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Glenarm Castle Walled Garden Antrim + Catherine FitzGerald

Lawns in Bawns

1. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Kings, princes, and the wisest men of all ages, have some or other of them, taken singular delight in this exercise of planting, setting, sowing, and what else that is requisite in the well ordering of orchards and gardens, and rejoiced to see the fruits of their labours.” Leonard Meager, 1697.

2. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

After studying English and History of Art at Trinity College Dublin, Catherine FitzGerald trained as a horticulturalist at the Royal Horticultural Society. A Postgrad Diploma in Landscape Conservation and History at the Architectural Association topped up her studying. “My aim is that each garden should feel completely right and of its place rather than imposed,” she believes, “acting with, rather than against, nature and local idiom.” Catherine hand draws plans in the Gertrude Jekyll tradition.

3. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Green genes run in the family. She calls her grandmothers “plantaholics”. Years ago, her mother Madam FitzGerald germanely wrote about the family home, “The garden of Glin Castle in County Limerick is extraordinarily beautiful and yet I feel it is not a fine garden. It seems to me to be more of a field cut neatly and circumspectly into a lawn or two, with a little hill that is covered in daffodils in the spring, and some primeval oaks that drench you with their leafy arms as you pass. It is a garden that acknowledges its castle first and foremost, while this battlemented toy fort, preoccupied with its own importance, accepts the homage too carelessly to repay the compliment.”

4. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Olda FitzGerald posits, “Many of its windows treacherously look out over the Shannon estuary or else yearningly, like the rest of us, away down the avenue towards the chimneys and steeple of the village, with an occasional haughty glance down at the croquet lawn and crab apple trees below. The crab apples were planted 40 years ago, and for most of the year give the impression of being thickly covered in grey feathery fungus, until they burst into the most unseemly fertility every summer.”

5. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Roughly 290 miles northeast of Glin Castle lies another faux fortified residence, Glenarm Castle. It’s the home of Randal and Aurora McDonnell, Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce. They’re friends of Catherine so she was an obvious choice to bring their four acre Walled Garden back to life. “I had just left my job as Planting Designer for Arabella Lennox-Boyd,” Catherine relates, “and was beginning to design gardens on my own. Randal gave me my first commission really. It was a wonderful opportunity.” An ancestor of Randal’sAnne Catherine McDonnell, Countess of Antrim – built the Walled Garden in the 1820s using limestone quarried from the demesne. It’s a relatively recent addition considering the McDonnells have been at Glenarm Castle for six centuries and counting.

Randal inherited Glenarm Castle back in 1992 when he was 25. ”By the time I took on the Walled Garden, it was completely derelict bar the yew circle, the beech circle and a few shrubs,” he recalls, “but I didn’t hesitate. I had always loved this place. It had sagged rather, but it was very exciting to be able to stop it sag for a bit.” In place of dereliction, and any sagging for that matter, is Catherine’s design for six ornamental gardens in separate “rooms”. Five pay homage to the traditional productive functions of walled gardens: the Apple Orchard; the Cherry Garden; the Herb Garden; the Pear Garden; and the Medlar Garden. A viewing point of these five rooms is cleverly provided by the Mount which occupies the sixth space. More anon.

8. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

10. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

11. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

There were pleached trees and borders already at the bottom of the garden by the time Catherine got involved so she was asked to make sense of the top half. Her design replaced a blank space dotted with a few languishing trees and shrubs marooned among stretches of grass. “My instinct,” records Catherine, “was to divide it up into different rooms and walks which visitors could wander through and wonder where they were going next rather than taking it all in at once.” The Walled Garden is entered through the simple green coloured Bell Gate, framed by a cloak of clematis draped over the high stone walls.

12. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Naturally, Glin Castle was an influence on Catherine’s design: “The kitchen garden at Glin which was restored by my mother in the 1970s is always in the back of my mind when planning walled gardens. She used yew topiary shapes, Irish yew and espaliered apple and pear divisions to provide a strong structure and design as a background to the fruit vegetables and annuals she planted. At Glenarm, elements of this are there with the espaliered pears and strong structure provided by the hedges.”

13. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I wanted to relate the theme to walled gardens,” she adds, “so used a lot of fruit trees but in an ornamental way: the espaliered pear tree circle… the formal rows of medlars… the apple tree orchard… the crab trees and so on.” The brief was to keep it relatively simple and low maintenance. As a result, it’s very structural with no fussiness. More from Catherine: “It was all done on a modest budget. Randal had a great team who implemented it.” One of the biggest structural tasks was restoring the 100 metre long glasshouse with its myriad rhomboid panes.

14. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Catherine was also influenced by the gardens on the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava’s Clandeboye Estate in County Down and Ned Lambton’s Cetinale Estate in Italy. She notes, “Both these gardens have espaliered fruit trees trained on circular wrought iron frameworks and I liked that idea. I was also influenced by Scampston Hall Walled Garden in Yorkshire, designed by Piet Outdolph. It has a ziggurat shaped mount – while the one at Glenarm is spiral shaped – but I could see how effective it was in giving a view over the whole garden.” The Mount is especially effective at Glenarm because now it is possible to see dramatic views up the glens and woods in one direction and the sea in the other. Not forgetting views across the Walled Garden itself.

15. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

She believes, “Gardens are about evoking sensations and emotion. I try to imbue my gardens with a sense of romance.” There’s all that plus a sense of drama. Expect to see explosive reds, yellows and blues in the aptly named Hot Border. Crimson dahlias are a favourite of the Viscountess. Drama needs contrast. Turn the corner at the end of the Hot Border to be greeted by the pale foxgloves of the Double Borders. “It did take a long time to get going,” she admits, “the beech hedges and yew buttresses along the walls seemed to take forever to establish. But now they have got going it really feels like it is becoming mature. It’s how I imagined it would be which is fantastic!”

16. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Right plant, right place,” is her motto. Right now, Glenarm Castle Walled Garden has reached peak horticultural experience. Hurrah! It’s a paradise of paradoxes: hill and plain; openness and enclosure; polychrome and green. Continuing the castle theme, Catherine FitzGerald’s latest garden is about to open. Somewhere between Glin and Glenarm in geography and age, Hillsborough Castle is set to be Northern Ireland’s next cultural attraction.

17. Glenarm Castle Walled Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architects Architecture Art Country Houses Design People

Lavender’s Blue + Russborough Blessington Wicklow

Architecture in Harmony

1 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A rondo is a piece of music in which the main theme keeps recurring between different episodes. Antonio Diabelli’s Rondino was written for the piano in the 18th century. essentially a ternary or three element form, two repeats elongate this rondo into a five part composition. It opens in mezzo piano, rising through a crescendo then a forte section, before softening through a diminuendo back to mezzo piano.

2 Russborough Houssse Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Rondino is typical of the classical era of the arts. It is symmetrical with a regular rhythm set in harmonised yet contrasting elements strung out and repeated. Articulated notions of Beauty, the Sublime and the Picturesque underscore the symbolic sensibilities of the piece. This is a work from a maestro at the height of his creative gamesmanship.

3 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The same could be said of Russborough, an Irish neoclassical house designed by the virtuoso architect Richard Castle. The Palladian ideal of dressing up a farm axially to incorporate the house and ancillary buildings into one architectural composition flourished in 18th century Ireland, especially under German born Castle.

4 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The central block of Russborough is seven bays wide by two storeys tall over basement. Bent arcades link two identical lower seven bay two storey wings. This five part superfaçade is constructed of silvery grey granite. Straight retaining walls extend from the wings to terminate in gateways at either extremity, like encores. Little wonder Johann von Goethe called architecture “frozen music”.

5 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Awesome, yes. But it combined form with function from an 18th century perspective. One wing contained the servants’ quarters and kitchen; the other, the stables. The two gateways led to the separate stable yard farmyard. In the central block, the high ceilinged piano nobile was used for public entertaining. The low ceilinged first floor was for private family use. The basement housed vaulted wine cellars and yet more servants’ accommodation.

6 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Such is the genius of the place, and its architect, that this arrangement has adapted well in subsequent centuries. When Sir Alfred and Lady Beit flung open their doors to the great unwashed in 1978, a neo Georgian single storey visitors’ centre was neatly inserted behind the eastern colonnade. The west wing was restored in 2012 and discreetly converted into a Landmark Trust holiday let.

