A gifted farm, reinvented

Airfield House and Farm in Dundrum reopensnext week, after an €11 million makeover. We take a tour

Sat, Oct 12, 2013, 00:00

Airfield House and Farm might be five minutes from the cathedral of spending that is Dundrum Town Centre, and a short spin on the Luas into heaving Dublin city, but to pass through its gates is to leave the bustle and the noise behind and enter an altogether more tranquil place. The 38-acre estate is shortly to begin a phased reopening after an investment of €11 million, with the redevelopment including a cafe, a farm centre, horticultural gardens and an upgrade of Airfield House.

On arrival in the new car park, it is the sense of peace that is first noticeable. Then the cafe, designed by architectural practice Solearth, catches the eye. The single-storey structure of wood and glass looks almost as though it could be floating on the pond beside it. It is positioned so that visitors can park, eat and leave if they wish, without ever visiting the house or farm, though that would be a pity.

Airfield House was purchased in 1894 by Dublin solicitor Trevor TL Overend. He and his wife Lily had three daughters, Letitia, Naomi and Constance (who died aged one). Their eight-acre holding grew over the years as the family purchased surrounding lands.

Letitia and Naomi were, for the most part, educated at home by a governess. They led the kinds of lives that might not seem alien to fans of Downton Abbey, though on a smaller scale, with days spent playing tennis or golf, enjoying charity fêtes and the theatre, and when they were older, travelling extensively. They volunteered during the first World War, making bandages and writing to soldiers on the front. And on the farm, their prizewinning Jersey cows were named after characters from Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

When the two sisters died, Letitia in 1974 and Naomi in 1993, they left the house and farm in trust for the public.

At times, the operation of the trust, funded by the sisters’ investments, has been controversial. A strong sense of ownership among locals meant the sale of some of the land to generate funds for redevelopment raised concerns, and the closure of Airfield to carry out the work, in October 2011, was also criticised. The building programme took longer than expected, the hot summer delayed planting and locals grew impatient to see it open again. But it’s now nearing completion and will be opened gradually from the end of the month.

Trustee John Edmunson says the redevelopment will protect and enhance the legacy and values of the Overend family “for the public good through education and recreation”.

“We see this as a neverending project, continuously evolving and improving this wonderful place so Airfield can serve the public indefinitely into the future,” he says.

The Overend Café will be the first area open to visitors, on Tuesday. The high-ceilinged structure, with exposed kitchen, is simply furnished and filled with light. The view from the interior takes in the pond on one side and beyond it, a herb tunnel, mini-garden and grazing area. On the other side there are booths, with two or three tables in each and windows like picture frames enclosing views of the house and gardens, at present cloaked in wild meadow blooms.

The food will be sourced from the farm as much as possible, and the emphasis will be on eating locally seasonally. A sample lunch, produced for The Irish Times visit by chef Matt Fuller, formerly of the Icehouse in Ballina, held great promise.

Airfield House itself will be open to the public on October 30th. Each room tells an element of the Overend sisters’ story. The first contains their doll’s house and outfits from the time.

Another room holds images and memorabilia from their travels, another focuses on their charitable works, and the library, with its rare papier-mache ceiling and Italian marble fireplace, displays books and other original items.

There is plenty of opportunity for interaction; a rocking horse that plays a tune, a writing desk with a touchpad surface, drawers that light up and cluck when opened. Most things are touchable, though not the blue 1927 Rolls Royce outside in the newly-built garage. John O’Toole, finance and operations manager, says it will be behind a rope, along with other family cars, for the opening, though an interactive display will allow children to honk the horn and rev the engine.

Original and new blends well. The garden next to the house, by international garden designer Arabella Lennox Boyd, incorporates the old apple trees there. Another garden is filled with ancient redwood and sequoia. Behind the house there are new buildings, to be opened next spring and used for education and conferences. A grey barn has a spongy floor in anticipation of becoming a toddler play space.

There are walkways and acres of what will be crop land and pasture, and beyond that, new farm buildings await the return of the Jersey cows and other animals in the next few weeks.

When it’s fully up and running, entrance will cost €10 for adults,with concessions for children, older people and students. That’s up from €6 pre-redevelopment, though there will be a 50 per cent discount from November 1st until next spring. Annual membership for a family of four will cost €150.

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