THE ART OF THE IR­ISH GAR­DEN

Irish Examiner - Magazine - - De­signer Homes -

THE gar­dens at Bur­town House in Kil­dare ex­ude a kind of calm­ness when you en­ter — it’s very much a fam­ily home with a gar­den that has evolved over the years. The house was built in 1710 for Robert Power and this early Ge­or­gian villa has passed down through the fe­male line, over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, to the cur­rent own­ers, the Fen­nell fam­ily.

Les­ley Fen­nell is the cur­rent driv­ing force be­hind the gar­dens. Much work has been done and many ar­eas have been re­claimed from bram­bles, bracken and the thugs of nature, over the years. This takes a sub­stan­tial ef­fort, though her gen­tle man­ner be­lies the fact that ma­chines, tired bod­ies, scrawled arms and legs were all needed to take back from nature what it had colonised.

Les­ley’s mother was the es­teemed botan­i­cal artist Wendy Walsh, whose work was re­spon­si­ble for my love of that art­form. I learned of the con­nec­tion only on my jour­ney up to county Kil­dare and be­came im­me­di­ately aware I was en­ter­ing the home of gar­den­ing roy­alty. There are no airs and graces here though, no bells and whis­tles, sim­ply a beau­ti­ful space which is grow­ing with the cur­rent fam­ily.

Wendy’s gar­den con­tains many plants which were given to her to paint over the years and make up the larger part of the over­all space at Bur­town. It is made up of so many dif­fer­ent facets, dif­fer­ent rooms and ar­eas. There isn’t an over­all blue­print for how the gar­den should look, no grand de­sign. Les­ley is a plant col­lec­tor and one of her cur­rent ad­dic­tions is nar­cis­sus. She has planted thou­sands of bulbs of nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent species and many of them old Ir­ish va­ri­eties, as Ire­land has al­ways been to the fore­front in breed­ing daf­fodils. Very of­ten plant col­lect­ing doesn’t fit into good de­sign, but it’s dif­fer­ent here in Bur­town, it does work.

It works, not least be­cause Les­ley loves her gar­den, she lives it, she feels it. Walk­ing along through the var­i­ous ar­eas, she was point­ing out dif­fer­ent spa­ces that had been given a new lease of life due to the re­moval of a hedge or fence and this had then opened up a dif­fer­ent as­pect, or meant that the same space could be looked at in a com­pletely new way.

I com­mented that it must be a lovely job to re­plant pre­vi­ously bare and un­seen ar­eas and she told me that she planted with her painter’s eye. She in­her­ited the artis­tic leaning, as well as the hor­ti­cul­tural one from her mother Wendy. They are in­trin­si­cally in­ter­twined and when I asked her the un­fair ques­tion, which did she pre­fer, paint­ing or gar­den­ing she an­swered that you can’t have one with­out the other, to her, they are one and the same thing.

When she is plant­ing a new area she does it like an artist more than a de­signer, us­ing plants for splashes of colour with a painterly eye. and she places huge em­pha­sis on fo­liage and tex­ture. She is quick to point out that this doesn’t al­ways re­sult in perfection, but a more hotch potch and in­for­mal ef­fect.

Les­ley’s lat­est project is a me­dieval wood­land area known as the nut grove. Her aim here is to cre­ate a liv­ing ta­pes­try from De­cem­ber to May on the wood­land floor. Anemones in more colours than I even knew ex­isted, win­ter aconites, masses of snow­drops, dog’s tooth vi­o­lets and prim­roses are among the beauties mak­ing up this colour­ful car­pet.

This is fur­ther en­hanced by win­ter flow­er­ing shrubs like Ma­ho­nia, an­other plant which Les­ley freely ad­mit to be­ing slightly ob­sessed with — among the species be­ing in­tro­duced at the mo­ment is Ma­ho­nia gra­cilipes, a rare Chi­nese form with stun­ning white un­der­sides to the leaf and pur­ple red flow­ers in late sum­mer. This is a low grow­ing form, in­tro­duced to this part of the world by Roy Lan­caster in 1980. Ma­ho­nia eu­ry­bracteata is also soon to be planted here. This species is the par­ent of the re­cently in­tro­duced ‘Soft Ca­ress’ which again flow­ers dur­ing early au­tumn and is no­table for its very nar­row leaves and low grow­ing habit which cre­ates a nearly trop­i­cal ef­fect.

