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.

New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder

New Court Bridge has been badly damaged recently. Why does that matter?

The damage from behind the wall. Now you can see that this is a bridge – but a most unusual one!

Most people driving by this dangerous bend, where the Ilen River meets the N71 just west of Skibbereen, notice the funny arches on top of the wall, but don’t think twice about them. It’s too risky to stop and take a close look, after all. Most people, in fact, probably don’t realise that they are driving over a bridge, although that’s a bit more obvious now as the County Council have put in one of those concrete pads that are going in front of all bridge walls at the moment (see lead photograph).

Water under the bridge

Does anyone know how the damage happened? Did a car take the bend too fast and hit the wall? Did the concrete work loosen the structure of the wall? Let us know if you have information. I hope nobody was hurt. All I know is that one morning I was driving into Skibbereen and there was a chunk of the wall – gone!

Early Ordnance Survey map of the New Court Estate, bounded by the Ilen River on the east and south. The red dots indicate the locations of the belvederes (marked as towers) and the bridge

We tend in Ireland to think of old estate walls like this one as ‘Famine Walls’, erected during the mid nineteenth century as work projects. But this wall was far older than that, and it hid a secret – an elaborate facade on the back with decorative arches and niches. It was part of the plan for a pleasure garden undertaken by Henry Tonson at his newly acquired ‘seat’ which he called New Court, to distinguish it from Old Court, across the river. Originally, there was a matching wall across the road, but it was demolished in a truck accident many years ago. EDIT: I misinterpreted this – rather than a matching wall across the road, in fact there were matching arches on either side of the road, west of the entry to New Court. Both are now gone, one at least due to the aforementioned truck accident. Thanks to Sean Norris for this information.

The Ilen floats by – a navigable river was a must for transporation to and from these early estates

The Tonsons had arrived in the 1660s. According to Burke’s Peerage, Major Richard Tonson received a grant of land in the county of Cork from Charles II for his distinguished exertions in favour of royalty during the Civil Wars and purchased the castle and lands of Spanish Island, in the same county. If he built anything on Spanish Island, just off Baltimore, no traces remain, and indeed, although strategic in marine terms at that time, it is hard to imagine how the island, mostly bare rock, would have made for comfortable accommodation.

The stump of one of the belvederes, overlooking the river

It appears he, or his son, Henry, bought the land on the west bank of the Ilen and Henry set about establishing his dwelling there. This included building the wall around the estate. Eventually, and we are not sure when, one of the Tonsons (over time they acquired a title, Lord Riversdale) developed the area around the house as a vast pleasure garden.

The most complete belvedere. This one also functioned as a dovecote

The fashion for designed landscapes is an eighteenth century phenomenon. As I said in my post on belvederes, in that century

. . . a different style of landscaping. . . 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.

A closer look at the construction of the bridge. It would be fascinating to attempt a reconstruction drawing. The niches may well have held statuary or decorative urns

Although the grand houses at the centre of the estate have now gone (see this photograph in the National Library for a glimpse of the last one), there is lots of evidence still of such a designed landscape. Originally lawns sloped to the river – no need to build artificial ponds as the Ilen provided the perfect watery scene. Little round towers were built to be used as gazebos or belvederes (and in one case a dovecote): three in all, of which the stump of one and a fairly complete second are still to be seen. The bridge with its elaborate facing was the crowning glory of the estate wall.

The York House Water Gate as it would have looked originally on  the Thames (Wiki Commons)

What did the bridge wall look like originally? We don’t know, but Peter Somerville-Large in his Coast of West Cork says it was modelled on the ‘water gates at Hampton Court’. I can’t find any images of this online, but I have found the water gate at York House, which is still there. It was built as a ceremonial landing place on the Thames (above) although it is now a long way from the river.

The York House Water Gate in an early photograph (www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O18442 Credit, Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer William Strudwick )

Of course, it is larger and more elaborate, but you can still see the basic shape, with its curved arch on top and the arched niches in the wall. The arches at New Court may have been plastered, perhaps, or faced with some material. The York House Water Gate dates to 1626 and it’s all that left of the York House estate – the Tonsons may well have been familiar with it or with similar water gates along the Thames. Building such an edifice would have been aspirational, indicating a desire to impress.

This was what it looked like in 2016 – taken by a camera with spots on the lens

The likelihood, therefore, is that the bridge at New Court is most probably eighteenth century, and early eighteenth century at that – about three hundred years old. We don’t have a lot of structures in West Cork dating to then. Surely it’s worth preserving those that still exist? I am hopeful that the National Monuments Service (they’ve been alerted and have notified their Monument Protection Unit) will come riding to the rescue. I’ll be keeping an eye on it all – you do too. But note that this is private property, so no walking or driving through the gates without permission.

UPDATE, MARCH 20, 2019. This notice was received from the National Monuments Protection Unit: “Cork County Council (Bridge Management) have indicated it is prepared to repair the wall as a Reactive Maintenance Incident and will ensure repairs meet any necessary heritage requirements.”

Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork

Swift's Tower

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.

Bantry House 1

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.

base of ruined tower belvedere New Court

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 belvedere

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.

View from Killiney Hill

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.  

Belvedere, Aughadown

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.

Aghadown Belvedere and tower house siting

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.

Creagh House Belvedere

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.

Belvedere, New Court

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.

Castle Townsend Belvedere turret

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.

Swift's Tower 3

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”.

Carberiae Rupes

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.

Swift's Tower, Belvedere

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.

Horse Island, Castlehaven, belvedere

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.)

Crookhaven belvederes

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 1

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.

Sailor's Hill Memorial 2

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.

Sailor's Hill Views

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

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.