From cowhouse to wow house
Inspirational gardener and sheep farmer June Blake used to be a jeweller, no wonder she saw the potential in this gem of a building in Wicklow
Tulips, camassia and buttercups growing in wild grass in the Blakes’ garden at the Cow House in Co Wicklow. Photograph: Paul Quinn
An Irish elm tree in the garden that succumbed to Dutch elm disease has been planted upside down with its roots showing. Photograph: Paul Quinn
The kitchen and living room have polished concrete floors. Photograph: Paul Quinn
The Cow House is a sleek modern escape from the rat race, situ ated in the rolling Co Wicklow hills, on the Dublin side of Blessington. The smart rental is a favourite for couple s looking for a quiet getaway and garden enthusiasts who use it as a base to explore other great outdoor spaces in the Garden of Ireland.
The building was beautiful to beg in with, even if it had been neglected, says gardener June Blake who also farms sheep and was once a jeweller. She lives alongside the Cow House, in the main house on the property, a former Victorian steward’s house that belonged to the MP William Henry Ford Coogan of Tinode House.
The stewards’s house was designed by George Coppinger Ashlin, an architect whose work includes the Carmelite Church on Aungier Street in Dublin, famously home to the relics of St Valentine and St Kevin’s Church on Dublin’s South Circular Road, a church that has been turned into apartments. He trained under the neo-Gothic architect Edward Welby Pugin who designed Cobh Cathedral and St John’s Lane Church in Dublin, and even opened a Dublin office for the man.
As a result, the steward’s house and its farm buildings including its cow house are blessed with beautiful details. But by the time Blake came to it the cow house had fallen into disrepair and the roof had fallen in. Architects Michael Kelly and Dan Costelloe rebuilt the roof using salvage slates, and granite to rebuild the walls, constructing the modern house inside the original exterior cow shed walls. The end result is that the structure still looks like the ruin it once was, Blake explains. “It’s a house within a house.”
Bringing the original cow house back to life has been wonderful, Blake says. As well as overlooking the courtyard, it boasts views of Blake’s celebrated contemporary perennial gardens which guests are free to explore.
The open-plan living room has a raised kitchen at one end. Its internal walls are clad in 15cm-thick horizontal planks of Austrian Douglas fir, to create a “warm and woody” ambiance, Kelly explains. It’s an idea he first saw in wooden dachas outside Moscow.
The polished concrete floor in the living area was made by mixing white cement with the local Wicklow gravel that Blake also uses on her garden paths. The mica in the local materials makes the floor especially reflective, so much so that Blake describes it as looking “like a marble floor”. The floor retains its whiter-than-white appearance because Blake operates a no muddy outdoor shoes policy in the Cow House. The polished concrete also forms the bottom half of the statement stairs. The structure then changes to cantilevered plywood.
What look like windows to the front are in fact glass sliding doors that can open into the farm yard.
The kitchen features a poured concrete island with a plywood wrap which conceals the washing machine and dishwasher. The pantry and fridge freezer are hidden behind very simple handleless wooden doors made of the Douglas fir so they are camouflaged into the wood panelling.
Upstairs, there are two bedrooms built as boxes set on stilts on a mezzanine level, with glass-walled shower rooms sandwiched between both bedrooms. Glass walls let you look down to the floor below.
The rooms have five-sided glass lantern shaped roof lights designed to act like a prism to refract light into the north-facing spaces. The architects borrowed the idea from Sweden’s Moderna Museet, the Museum of Modern Art , situated on the island of Skeppsholmen in Stockholm and rebuilt by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo in the late 1990s. The distinctive roof lights for the Cow House were fabricated by Kent Stainless in Wexford and Diamond Glass in Dublin fitted the double-glazed units.
In the second bedroom, a laser-cut steel panel can slide shut to block out the light. When open it operates like a Juliet balcony, allowing you to survey the living area below. The eye is also drawn out towards the gable round window, originally an air vent. The pattern is that of a giant Himalayan lily, flora that can be found in Blake’s garden. Blake often quizzes gardening enthusiasts about the print.
The property is three miles from Russborough House, another Wicklow house whose outdoors are worth exploring, and is about the same distance from Blessington and its lakes. The Cow House sleeps four and isn’t suitable for children. Blake also runs a nursery, so you can take home plants as living mementoes of your Cow House stay.
A minimum two-night stay in the Cow House costs from €250 to €320 through vrbo.com.