The nut grove is on a small is­land in Bur­town and this is ac­cessed by sev­eral bridges with one more soon to be con­structed and Les­ley uses these bridges as a defin­ing point, clearly di­vid­ing the­liv­ing ta­pes­try of ground cover from an area com­pletely cov­ered with Cow Pars­ley. Each has their own beauty.

Les­ley’s son James ar­rived home about 12 years ago and he, with his wife Joanna are also in­vested in this won­der­ful place. They have de­vel­oped the ‘Green Barn’ restau­rant which of­fers food from farm to plate, with most of the fresh pro­duce sourced from the or­ganic kitchen gar­den out­side the win­dow.

I en­joyed a well-earned cof­fee when I ar­rived here, along with a slice of lemon cake (which was worth the drive from Cork all on its own), and when I left the restau­rant and strolled to­wards the main house I was nearly hyp­no­tised by a lovely sweet scent from one of the beds. I’m still not sure if it was from the nar­cis­sus or the ab­so­lutely show-steal­ing white cherry blos­som, but again, does it mat­ter? It just adds to the feel­ing of the place — the gar­dens are in­for­mal, they’re per­sonal and unique and like any fam­ily gar­den, it’s not all about names and la­bels.

Les­ley does how­ever, have lists of all

Peter Dow­dall vis­its a fam­ily lov­ingly recre­at­ing and main­tain­ing a unique gar­den in the heart of Ire­land

the dif­fer­ent species and cul­ti­vars of nar­cis­sus which have been planted, but no ref­er­ence book was needed for her to proudly show me Nar­cis­sus ‘Wendy Walsh’, named after her mother, a beau­ti­ful form with white outer petals and a pink­ish-yel­low corona.

Restor­ing and re­claim­ing a gar­den of this size can come with a sub­stan­tial price tag, but as Les­ley walked around with me she was telling me about the daf­fodils which came from one friend, the masses of Car­diocrinums from an­other, many of the wood­land plants too, have been gifts and as a re­sult, the gar­den is a per­sonal his­tory. In the same spirit, Les­ley too, wouldn’t let me leave with­out some small gift.

I had been bowled over by a par­tic­u­lar Paeo­nia as it un­furled its re­gal look­ing fo­liage and noth­ing would do her, but to dig up a seedling. I don’t think I’m able to say no to a plant present and it is now set­tling in nicely in my gar­den in Cork, near the wood anemones that came from He­len Dil­lon’s gar­den last year. For years to come, I will think of these two lovely gar­den­ers and their lovely homes ev­ery time I ad­mire them.

As is the way with an­cient piles like Bur­town, there comes a time when it needs to fi­nance it­self and the Fen­nells are cer­tainly bring­ing it into the 21st cen­tury with the Green Barn — they’re also of­fer­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion through Air BNB in what was pre­vi­ously the sta­ble yard.

An­other cof­fee was needed be­fore I headed back to Cork and this was when I spot­ted James’ other pas­sion. He too in­her­ited the artis­tic gene and his pho­tog­ra­phy is on dis­play in the restau­rant with large pho­to­graphs from the ac­claimed, Van­ish­ing Ire­land se­ries of books. These are hang­ing in the same stu­dio as his mother’s art­work along with his grand­mother, Wendy Walsh’s prints. They are set above her draw­ing desk and I was a lit­tle in awe. This trip was a bit of a pil­grim­age for me — and one I will be cer­tain to un­der­take again.

Clock­wise from left: Pho­tog­ra­pher James Fen­nell and his wife, Joanna

Bur­town House and Gar­dens in County Kil­dare.

The walled gar­den

Can­de­labra prim­ula by a rill

Rare Ma­ho­nia gra­cilipe

The Yew Walk

Les­ley Fen­nell in her gar­den

All Pictures: Dan Line­han

The Green Barn cafe with its strik­ing, re-pur­posed light­ing.

Bur­town House is an early Ge­or­gian villa built in 1710. The gar­dens were ini­tially de­signed by Is­abel Shack­le­ton (mar­ried to the present owner’s great grand­fa­ther and first cousin to the ex­plorer Ernest Shack­le­ton), but over the last 20 years have been greatly en­larged and re­claimed by the present own­ers, artist Les­ley Fen­nell and her son James Fen­nell. Les­ley is the daugh­ter of renowned botan­i­cal artist, Wendy Walsh and her rare plants were moved to Bur­town from her home in Lusk, County Dublin, over 12 years ago and form a new col­lec­tion of spec­i­mens that Walsh would have painted in her life­time.

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