Airfield’s grand design

After a three-year revamp, the gardens at Airfield in Dundrum are ready to open

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

It has been three years since Airfield, the 38-acre estate and working farm in the heart of Dundrum in Dublin, closed its doors to the public as part of an ambitious, multi-million euro redevelopment plan.

Central to that plan, was the renovation of Airfield’s much- loved garden, which had been open to the public since the mid-1990s.

A place of billowing box hedges, stately Irish yews and barely contained flowerbeds reminiscent of a Beatrix Potter drawing, much of it was the work of Airfield’s owners, the Overend family, who lived, farmed and gardened here for more than a century. In particular, both garden and working farm were the life’s work of the “Misses Overend” – sisters Letitia and Naomi – who established Airfield’s not-for- profit charitable trust in the mid-1970s, generously bequeathing the estate to the people of Ireland.

And what a legacy it proved to be. Following Naomi’s death in 1993, the gardens continued to evolve under the expert eye of Jimi Blake and his successor Emer O’Reilly.

Charmed by Airfield’s quaint air of rural tranquillity and informality, the public began visiting the estate in ever-increasing numbers. Young families held summer picnics in the meadows, fed the ponies, rambled through the orchard, inhaled the perfume of the roses that grew with sweetly scented abundance in the walled garden, and paused to stroke the vintage cars (another lifelong hobby of the sisters) that sat in one of the farm’s outbuildings.

Volunteers helped out with garden maintenance while schoolchildren, as part of Airfield’s Green Fingers Club, grew fruit, flowers and vegetables in their own dedicated plots.

So it was perhaps inevitable that the trust’s decision to redesign Airfield’s gardens met with some public trepidation, dismay and even criticism. Despite its assurances that the redevelopment was necessary to keep Airfileld going, and that any any changes would respect the legacy of the Overends, there were those who worried that the sisters’ original intention of preserving the house, gardens and farm was being overlooked, that the essence of Airfield would be irrevocably lost, and its charmingly idiosyncratic personality would fall prey to the march of “progress”. The subsequent appointment of English garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd (rather than an Irish designer) to carry out a large part of the redesign caused a few more raised eyebrows, despite the fact that it followed a public selection process, which began in 2012 with an open invitation to all qualified landscape and garden designers to apply.

Lennox-Boyd, say those responsible for the selection process, was chosen for her willingness to immerse herself in the history of the estate, her great knowledge and experience of designing both ornamental and food gardens, and her almost forensic attention to detail.

Having been given a sneak preview of the gardens before their formal reopening to the public next week, I can say with all honesty that I think the trust and those involved in the redesign and redevelopment of the estate have done a very fine job. The planting is in its infancy, the landscaping of some areas not quite complete and, yes, the more higgledy-piggledy areas of the original garden that gave it some of its unique charm no longer exist, but the bone structure of a great garden is clear to see.

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