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


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.

While Topps provides a kind of simultaneous horticultural translation William and Laura can’t help but break out into their shared enthusiasms. Here we are, for example, at the proposed Stumpery. This slope in a corner of the lower garden, bordered by river and wall, will be home to stumps, boles (tree trunks) and branches and the residue of woodland losses elsewhere, rich with moss, overshadowed by trees and floored with drifts of wild flowers.

Topps explains that the overhanging yews will heighten the atmosphere, already verdant and humid and ready for Laura’s ground-planting scheme.

The idea of this secret cavity is enchanting but, as usual at Lismore, there’s something else. At the site’s steep angle under walls built in the 1640s is a little building with a peaked fairy-tale roof known, possibly because of the defensive storage of gun-powder, as the monkey tower. Inside the walls are covered with a design painted by artist Richard Wright.

That little conjunction is a reminder that the Burlington’s vision for the contemporary art gallery opened at the castle in 2005 has allowed a fusion between the contributing artists and the garden itself.

The acclaimed annual exhibitions at the gallery are essentially ephemeral and yet can leave traces which last longer than intended, while outdoors the family’s permanent sculptures still offer the thrill of surprise. Nothing however obscures the subtle creativity which has formed this garden over the centuries and even the descent to the stumpery allows a view over the water-meadows where a magnolia planted by William’s paternal grandmother Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, shines with self-confidence through the downpour.

William’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, gave the couple responsibility for the Lismore estate a few years ago: “My father has been very generous in letting us do as we think best here,” says William. Getting things right at Lismore means achieving a unified framework on a diverse landscape, but Laura is not daunted: “The joy of gardens is that they’re dynamic. Whether we want it or not the garden will change of itself; things die or don’t flourish, and I believe in my father’s saying that every loss is an opportunity.”

She sees the contrasts of canopy above underlay as another facet of the subtle alchemy of the long, gladed lower garden, softening the margins without disturbing the centuries-old evolution of these spaces, although there is some on-going debate about the best place to hang a swing.

It’s difficult to believe that this lower garden was divided by a road until Joseph Paxton re-imagined it in the mid-19th century and peat was carted across the valley from the Knockmealdowns to allow for this glowing wealth of magnolia, camellia and rhododendron, whose fallen petals blanket the greensward.

Paxton, head gardener to the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, also designed the suite of glasshouses in the upper garden, itself the oldest section of a castle which dates more or less from the 12th century. The castle’s site alone suggests the territorial imperative of an impregnable fastness; when rebuilding it from 1602 Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork, retained its medieval fortifications which also survived the first designs by William Atkinson for the 6th Duke. Forty years later Paxton gathered the whole scheme together in a Victorian fantasy still strongly redolent of its earlier identity, itself serenely expressed by the Riding House which links the lower and upper gardens.

Flower meadow
The terraced upper garden is more obviously structured and although recently stricken by box blight its arrangements of orchard, flights of stone steps, high framing hedges, herbaceous borders and vegetable plots have a flexible symmetry and a resilience which belies their early 17th century origin. There will be some changes of layout here, some introductions, some mellowing and some enhancement. Areas of the grassland will be hand-scythed and become flower meadow. Laura speaks of emphasising the garden’s productivity while Topps sees the importance of reversing the supermarket-driven homogenising of fruit and vegetables. “A lot of things did particularly well in a particular region and it’s very important to hold on to the genetic information and to get back the old cultivars.”

“We’re going to have bees!” Laura announces. A pergola is to be built from a fallen chestnut tree and summer visitors will find a scissors at the rows of sweet pea so they can take away a fragrant memento.

There will also be plants for sale and jams and chutneys from the castle kitchens run by Beth-Ann Smith. But this is no flight of wishful thinking. The Burlingtons are purposeful even when excited as they are now and things have a way of developing under their watch. Their determination is to marry what is given, what is fortuitous, and what can be planned for the future; the camogie club flag is not the only signal of Lismore Castle’s commitment to public engagement.

Lismore Castle Gardens open on April 18th from 10.30a m. The €8 adult entry fee includes the Wilhelm Sasnal exhibition at Lismore Castle Arts.

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