The Gardener’s Cottage at Ballyfin is a little piece of horticultural history, and a very special retreat for a special occasion …
If the job of head gardener at places like Ballyfin in Co Laois still existed, or indeed if more places like Ballyfin existed, applications for horticulture degrees would soar. With this prestigious post came the opportunity to live on site, beside a walled garden on a vast estate, in a quaint cottage with pretty wainscoting, open fireplaces and sash windows.
Not that the Gardener’s Cottage at Ballyfin, now open to guests, would have been quite as comfortable in the 19th century as it is now. Ballyfin, built in the 1820s, was Ireland’s finest neo-classical house and was voted the best hotel in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveller. Ballyfin’s general manager Damien Bastiat says they were dying to get their hands on the place: once the restoration of the main house, was finished (an eight-year project) the walled garden was restored and the time was right, the cottage was next on the list. Ballyfin’s managing director, Jim Reynolds, himself a landscape designer (he created the famous Butterstream gardens in Trim, Co Meath) was also keen to put the residence back at the heart of Ballyfin’s gardens. During the restoration, “archive photos from the Coote era were used, but not followed closely,” says Reynolds. “We remade the original garden paths, repaired the walls and, as we needed lots of cut flowers for the house, we made borders loosely based on an Edwardian theme with lots of herbaceous plants for cutting. Then it was a matter of lots of herbs and vegetables of all sorts to supply the kitchen.”
You don’t need to be a gardener to appreciate the comfort and charm of the Gardener’s Cottage but you can’t ignore the huge sense of history in this little house.
The role of head gardener on the Coote family’s lavish estate in Ballyfin’s heyday would have involved overseeing a huge team of foremen, gardeners, under-gardeners, apprentices, journeymen, labourers and seasonal helpers to tend and manage the 314 acres of the demesne, with its rolling parkland with views of the Slieve Bloom mountains, lake, forests and eight acres of walled gardens to supply the house with vegetables, herbs and flowers to feed family, guests and staff. Not to mention glasshouses heated by huge furnaces where exotics like grapes, melons and pineapples would have been grown for the family’s elegant dinner table, and the Turner conservatory with its impressive tropical plants. The head gardener would have been a highly skilled and important figure, qualified in land management and horticulture and the propagation of plants and seeds, keeping estate records, managing the team, implementing the landlord’s wishes and reporting on the progress and budget of certain projects. But since Coute que Coute was the Coote motto – in other words, hang the cost – his labours would have been well rewarded.
Then there is the dreamy cottage in which he and his successors would have lived. Ballyfin’s restoration called on the services of a panel of experts who worked together on a vision of the discerning owners Fred and Kay Krehbiel of the grand but warm and hospitable Irish country house. The interior designer for Ballyfin was London-based Colin Orchard. Aptly named Orchard was also responsible for the cottage and brings the same delightful sense of a family having just left the house for the afternoon as he did with the interior of the main house. You half expect to see a pair of wellies outside the back door and a pile of seed catalogues on the table in front of the fire, tea growing cold in a pot on the kitchen table. If ever a space could be described as inviting, this is it. You want to move in and never leave. Someone did just that, apparently, staying several weeks.
You can of course (at some cost) spend the night here, which need not involve you making so much as a pot of tea, weeding a flowerbed, or even lifting a finger. In complete privacy, you can avail of a private chef, or wander up to the main house for dinner. Your budget may not stretch to a week but a day here is worth five elsewhere. Breakfast can be prepared for you, or delivered, fires will be set and lit, champagne will be chilled. You can wander in the restored and fully planted walled gardens, ramble, ride, cycle, fish, row, read, or visit other gardens nearby. But we supect you won’t want to leave Ballyfin. And you won’t want to stray far from the Gardener’s Cottage, if you have only 24 or 48 hours in which to enjoy it.
With a fireplace at either end, the drawing room couldn’t be any cosier. The bright turquoise is a favourite colour of Colin Orchard. Try Blue Ground by Farrow & Ball.
A deep copper bath is perfect for a long soak after a long day in the garden – or just looking at one. Interesting gardens to visit in the area include Emo Court and the Lutyens/Jekyll-designed Heywood in Ballinakill; both in Co Laois, and beautiful Birr Castle in Co Offaly is 20 minutes away by car. When you return, you can relax in a hot tub on the bedroom terrace too.
A sweet kitchen is tucked behind the hall end of the drawing room, its tongue-and-groove panelling painted in an old-fashioned sky-blue. The antique table is waxed, as it would have been in the 19th century.
Detail from the walled garden including parterres for rotation vegetable and herb growing for the kitchen and deep herbaceous borders of roses and perennials which may be cut for arrangements for the house.
Photographs by Dylan Thomas