Sweeping along a section of the east shore of Lough Ennell, the grounds of Belvedere House contain some of the most memorable views and notable follies of any Irish garden. Not far south of the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Belvedere House and gardens are easy to find and well worth a visit. The house itself is not huge and only has two bedrooms. It was never designed as a permanent home but a fishing lodge and has a very comfortable feel inside with some wonderful ceiling mouldings.
It was built in 1740 for Robert Rochfort who lost his first wife and then married Lady Mary Molesworth when he was 28 and she was just 16. Despite providing him with three sons and a daughter her life was not to be a happy one. He was obviously a nasty piece of work and reputedly ignored his wife, spending much time having fun in Dublin. His younger brother Arthur is thought to have started a rumour that Mary was having an affair, with him, and Robert took his revenge. He virtually imprisoned his wife at their nearby Gaulston home for 30 years. She once escaped and went to see her father who, feeling that she had brought disrepute on the family, sent her back again!
Arthur fled to England with his family but when he did return to Ireland Robert sued him for £20 000 for adultery and Arthur was unable to pay and spent the rest of his life in prison. Fortunately for Mary, Robert died in 1774 and she was released.
But it was not just Arthur that ired Robert. His brother George built a large house designed by the same architect that built Belvedere, Richard Castle, and Robert was so jealous of its large proportions that he built the most famous of the follies in the garden, the Jealous Wall, so that his brother’s house could not be seen from his grounds! The Jealous Wall is Ireland’s biggest folly and is 55m wide and very imposing in its Gothic style. It cost £10,000 to build but its recent renovation in 2000 cost £265,000!
The other remarkable folly in the grounds is at the far end of the estate and is the Gothic Arch. If you like creepy, Gothic buildings (as I do) you will love this 1760 creation with castellations that seem to become animallistic the longer you look at them.
The walled garden, near the house, is more modern and is a sloping site divided into separate sections. Nice enough at first glance it will, in my opinion, be slightly disappointing to the committed gardener, especially if you read the ‘blurb’ first which ‘hypes it up’ a bit too much.
But there are nice shrubs and planting and, at the end, is a fairy garden for the kids. It is maintained well and is neat and tidy and does have some nice areas.
What is a real shame is that so many plants are wrongly labelled. It is as though the labels were all made a decade ago and they have been moved around by staff randomly as plants have died or someone pulled them up and played javelin with them!
The ‘rockery’ is a fine example of how not to do it and the small area was planted with new ‘alpines’ and the coloured pot labels all left in. Reginald Farrer would have a fit! *
But with a circuitous path round the grounds of about 2.5km there is lots more to see, including an ice house (closed on my visit) and, of course, the Gothic Arch.
And as you return to the cafe you walk past the Jealous Wall again.
Belvedere is well worth a visit and you should allow at least 2 hours 30 mins if you intend to see inside the house (self-guided), a walk round the grounds and a well-deserved cuppa.
* From My Rock Garden – Reginald Farrer 1908
‘The ideal rock garden must have a plan. But there are three prevailing plans, none of which are good. The first is what I may call the Almond-pudding scheme, and obtains generally, especially in the north of England. You take a round bed; you pile it up with soil; you then choose out the spikiest pinnacles of limestone you can find, and you insert them thickly with their points in the air, until the general effect is that of a tipsy-cake stuck with almonds. In this vast petrified porcupine nothing will grow except Welsh Poppy, Ferns, and some of the uglier Sedums. The second style is that of the Dog’s Grave. It marks a higher stage of horticulture and is affected by many good growers of alpines. The pudding shape is more or less the same in both, but the stones are laid flat in the Dog’s-Grave ideal. Plants will grow on this but the scheme is so stodgy and so abhorrent to Nature that it should be discarded. The third style is that of the Devil’s Lapful, and prevailed very largely when alpines first begun to be used out of doors. The finest specimens of this style are to be seen in such gardens as Glasnevin and Edinburgh. The plan is simplicity itself. You take a hundred or a thousand cartloads of bald square-faced boulders. You next drop them all about absolutely anyhow; and you then plant things amongst them. The chaotic hideousness of the result is something to be remembered with shudders ever after.’