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A castle fit for a pig - Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | Dec 28, 2022

Larchill in County Kildare is thought to be the last surviving 18th-century ornamental farm – or ferme ornée.

The ferme ornée was first written of by Stephen Switzer in The Nobleman, Gentleman and Gardener’s Recreation (1715). He pioneered the charms of ‘mixing the useful and profitable Parts of Gardening with the pleasurable’. Agricultural estates in particular could and should be aesthetically pleasing.

Here in Ireland, the Prentice family, Quaker farmers from the north, made a fortune out of their flax pit and mill – and created the pastoral paradise of Larchill. It was then the dawn of the Age of Improvement, when enthusiasm was rampant for architectural adventure. Pattern books were appearing hand over fist with such outlandish schemes that they seemed the stuff of dreams.

In 1994, the ruinous estate was bought by Michael de las Casas and his wife, Louise, who set out to revive the place, lock, stock and barrel. They have triumphed – both with their restoration of the 19th-century architectural oddities and, quite gloriously, by building a great many more entirely from scratch!

Particularly endearing is the arched and castellated Gothic dwelling for pigs, with its castle and compound occupied by a multitude of porkers.

Here Saddlebacks and Berkshires rule overall, with the most appealing Beatrice poking her nose forth from the arched ‘window’; all in happiest harmony with the old model farm. Furthermore, joy of joys, the pigs’ quarters have the sweetest smell of clean straw and new-mown hay.

the castellated dwelling for pigs, with some of the illegitimate piglets

A few feet away, there is another architectural gem with a goathouse adorned with Gwelfic battlements on high – a most perfect stage set for the long- and twisted-horned creatures.

There is also an 18th-century Gothic boathouse, as well as, quite remarkably, a five-towered and castellated triangular fortress built for ducks in the middle of one of the three lakes in the demesne. Called Gibraltar, as it is the shape of the great rock, it has corner towers and turrets, rendered walls and openings with Gothic arches and gun loops.

The Duke of Wellington was Lachill's neighbour as a child, and would come over and particularly enjoy indulging in battles in the fortress. He was highly praised by his godmother, the famed Mrs Delany, who wrote, ‘He is the most extraordinary boy… a very good scholar and whatever he undertakes he masters it most surprisingly… he understands fortifications, building of ships and has more knowledge than I ever met with in one so young… There are several ships, one complete man-of-war. My godson is governor of the fort and Lord High Admiral.’

Another Larchill treat, called Temple Island, was a building with its roof sloping inwards and downwards to gather rainwater for a plunge pool. Statues were plentiful, with such figures as Apollo, Proserpine, Ceres and Bacchus.

The Rustic Temple consisted of six rendered columns, stone seats and a rubble stone dome. There is also a shell house, the Cockle Shell Tower, with rare and exotic shells from far-flung spots proudly set into the walls and floors. The delightful centrepiece is a 19th-century stained-glass window. Dovecotes abound in the farmyard, along with an owl roost or owlery, created to encourage owls to hunt vermin.

Odd as can be is the 18th-century Eel House in the eel pond, where the slithery creatures, then considered a great delicacy, would be harvested inside a little stone tower.

Last, but still by no means least, is the showstopper of this assembly of architectural delights. Gaze with wonder at an early-20th-century neoclassical temple, standing atop a mound created as a safe bolthole for Robert Watson.

Master of the local Carlow foxhounds, he then owned Larchill. Having hunted and killed foxes relentlessly throughout his life, he was shamed into thinking that, as a punishment, he would himself surely be reincarnated as a fox. So he designed an earth from which he could safely escape. There is an opening – the right width for a fox to squeeze through but too narrow for hounds! He also had the advantage of a great view of the Dublin Mountains across the far horizon.

He stipulated in his will that hunting on his land be banned in perpetuity. There was plenty to atone for. His father had been Master of the Tallow Hunt for 62 years. His grandfather was credited with killing the last wolf in Ireland. His son was Master of the Meath Hounds; his uncle William was Master of the Cotswolds. And his brother George founded the Melbourne Kennel Club with the best pack of hounds in Australia – often, I fear, hunting emu and kangaroo.

Robert Watson was Master of the Carlow and Island Hunt for 32 years. When he died, the mourners at his funeral cried, ‘Gone away, gone away.’

Larchill is a key link in the history of Irish landscape gardening. It was created at the onset of the Romantic movement, when agriculture and architecture were to develop in aesthetic unison. And so they most marvellously did in these 26 acres of parkland.

Furthermore, the gardens are still giving as much pleasure today as when they were described in 1830 by an Ordnance Survey publication as ‘the most fashionable garden in all Ireland’.

Beatrice surveys her demesne

Goth farm and parkland are filled with rare breeds of domestic farm animals. When I photographed the Gothic farmyard, the black Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs were suffering the public humiliation of one sow’s infidelity being revealed by the arrival of six pink piglets!

Another very similar assembly of buildings was built earlier at nearby Dangan Castle, home of Lord Mornington, grandfather of the Duke of Wellington. This was undoubtedly the inspiration for Larchill, yet it is now in a state of ruin, while Larchill continues to go from strength to strength.

Strangely dark rumours in fact abound about the place; rumours such as those of the mischief of Francis Dashwood’s disreputable Hellfire Club in Buckinghamshire.

Whereas in England, obscene parodies of religious rites were practised, in Ireland we find a rustic temple to Venus – with vaulted tunnels and a cavern, which were said to be a uterus, along with Fallopian tubes and womb. Its owner, Mr Watson, was dismissed from the Quakers by the Brethren.

There are surely few places as charmful as Larchill.