The arrival to the market of one of Dublin's most celebrated properties marks the end of a golden gardening era. When people hear that Ireland's foremost gardener Helen Dillon is selling her Ranelagh home, they say: "Why would she leave that fantastic garden?", "What will happen to it?", "Where will she go?"
Helen, now 78, and her antiques dealer husband, Val Dillon (80), have reached that point where many people in possession of a sizeable home and garden arrive. It's time to downsize. So there's no weeping and gnashing of teeth over leaving the wonderful Sandford Terrace garden that thousands have visited since Helen opened it to the public 25 years ago.
Long hailed "the best garden in Dublin" and featured in some of the world's glossiest garden and interiors books and magazines, the 397sq m (4,273sq ft) property, on half an acre including the handsome detached Georgian house, is for sale through Sherry FitzGerald for €4.6 million.
"The garden is like a picture that I've been playing with for 44 years, and it keeps changing. I like doing it, and we've had the same gardener Tim coming in for two hours a week for years. But I'm ready for a new picture now," says Helen. Financial Times' gardening columnist Robin Lane Fox described the garden in 2014 as "the best walled town garden one can hope to see".
Val is less circumspect. His responsibility was lawn maintenance. “Grass was a pain in the ass,” he declares – not for the first time – and points to a picture in a Tiffany interiors’ book of the garden when it had a pristine verdant lawn at its heart. “When we came the lawn was full of weeds which we took out with a dinner fork.”
No doubt then, he was greatly relieved when the high-maintenance lawn was replaced 20 years ago with limestone paving and a remarkable 28m-long sweep of canal water leading to arches. Helen modelled it on the Islamic design in the Court of Myrtles at Alhambra in Grenada. Apart from creating a dramatic and calming focal point at the heart of the generous walled garden, flanked by the colourful borders for which Helen is renowned, it also greatly reduced the work level.
Still, the prospect of taking on Helen Dillon’s garden has to be daunting for any potential buyer. Helen insists this shouldn’t be the case, in fact, she confides, there’s a pebbled swathe to the rear that requires only about four hours’ maintenance a year. And there is always the option to return much of it to lawn – forks optional.
For the Dillons it was love at first sight for number 45, Sandford Terrace (also known as Sandford Road). Not long married, they were passing through Ranelagh with an estate agent heading towards deepest south county Dublin when they spotted the discrete row of fine houses set back from the trees along Sandford Road.
"We said to the agent we'd like one of those!" As soon as they walked into the lovely piano nobile drawingroom, Helen took one look out the huge sash windows to the southwest facing rear garden, while Val took in the height and proportions of the double-sized room for showcasing his antiques and art, and they declared it perfect. Down the years the house and its charms have been enjoyed by countless visitors, including rock legend Mick Jagger who rented it about 20 years ago for a month while recording in Dublin. The neighbourhood was agog at the comings and goings as Jagger worked through his pending divorce from Jerry Hall. Visitors included Carla Bruni, while Jagger enjoyed Dover sole daily from Molloy's fishmongers in Donnybrook.
The bright double drawingroom is a combination of the original Georgian room with a later Victorian extension.
Its fine aspect, tall sash windows and two fireplaces, including an Adams, make it a lovely place from which to view the garden. There’s direct access from here to a balcony terrace that perfectly captures the evening sun, with steps down to the garden.
The diningroom next door also features a fine Adams fireplace with another impressive antique dog grate; off this is a good old-fashioned butler’s pantry.
One of the most unique features of the entire house is the small guest cloakroo-m. Its walls and ceiling have been tastefully clad in an outstanding array of beautiful seashells. A crustacean idyll, it would be a terrible shame to see it go in any new incarnation. Upstairs there are three bedrooms – two overlook the garden – with a very generous bathroom through an arch off the master, while at garden level a fourth bedroom suite opens on to the rear patio.
The kitchen is to the front of the house with a large sash window overlooking the front garden and there’s a sizeable utility off it, with access to the downstairs suite.
Doubtless buyers will want to modernise, and it is most likely they will convert the spacious garden-level rooms, currently unused, that open directly on to the patio and garden.
There's precedent for change next door – a former home of president Mary Robinson – which sold for €4.35 million last year and where a double-height extension was installed a decade ago. The new owners, a young family, are currently applying for further permission to renovate.
The generous site also features a number of outbuildings, including a two-storey coach house and a discrete side courtyard that barely make an impact on the site’s footprint.
A planting shed and lovely rambling greenhouse with heated pipes are very much the engine room of the garden where the award-winning horticulturist honed her craft.
Helen continues to indulge and share her gardening passion. She has lectured in 27 US states, written extensively on her subject, is without equal as a grower of certain species and she continues to inspire generations of Irish gardeners. Next month she will visit the Chelsea Flower Show London to support her pal Diarmuid Gavin’s entry at the event.
Where next for the Dillons is undecided, but it will have a decent-sized garden and they want to remain in the area. Originally from Dunning in Scotland, Helen says she still feels a little like an outsider in Dublin. “But I’ve always felt completely at home here. It’s a wonderful place to live.”
Out front Mr Scruffy, a friendly robin, lands to feast on the blueberry-strewn bird table. In the aviary, bright yellow canaries – and a small imposter – peck at a mound of lettuce and apples. Two beloved dachschunds, Rosie and Ruby, are celebrated at every turn.
If a home is mainly about its warmth and welcome, then Sandford Terrace is complete. The Dillons need not worry either, such charms travel well.