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January/February 2013

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Castletown House

 

Shirley Lanigan reports on a major landscape restoration

 

The words Castletown House bring to mind images of one the finest Georgian houses in the country. They would not have suggested gardens, until recently, after a winter walk in Castletown. Arriving to see mounds of earth and builders fencing, it was clear from the outset that work was going on here. The grounds at Castletown are undergoing major restoration.

 

The Georgian Society has minded Castletown House for decades. It is only recently however, that work has started to retrieve the once-grand 18th century landscape park that surrounded the mansion. The place was busy with excavations, archaeological digs and reconstruction projects on garden features first laid out by seventeen-year-old Lady Louisa Conolly in the 1760s.

I went on a walk with some of the OPW staff working to unveil those lost gardens.

 

We started at what looked like a sunken field but is actually the remains of a serpentine pond. It once ran, and will again run, through the park and a romantic wood beside the house. A series of cascades, waterfalls and dams are being rebuilt along its length. A little rustic stone bridge, that only a few months ago was little more than a stone cipher, is now an almost complete stone and lime-render bridge. The stone mason, doing the job of an artist, worked as we watched.

 

Vast amounts of tatty growth have been removed from the park, uncovering vistas not seen in a hundred years. These include a view of the lime avenue that leads to a picturesque schoolhouse on the edge of Celbridge. Until recently this once carefully planned view was obscured by self-sown trees.

 

The paths we walked on through the grounds and along the Liffey have all been recently unearthed using clues from eighteenth century maps. Some of these gravel paths give onto views along the river that were also lost until recently. One leads to an old bathing house. Now a ruin, it too was being restored by stone masons. A little way along, an elegant old Doric temple was being re-plastered by a master plasterer. Close by, a brick ice house was being repaired so that visitors can eventually see how these strange landscape features worked.

 

The ha-ha, or sunken fence, once almost forgotten under self-sown trees has been brought back from the brink. During our visit we bumped into Peter Kelly, born in Castletown, walking his dogs. He worked here as a young man and is now something of an unofficial advisor to the landscape architect. She quizzed him regarding the direction of an old drain as we walked.

 

Eighty years without tree planting are now being rectified by beech and oak plantations and work to uncover a lost pleasure ground beside the house has been started. As a result of all this Castletown promises to be a fascinating visit, worth a trip.

 

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