Larchill – A Pastoral Paradise

One thing always leads to another, and when Finola took an interest in the lost demense at New Court, on the Ilen River close to Skibbereen, she didn’t know that she was going to discover the concept of Arcadian Gardens and – more particularly – the Ferme Ornée. On our latest expedition towards Galway, therefore, we couldn’t miss a visit to Larchill in County Kildare, which claims to be ‘the only surviving, near complete, garden of its type in Europe’.

Header – the ‘Shell Tower’ within the walled garden at Larchill. The garden walls are built up to, but not incorporated in, the tower structure, suggesting that the tower is earlier than the garden enclosure. Centre – the walled garden has been beautifully re-established and maintained. Lower – a typical view across the demense to the artificial lake

Ferme Ornée means, literally, ‘ornamental farm’, and was a departure from the idea of a farm or farmland being purely practical: from the middle of the 18th century, there was a move away from the formal gardens of the time and an embracing and enhancing of the natural landscape. Larchill’s leaflet for visitors explains:

Emulating Arcadia, a pastoral paradise was created to reflect Man’s harmony with the perfection of nature. As is the case at Larchill, a working farm with decorative buildings (often containing specimen breeds of farm animal) was situated in landscaped parkland ornamented with follies, grottos and statuary.  Tree lined avenues, flowing water, lakes, areas of light and shade and beautiful framed views combined to create an inspirational experience enabling Man’s spirit to rejoice at the wonder of nature. At this time in Versailles, Marie Antoinette enjoyed extravagant pastoral pageants, housed specimen cattle in highly decorated barns, while she herself is said to have dressed as a milk maid complete with porcelain milk churns.  Freed from the restrictions of the 17th century formal garden, the Ferme Ornée represented the first move towards the fully fledged landscape parkland designs of Capability Browne.

Upper – the elegant facade of the farmhouse at Larchill which commands views of the water meadows and lake (centre image). Lower – looking across the bullrushes towards one of the islands on the lake, known as ‘Gibraltar’

The word Arcadia is derived from a province in Greece, said to have been the home of the god Pan. In the European Renaissance, Arcadia was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arcadia remained a beautiful, secluded area, and its inhabitants were depicted as herdsmen leading simple, happy lives. The name has become associated with an imagined idyllic paradise, which the designers of Ferme Ornée tried to reflect in the use of vistas, landscaping, elegant buildings and follies. Finola has also touched on some aspects of this philosophy in her exploration of Belvederes in West Cork.

Upper – Thomas Cole The Arcadian State 1834: a romantic image of pastoral perfection. Lower – Ferme Ornée: architectural drawings by John Plaw (1746 – 1820) showing how the layout of villages (left) and the design of farm buildings (centre) and cottages (right) are conceived to reflect the principles of Arcadia

The gardens at Larchill are exceptional in that all the features of ‘The Arcadian State’ are clearly visible and have been rescued from decline by the de las Casas family who bought the demesne in 1994. Its 18th century glory has passed, perhaps, but everything is clear to see and the visitor can conjure up the elegance of life in this slightly off-the-beaten-track corner of rural Ireland. We enjoyed the hours we spent there and – after an enlightening meeting with Michael and Louisa de las Casas – we had the extensive grounds to ourselves. Larchill is a gem!

Above: details from Larchill – ‘shell houses’ were a feature of ornamental gardens. This ‘Cockle Shell Tower’ was made by the Watsons who leased the estate in the late 18th century: some restoration has been undertaken but most of the shells are as originally placed. There are some exotic and rare varieties from far flung regions of the world.

Views of the lake which is central to the vista from the farm at Larchill. The artificially constructed lake (which had been drained and has been refilled by the present owners as part of the overall restoration work) has four carefully placed features: an earth covered boathouse; ‘Gibraltar Island’, based on the fortifications on the Rock; a statue of Bacchus; and a temple which had a plunge pool. There are stories of guests who visited the house being cajoled into taking part in mock battles aboard boats on the lake!

Upper – the Feuillé: a mound landscaped with beech trees made from soil excavated when the lake was dug in the 18th century. Lower – the Foxes’ Earth

My favourite story from Larchill involves the Foxes’ Earth. This folly was made by the Watsons: Mr Watson was the Master of Foxhounds and had an epiphany moment one day when he realised how many foxes he had been responsible for despatching. He became convinced that he would be reincarnated as a fox and would suffer the fate he had visited upon so many animals. He built the Foxes’ Earth to provide an escape for any foxes who were being hunted on the estate (including himself in his next life!), and consists of a number of deep burrows which could not be accessed by the hounds: because of his repentance, I hope he managed to successfully escape the fate which he feared.

Larchill has dovecotes in its farmyard, but also the ‘owl roost’ or owlery shown in the upper picture. This is a rare feature, built to encourage owls which would hunt the vermin on the farm. The lower picture shows a stone lantern hidden away in the woods, close to an eel pond and ‘eel tower’ where the fish were harvested (below).

Please visit Larchill when you get the chance. In 1830 the Ordnance Survey described it as ‘…the most fashionable garden in all of Ireland…’ It’s certainly one of the most unusual and attractive designed estates we have visited. Check opening hours on the website or ring 01 628 7354.

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