If ever there were a reason to maintain a garden, a haunting threat from a previous owner may be sufficient encouragement.
Charlotte May, along with her sister Stella, developed the gardens at Knockmore in the late 1800s, transforming the site to include a wild Robinsonian plot, a Victorian kitchen garden, herbaceous borders and an Elizabethan walk – a meandering pathway under the tree canopies, as the Elizabethans disliked the sun on their faces.
Charlotte’s passion for her green space was so intense, she threatened to return to haunt any future owner who did not maintain the gardens.
Ruth Isabel and John Ross – the late parents of TD Shane Ross, and the last residents of Knockmore – never did receive a visit from Charlotte's spectre. Perhaps because for 50 years they maintained and added to the gardens, even purchasing adjacent lands where they planted a deciduous forest. Today the formal gardens comprise three acres, as do the woodlands, with a further nine acres of paddocks. It is fair to say that the photographs do no real justice to the beauty of the grounds.
Views from the Palladian villa stretch across to the Irish Sea, down the Dargle Valley and over to the Sugar Loaf. In autumn the deciduous forests create a bank of gold and russet walls to flank the verdant fields.
Ruth Isabel, known as Ru-Bel, worked in the highly secretive Enigma project at Bletchley Park during the second World War before coming to Ireland, where she worked as gardening correspondent for The Irish Times. She also published many books on horticulture and cookery. She never discussed her time at Bletchley, and when questioned on her work there, would simply reply that she had signed the Official Secrets Act. It is said the intelligence collected at Bletchley Park was so critical it shortened the war by up to four years.
Her book, A Year in an Irish Garden, is a diary of her trials and triumphs in the gardens at Knockmore. Her entry for May 9th, 1998, reads: "In spite of my broken rib, I manage to trim three bunches of our 'Muscat of Alexandria' grapes this morning," an indicator of her sheer determination and passion. The book also includes recipes for the gardens' bountiful produce – the couple were almost self-sufficient.
She also wrote the introduction to Wendy Walsh's An Irish Florilegium – which is now one of the most collectible Irish art books of recent years.
Her husband John Ross, after leaving the British Army, read law at Trinity College Dublin. He went on to become a leading figure at the legal firm Matheson Ormsby Prentice. Like his son Shane, he too was elected to the Senate.
Both Ru-Bel and John toiled in their gardens well into their late years, and regularly welcomed gardening tours from all over the world.
The regency Palladian villa is a charming country property, and though not vast by country home standards at 390sq m/4,190sq ft, it has a really relaxed air about it. Off the grand hallway are two large reception rooms – a drawing- and diningroom, both of which enjoy views of the sea and Dargle valley.
Off the diningroom is a veranda, where the couple installed windows – so it now acts as a hothouse for tropical plants. The May sisters were notorious for sleeping here on summer nights in order to fully appreciate their gardens.
The property is set over three levels, though the majority of the accommodation is on the ground floor. The corridors off the main hallway have interesting barrelled ceilings and lead to the kitchen, a smaller reception room and study.
The master bedroom is also on this level and, while not as bright as the bedrooms on the upper floor, has the benefit of an ensuite and a dressingroom.
Upstairs are three well-lit bedrooms with wonderful views of the gardens, and a family bathroom.
At basement level lies a very large office where two desks serve as a reminder of the interesting couple who were the last residents of Knockmore. This would work as a fourth reception room or sixth bedroom.
An old boot room at garden level leads to a small courtyard with outbuildings: a stable, gardener's cottage and sheds. The gardener's cottage was where a previous resident, Maj Gen Verney, penned his book Desert Rats – an account of his tenure as commander in the African wars. A descendant of Florence Nightingale, he also served as page of honour to George V, and Mount Verney in Canada is named after his grandfather. Knockmore was where Verney chose to retire, presumably as the antithesis of the dry, barren stretches of Ethiopia.
The property needs work: new owners will want to upgrade the kitchen, where Ru-Bel made jams and chutneys for half a century. The bathrooms also need a facelift. But all in all this charming property is about the gardens, their views and the interesting legacies of former residents.
Darren Chambers of Lisney, who is handling the sale for €3.75 million, says: "Knockmore House and gardens are a rarity for a property within 30 minutes of Dublin city centre."