7 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Beit Foundation has ensured the survival of Russborough despite no less than four art robberies from an ungrateful element of the recipient nation. This is no picnic in a foreign land. A tour guide as graceful as Audrey Hepburn glides through the echoing halls and velvety staterooms; the latter, counterpoints in texture to the stony exterior. Not so, other Irish country houses. Carton, Dunboyne Castle and Farnham were all converted into boom time hotels with varying degrees of success. Uncertainty lies over the fate of Glin Castle, Mountainstown House and Milltown House, all for sale in an unstable market. Worst of all, Ballymacool, Castle Dillon and Mount Panther lie in ruins, home to wandering sheep and ghosts.

8 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Contemporary composer Karl Jenkins has brought Palladio back to the forefront of orchestral music. Laterally Literally. Inspired by the 16th century Italian architect, Palladio is a three movement piece for strings. Completed in 1996, Karl was influenced by Palladian mathematical proportionality in his quest for musical perfection.

9 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Palladio’s pursuit of perfect proportions can be traced back to the Vitruvian model of ‘man as a measure for all things’. He reinterpreted the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, for a new audience. Vitruvius believed symmetry and proportion created a harmonic relationship with individual components and their whole, either in music or architecture. He developed ratios based on the human body which were later used by 18th century composers. Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man illustrates the concept.

10 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Like other Roman architects, Vitruvius revered the work of Ancient Greek scholars. Their macro theses argued that the entire cosmos vibrates to the same harmonies audible in music. Pythagorean formulae quantified the relationship of architecture, music and the human form. Even the cyclical nature of the resurgence of classicism, skipping generations like beats, only to be revived in repetition and reinterpretation, has balance and form.

11 Russborough House Blessington © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architecture Country Houses

Holy Hill House Strabane Tyrone + Ballymena Castle

The Big White House | Relics of the Old Decency

Holy Hill House Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy (pronounced “Holly” as in Holywood, Country Down) Hill House is a Planter’s house of comfortable grandeur. Set in the wilds of Tyrone, its shining white walls are testimony to the efforts of Hamilton and Margaret Thompson. They purchased the estate in 1983. “My family were tenant farmers here with 20 acres, half of which was peat land,” Hamilton reminisces. “We bought the house along with 230 acres. But we didn’t want anyone overlooking us so we bought a few surrounding farms too!”

Holy Hill House Strabane © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The last in the line of the Sinclair family was Will Hugh Montgomery, High Sheriff of Tyrone,” says Hamilton. “He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Elizabeth Elliott, a doll from Philadelphia.” Will died in 1930 but Bessie continued to live here along until 1957. Bessie was a snob! She wanted to marry someone with a title and army rank and with Will she got both.” Upon her death in 1957 the estate was inherited by a Sinclair relation, General Sir Allen Henry Shafto Adair, who subsequently sold it to the Thompsons. Hamilton notes, “The Castle of Mey was a Sinclair property. They’d quite a few bob between them. One of their other former homes has been in the news lately: Anmer Hall, Prince William and Catherine’s home. Adair Arms in Ballymena is named after them.”

Holy Hill Front Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“The very doghouses are listed!” he exclaims. A village of early 19th century limewashed rubble stone outbuildings embraces the rear elevation of the house. The laundry still has its mangle; tongue and groove panelling lines the coachman’s house; and the stable stalls are fully intact. A saw mill, forge with bellcote, byres and walled garden add to the complex. “I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible,” says Hamilton. “The estate would originally have been self sufficient. Years ago there weren’t any supermarkets!” Metal cockerel finials top the stone entrance piers to the courtyard.

Holy Hill House Bay Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House bears a passing resemblance to Springhill, the National Trust property in Tyrone. The harled front, a roughly symmetrical grouping of windows centring on the middle bay, slates on a secondary elevation, a Regency looking bay window and so on. But while Springhill is gable ended, the double pile hipped roof of Holy Hill swoops down from the chimneys to the eaves like a wide brimmed garden party hat. The roof contains one of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. More anon. Single bay screen wings topped by ball finials elongate the entrance front. A 1736 map by William Starratt in the library shows the main block of the house. So it’s at least early 18th century but the rear part likely dates from the previous century. Sir George Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Abercorn at Baronscourt, built a house here but it was destroyed in the 1641 Massacre of Ulster. Reverend John Sinclair then bought the estate in 1683 and the building he erected was to become the family seat for a quarter of a millennium. That is, save for a sojourn when the Sinclairs retreated behind the Walls of Derry during the Jacobite conflict.

