara. It fell, tragically, from the hand of its last owner, Mary Martin, Princess of Connemara, in the time of the Famine, and that page of Martin history is closed in Galway, though the descendants of her grandfather, ‘Humanity Dick ‘ (for ever to be had in honourable remembrance as the author of ‘Martin’s Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’), have kept alive the old name of Ballinahinch, and have opened a new and notable record for themselves in Canada…’




‘Through a line of Jaspers, Nicholases and Roberts, the story of Ross moved prosperously on from Robert of Elizabeth’s times, untouched even by the hand of Cromwell, unshaken even when the gates of Galway, twelve miles away, opened at length to Ireton. Beyond the town of Galway, the Cromwellian did not set his foot; Connemara was a dark and barren country, and the Martins, Roman Catholic and Royalists to the core, as were all the other Tribes of Galway, held the key of the road. From that conflict Ross emerged, minus most of its possessions in Galway town and suburbs; after the Restoration they were restored by the Decree of Charles II, but remained nevertheless in the hands of those to whom they had been apportioned as spoil. The many links that had bound Ross to Galway Town seem thence forward to have been severed; during the eighteenth century the life of its owners was that of their surroundings, peaceful for the most part, and intricately bound up with that of their tenants. They were still Roman Catholic and Jacobite – a kinsman of Dangan was an agent for Charles Edward – and each generation provided several priests for its Church. With my great-grandfather, Nicholas, came the change of creed; he became a Protestant in order to marry a Protestant neighbour, Miss Elizabeth O’Hara, of Lenaboy; where an affair of the heart was concerned, he was not the man to stick at what he perhaps considered to be a trifle. It is said that at the end of his long life his early training asserted itself, and drew him again towards the Church of his fathers; it is certainly probable that he died, as he was born, a son of Rome. But the die had been cast. His six children were born and bred Protestants. Strong in all ways, they were strong Protestants, and Low Church, according to the fashion of their time, yet they lived in an entirely Roman Catholic district without religious friction of any kind…’




‘It was during the life of Nicholas, my great-grand-father, that Ross House was burned down; with much loss, it is believed, of plate and pictures; it had a tower, and stood beautifully on a point in the lake. He replaced it by the present house, built about the year 1777, whose architecture is not aesthetically to his credit; it is a tall, unlovely block, of great solidity, with kitchen premises half underground, and the whole surrounded by a wide and deep area. It suggests the idea of defence, which was probably not absent from the builder’s mind, yet the Rebellion of twenty years later did not put it to the test. In the great storm of 1839, still known as ” The Big Wind,” my grandfather gathered the whole household into the kitchen for safety, and, looking up at its heavily-vaulted ceiling, said that if Ross fell, not a house in Ireland would stand that night. Many fell, but Ross House stood the assault, even though the lawn was white with the spray borne in from the Atlantic, six miles away. It has at least two fine rooms, a lofty well-staircase, with balusters of mahogany, taken out of a wreck, and it takes all day the sun into its heart, looking west and south, with tall windows, over lake and mountain. It is said that a man is never in love till he is in love with a plain woman, and in spite of draughts, of exhausting flights of stairs, of chimneys that are the despair of sweeps, it has held the affection of five generations of Martins…’




‘Life at Ross was of the traditional Irish kind, with many retainers at low wages, which works out as a costly establishment with nothing to show for it. A sheep a week and a cow a month were supplied by the farm, and assimilated by the household; it seemed as if with the farm produce, the abundance of dairy cows, the packed turf house, the fallen timber ready to be cut up, the fruitful garden, the game and the trout, there should have been affluence. But after all these followed the Saturday night labour bill, and the fact remains, as many Irish landlords can testify, that these free fruits of the earth are heavily paid for, that convenience is mistaken for economy, and that farming is, for the average gentleman, more of an occupation than an income.’


Extracts from Violet Martin’s essay The Martins of Ross published posthumously in 1917. 

Developments Awaited



The recent run of good weather in Ireland has turned everyone’s attention to gardens (if only to wonder, given a recent hose ban, how to keep them sufficiently watered). There has always been a strong public appetite for visiting gardens, especially those developed over a long period of time. One of the most popular in recent years has been Altamont, County Carlow, which offers the additional allure of free admission. Running to almost 100 acres, Altamont was developed around a house which, as so often in this country, has a complex and at times unclear history.






Originally known as Rose Hill, the present property at Altamont dates from the 18th century, although it has been proposed that the house incorporates an older dwelling, possibly a mediaeval religious establishment. Various dates are given for the core of the building, anything from 1720 to 1770 but during the earlier period a branch of the St George family was in residence and seems to have been responsible for its construction, including the polygonal bay on the east-facing façade. By the later part of the 18th century Altamont was occupied by the Doyles: curiously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, a mid-19th century illustrator and watercolourist, was called Charles Altamont Doyle. By that time, the place was owned by Dawson Borror whose father had been a landscape architect: it was he who initiated changes to the demesne and gardens to provide local employment in the aftermath of the Great Famine (not least the creation of the lake). Borror also extended the house, adding a wing on the north side for a library and other rooms, and then making further alterations in the early 1870s. Half a century later, Altamont came into the ownership of Feilding Lecky Watson: first he and then his daughter Corona North were largely responsible for giving the gardens their present appearance.






Following the death of Corona North in 1999 Altamont passed into the care of the Irish State, which through the Office of Public Works has continued to care for the gardens and keep them open to the public. Hitherto the house at the centre of the site remains closed. An article in the Irish Times in December 2007 noted that the building had been rated by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of national importance and quoted then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley as saying that the house would be ‘a very important tourist attraction in the Carlow area and a wonderful amenity for local families.’ The economic recession began soon afterwards and the building stayed shuttered. It also appears legal complexities delayed the formal handing over of the property to the OPW: this only occurred in January 2014 when then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes announced plans to open Altamont House to the public in the future. The following year a government press release reported that Simon Harris, then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works had visited Altamont where he explained his office ‘has already carried out vital remedial and maintenance works to the house and the entrance road and I am pleased to confirm that design work is at an advanced stage for the new Tearooms for which it is hoped to lodge planning permission very shortly.’ In December 2016 local media advised that work was ‘finally going to start in earnest into developing Altamont House into a place for visitors to the gardens to go.’ In February of last year the Carlow Nationalist reported that then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Seán Canney had visited Altamont and announced the organization was close to submitting planning permission for tea rooms in the building: ‘It’s a hugely ambitious project to renovate the house and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money.’ Since then necessary repairs have been carried out on the roof. Further developments are awaited and, all being well, before too long the building at the heart of Altamont’s gardens will open its doors to the public.


Spes Mea in Deo


Also in the grounds of St Anne’s, Dublin: the Clock Tower believed to date from 1850. Made of brick and rising four storeys, its ground floor served as the entrance to walled gardens. The clock, made by James Booth of Dublin, has one dial facing eastwards to where the house once stood. There is also a substantial bell inside the tower, inscribed with the name of Benjamin Lee Guinness and his family motto ‘Spes Mea in Deo’ (My Hope is in God).

A Tea Room with a View

The Pompeiian temple at St Anne’s, Clontarf, Dublin. This estate was developed by members of the Guinness family around a large house regrettably destroyed by fire in 1943. Its remains were demolished but much of the surrounding parkland was preserved and is open to the public. The temple is one of a number of structures on the site. Of unknown date, but likely to be mid-19th century, it has a broken pedimented façade facing south-east across an ornamental pond. Originally roofed it was used as a tea house from which could be seen splendid views in the distance of Howth and Bull Island.