The 18th century was a time of profound change in garden design in Britain, and by extension in Ireland. In the opening decades of the 1700s great and small estates included formal gardens laid out in the French and Dutch styles that emphasised symmetry and geometry, parterres and avenues of trees. The gardens at Bantry House are a good example of this garden style. Although developed in the first half of the 19th century, they were perhaps influenced heavily by the gardens at Versailles and great European houses visited by the Earl of Bantry on his Grand Tour.
Thanks to Dennis Horgan, aerial photographer extraordinaire, for allowing me to use his shot of Bantry House. Note the formal and geometric layout of the gardens and the parterres immediately behind and to the right of the house
However, for the previous century a different style of landscaping had dominated garden design in Britain, pioneered by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and reaching its peak in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The effect they strove for was naturalistic (as opposed to natural) – a planned layout that mirrored but enhanced their idea of a ‘wild’ and romantic landscape. Large expanses of grass, strategically placed lakes and ponds, plantings of carefully chosen tree and shrub species, and clever little structures such as temples, summer houses and belvederes all combined to delight the eye, create a romantic mood and, of course, attest to the taste and wealth of the owner.
Nothing remains but the stub of what was once a belvedere in the shape of a round tower on the edge of the River Ilen, on the old New Court demesne.
Echoes of these designed landscapes can be found here and there in West Cork, even where the big houses themselves have disappeared. Lately I have been on the hunt for belvederes and have found several intriguing examples. A belvedere (bel-beautiful, vedere-to see) was an edifice from which to enjoy a view. It could be as simple as a platform at a high point, or as complex as a multi-storey tower, but its most important attribute was its positioning to command a breathtaking vista.
Killiney Hill, just south of Dublin
Perhaps the best known belvedere in Ireland is the one on top of Killiney Hill in Dublin. It was built in 1742 by the then-owner of the hill, John Mapas, to provide an opportunity to admire one of Ireland’s most iconic prospects. The room on the second floor had a little fireplace, windows, and a door to the exterior viewing deck, which was surrounded by wrought-iron railing. It’s no longer in use as a belvedere and many people think of it as some kind of memorial or folly.
The view from Killiney Hill
In West Cork, the belvedere at Aughadown (known locally as the gazebo) is of the most simple kind, a viewing platform. It was associated with Aughadown House, a fortified mansion built by the Bechers that I wrote about in Trading Up In Tudor Times: Fortified Houses in West Cork.
Peter Somerville-Large, in The Coast of West Cork, quoting Daniel Donovan*, says: Donovan described it as “a strong castellated mansion, entered by a drawbridge, surrounded by beautiful grounds and having a gazebo on one of the heights behind”. He continues: This gazebo was approached by a ramp along which the quality used to drive their carriages in order to enjoy the magnificent view out over Roaring Water Bay to the islands and the Fastnet in the distance. I found the ramp running above a field of winter wheat.
The view from Becher’s ‘gazebo’ across to Roaringwater Bay
On each side of the Ilen River lie belvederes, in the form of towers. Imagine the ladies of the house and their guests, walking or being driven down to the water’s edge. Servants would have arrived earlier and the tea would be ready and a little fire laid against the breezes. They ascend the internal staircase to the second floor or perhaps to the roof and admire the views of the lazy Ilen River as it wends its way to the sea at Roaringwater Bay.
The Creagh House belvedere
The belvedere at Creagh House exists now as a picturesque ruin. Octagonal in design, with pointed gothic windows and a small fireplace inside, it rises to three stories. Some sources describe it as the remains of a mill, and the artificial pond beside it as a mill pond, but it has all the hallmarks of a romantic garden structure.
Across the river at New Court there were once three such ornamental towers. One is gone, the second is a mere stump, but the third still stands to its original height and offers lovely views of the river both to the east and the south.
One of the three original belvederes that once dotted the New Court Estate
At Castletownshend the local gentry were enthusiastic builders of ‘pleasure architecture’. Castletownsend Castle boast two structures of interest. The first is in the walls, an octagonal tower that is made to look like a defensive feature but in fact is purely decorative. Since there is apparently no entrance, this one may have to count as a folly rather than a belvedere.
Behind the castle is the structure known as Swift’s Tower (see the very first photograph for an idea of its placement). Following the death of his beloved Vanessa in 1723, Dean Swift embarked on a long summer trip to the south west. it was in this tower, tradition has it, that he wrote the Latin poem Carberiae Rupes, which translates as The Crags of Carbery.
Once again we are indebted to Daniel Donovan’s Sketches in Carbery for an account of the poem and even a translation. Donovan did not have a high opinion of the poem (although he says that Dean Swift himself preferred it above other, better poems) and another critic referred to it as “a set of indifferent verses” describing a “bleak and deadly landscape”.
What do you think – his finest work?
Perhaps the Dean’s depressed state was to blame, or maybe he should have just stuck to prose. Or perhaps the servants hadn’t lit the fire and provided the tea – the tower certainly looks bleak enough now to bring on a fit of the dismals, in spite of the magnificent view.
On Horse Island, just outside of Castlehaven Inlet, there is the base of a round tower that may also have been a belvedere. A visit there would have made a wonderful pleasure outing on a fine day, and the views would be stupendous.
You can just make out the remains of a round wall at the top left of Horse Island
There is a whole set of monuments in West Cork that are labelled as Belvederes in the National Monuments Service Inventory, but as Signal Towers in the records maintained by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. These contradictory interpretations are fascinating and these towers are worth a post on their own. I will save that for another day, but to show you what I mean, take a look at the two towers on Rock Island, near Crookhaven. Belvederes or Signal Towers – what do you think? (If you’re not sure what signal towers are, take a look at this post from Amanda Clarke of Sheep’s Head Places.)
Looking across to Rock Island from Crookhaven. Experts differ about the functions of the two towers
But what about nowadays? Do we still worship the view in West Cork? And do we still build belvederes from which to admire that view? The answer to both those questions can be found at Sailor’s Hill, just west of Schull!
Sailor’s Hill Belvedere
Sailor’s Hill is a labour of love by Connie Griffin who has worked on the sea and lived in this area all his life. It’s partly a memorial to those lost at sea and partly a place of contemplation to simply sit and soak up the panoramic views that stretch gloriously before you in ever direction.
Schull Harbour in the background
Sadly now a little overgrown and vandalised, it is still an incredible experience to arrive at Connie’s little round tower and see vast stretches of the Cork coast to the south, while the mountains of the Beara and Kerry rise behind you.
It’s a testament to the power that landscape and seascape has over us: the power to move us and uplift us; the power to inspire us to try to capture it in paint and in words. We can’t really, but, like Connie, we keep trying.
Connie Griffin and Robert
*Somerville-Large attributes this information to Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan. However, I have not been able to find the quote and wonder if it’s from another book.