Holy Hill House Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Holy Hill House Courtyard © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The glazed entrance door set in a lugged sandstone architrave opens into the entrance hall which leads onto the three storey staircase hall. The Thompsons, though, use a more informal entrance through the left hand screen wing. Antlers and maids’ water cans hang from the white walls of this hallway. Above a sofa is the first of Holy Hill’s hidden glories. A stained glass window of great provenance. Over to Mr Thompson, “I found the 10 stained glass windows in a shed outside. They’re from Ballymena Castle, once home to the Adairs. When the castle was demolished in the 1950s, Sir Allen brought the windows with him to Holy Hill.” They are now installed throughout the house: some as external windows; others as internal doors. Each stained glass panel is a story board telling the history of the Adair family in their Ulster Scots context. A low ceilinged sitting room in the older part of the house is made even lower by a colossal timber beam. ‘Count Thy Work to God 1900 Everina Sculpsit.’ So engraved the evident carpenter and Latin scholar Miss Sinclair.

Holy Hill Outbuilding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hamilton put back the separating wall between the entrance hall and drawing room. The ante room – “Ideal for a glass of sherry!” – is now the library. Delicate ceiling roses and cornicing have been reinstated where missing. “The entrance front faces east,” says Hamilton. “So we generally keep the window shutters pulled.” A new kitchen was installed in the former library at the back of the house. This allowed the basement Victorian kitchen to be retained as a museum piece. Clocks chime on the multiplicity of skyward landings on the 19th century staircase. Time doesn’t stand still, not even at Holy Hill. The dining room is pure magnificence. Crimson flock wallpaper; a higher ceiling; that bay window; and the dining table from Flixton Hall, another former Sinclair residence.

Holly Hill House Rear Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And now for Holy Hill’s highest hidden glory. The front top floor bedrooms have extraordinarily high coving which swallows the roof space above. The top floor bedrooms to the rear have domes instead. As a result, on what would normally be the nursery floor is a lofty suite of cathedral guest rooms. “Adrian Carton de Wiart stayed here in the 1920s,” says Hamilton, pointing to a copy of Happy Odyssey by the author. “Mrs Sinclair liked entertaining. She had 15 staff. Five lived in the house.” Down to the ground floor. The lowest hidden glory is a Victorian loo. “The Sinclairs built a passageway to a privy,” smiles Hamilton, “so when nature called they didn’t have to run to the end of the garden.” Off said passageway, stone flagged steps lead to the rabbit warren of former servants’ quarters and cellars. “We’re seven feet underground,” says Hamilton in the billiard room, once a servants’ hall. The vegetable store has an earthen floor. “Bessie buried the family silver under here in case of a German invasion.”

Holly Hill House Ballymena Castle Stained Glass Window © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s been a sad year for country houses of Ireland. Dundarave, Glin Castle, Markree Castle and Mountainstown all sold for the first time in their history. Most of the contents of Bantry House and some of Russborough at risk. Not so Holy Hill House. It has never looked smarter, gleaming inside and out, even on a drizzly Ulster summer day. The big house stands tall and proud, surrounded by an apron of soft emerald banded lawn.

Holy Hill House Kitchen © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

John Sinclair was agent to the Earl of Abercorn. On 20 June 1758 he wrote, ‘Inclosed I send your Lordshipp an account of the halphe years rent due at May 1757 which I hope will please. William McIlroys I think I may get, but I fear Harris Hunter never will pay; about five weeks agoe he went to Scotland and is not yet returned; his mill is in bad repair. Gabriel Gamble is returned in arrear; he will not take a receipt for his halph year’s rent; he says the boat cost him much more and expects to be allowed all his cost; Mr Winsley has not paid for his turf bog for the year 1757; he has three acres, a part of which he hopes your Lordshipp will allow for his house, fire and desired me to let your Lordshipp know he was willing to pay what you pleased to charge him but did not incline paying untill I acquainted you. James Hamilton of Prospect has one acre and a halph, a part of which he also hopes you will allow him for his fire; the remainder he is willing to pay what your Lordshipp pleases. If the manner in which the account is drawn is not agreeable I hope your Lordshipp will excuse me as I am not acquainted with the proper method but shall for the future observe your Lordshipp’s directions if you will please to instruct me.’

Holy Hill House Landing © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley