Lismore Castle garden gets royal treatment

Bees, flower meadows and native fruits are among the plans for Lismore gardens under new head gardener Darren Topps, formerly of Cornwall’s Eden Project

Thu, Apr 24, 2014, 01:00

The flag aloft one of the many towers at Lismore Castle is that of the town’s camogie team, winners of the All-Ireland Intermediate Club Championship. As we acknowledge this symbol of the castle’s engagement with the town and the community, we notice the departure, from the courtyard, of a group of inspectors who have just awarded the first EcoMerit environmental certificate to an Irish castle garden.

“At least I think we’re the first,” says William Burlington, who explains that it is won by having an environmental policy, an improvement plan, a system of performance monitoring and pollution prevention.

Policy, plans, performance and prevention are all on the agenda this morning despite the unremitting rain. The Earl and Countess of Burlington, otherwise William and Laura Cavendish, are accompanied by Darren Topps, who worked at the Eden Project in Cornwall and was appointed head gardener at Lismore last year. All four of us stride gamely off to discuss the long and short-term plans for the castle’s seven-acre garden.

“It’s taken some time for us to galvanise our thoughts and see where the opportunities to do something really special occur,” says William, leading the way towards one such opportunity. He refers gratefully to the 20-year tenure of former head gardener Chris Tull, whose son Matthew now works with Darren Topps, and to the fact that this inherited territory is possibly the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland: “Laura and I recognise all the work that has gone into it before us,” he says. “Now I seem to want to keep pinching myself that someone with the knowledge and experience of Darren is here to see it, and us, through the next phase of the garden’s life.”

All of them are evangelists, united in what less modest people might call ambition but here is expressed as a kind of mission, a five-year plan to extend the planting season, to ensure the garden is interesting throughout the year and to introduce new elements.

“It’s just developing things, not wholesale change, and the five-year projection is necessary because things take a long time to come to fruition, so really it’s just a means of prioritising the work and deciding on our preferences.”

It’s a reasonable philosophy which is also sensitive to this ancient and lovely landscape, but as we cross the sodden grass and feel the wind from the mist-hidden Knockmealdown mountains on one side and the wafting spiritual essences from the spire of St Carthage’s Cathedral on the other, a characteristic ebullience emerges.

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