For more than six decades, the present owners of Benvarden, near Ballymoney in Co Antrim, have been restoring and adding to the creations made by numerous earlier generations of their family. Non Morris paid a visit; photographs by Val Corbett.
At the heart of the 2½-acre walled garden at Benvarden, deep within the 15-acre demesne of lawns, woodland and riverside walks, is a secluded wooden seat bathed in a sea of sun-filtered green.
The seat nestles against the garden wall at one end of an open, ivy-clad loggia named the Creation by Valerie and Hugh Montgomery, who have gardened at Benvarden since 1956, when Mr Montgomery inherited the estate from his father at the tender age of 23.
The Creation sits on the site of ‘the most wonderful domed 1870 greenhouse,’ explains Mr Montgomery. A simple timber frame, now quilted in long-fingered ivies and the brighter, fuller green of wisteria, casts chequered shadows on the wall and offers square-framed glimpses of blue sky.
The stone path leading to this lovely sheltered place is lined with voluptuous clumps of daylilies and hostas in shades of lime and darker green.
At the opposite end of the path, the original vine house still stands and continues to produce fragrant nectarines and generous quantities of grapes from 40-year-old vines ‘planted in the proper way’ with their roots outside.
In 1997, a great party was held in Benvarden’s walled garden to ‘celebrate 200 years of occupation by the Montgomery family,’ recalls Mr Montgomery with the broad grin of a proud custodian and excellent host.
‘The roses were absolutely wonderful that year – we transformed the greenhouse into a Champagne bar.’
Dating from the 1630s, Benvarden is one of the oldest estates in Northern Ireland. A map of 1788 shows the distinctive curve of the walled garden’s main wall, with much of the original planting and landscaping of the grounds taking place at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 1800s.
As the 19th century progressed, walks along the River Bush (which runs through the estate and links Benvarden to the famous Old Bushmills Distillery) were further developed.
A gentle pool, an enjoyably rowdy waterfall and a woodland pond were excavated in the 1850s, when gravel paths were laid and stands of Irish yew planted around them.
Some of these are now towering specimens topped only by the champion, extremely shaggy Abies cephalonica, the Grecian fir. ‘It has an untidy habit, but it is at least 200 years old. It’s only the third tallest in Ireland,’ says Mr Montgomery, ‘but it is the fattest.’
A handsome 90ft iron bridge was built in 1874 by Robert Montgomery, and continues to be an elegant light-catching focal point – as well as an excellent place to stand and look downriver at the spreading trees reflected in the slow-running water.
When the Montgomerys arrived at Benvarden – they weren’t allowed to take possession formally until 1958, when Hugh had reached his 25th birthday – the garden was in a state of postwar dilapidation. The woodland was overrun with Rhododendron ponticum, the woodland pond had collapsed and the walled garden had been entirely turned over to vegetable growing.
The couple were inexperienced and had little guidance. ‘It was challenging being so young when we came here – there was no older person to tell us what was what,’ notes Mrs Montgomery.
However, they had inherited a gardener and they set about restoring the place and making it their own.
The unwanted Rhododendron ponticum was cleared away – the couple ingeniously commandeered a certain amount of it and continue to clip it tightly to create structural blocks along the driveway – the pond was rebuilt and specimen shrubs and trees were planted: acers, a golden cedar (Cedrus deodara Aurea) and, importantly, innumerable azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias to create richly coloured walkways in spring.
A marker of their unhurried, personal approach to gardening is the way in which the camellia collection is gently expanded with the Christmas camellia Mr Montgomery gives his wife every December.
The woodland is ‘absolutely white’ with snowdrops in early spring and then radiant again with bluebells a little later.
By early summer, the scene around the quiet woodland pond is serenely beautiful. Fragrant orange and yellow azaleas cast glowing reflections alongside the cooler, slender-striped images of variegated flag iris in the expanse of water at their feet.
The pale, elegantly tiered wedding-cake tree echoes the green and white of the iris, and the whole scene is enriched by a velvety backdrop of copper beech and yew.
In the walled garden, the challenge was to re-create an ornamental garden from the sea of inherited brassicas, working around a pair of precious tennis courts. In the 20th century, tennis was the thing at Benvarden. Mr Montgomery’s grandfather had created a pair of grass courts along the length of the elegant two-storey house.
But ‘balls don’t bounce on a grass court in Ireland’ and, when Mr Montgomery’s father took over in 1927, his first move was to install two clay courts in the walled garden.
The garden door wasn’t big enough for the horse and cart needed to bring in the 300 tons of rubble and clay required, so a wider opening was created with a graceful pair of white iron gates that are still there today. One of the courts has now been quietly absorbed back into the garden, but it’s not hard to imagine happy competitive tennis parties in this idyllic, sheltered setting.
In the late 1950s, Mrs Montgomery was determined to start a rose garden. She drew up a plan for seven beds radiating from a central goldfish pond with a fountain, but admits: ‘We hadn’t realised how many hundreds of roses it was going to take to fill the beds, so we did one bed at a time – Brussels sprouts and cabbages in one and roses in the next’.
Even the fountain was a challenge: ‘At first, it was rather vigorous – on a windy day, visitors were cutting and running.’
Eventually, the rose garden found its feet. The first rose selected was Fragrant Cloud: lipstick-red, neatly coiffed, described by David Austin as ‘exceptionally fragrant’, and then came Else Poulsen, an old Danish Floribunda rose that flowers all summer.
When I visit, the rose garden puts me in a nostalgic mood, the twinkly fountain, rows of Else Poulsen catching the light like a well-ordered ballet class, pale-pink Japanese anemones, self-seeded wild strawberries nestling against the moss-edged stones that surround the pond and cushions of thrift (Armeria maritima), which provide an injection of pink in the spring and become soft architectural blocks of green later in the year.
A box parterre was created – from thousands of tiny cuttings – following the lines of earlier ornamental beds. These are planted simply with salmon-coloured alstroemeria that, in midsummer, echo the pale-pink astilbe in the long border beyond.
The walled garden is full of treasures: covetable stretches of Solomon’s seal inject rhythm into the long border, a pair of lushly growing Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris clothe the opening into the kitchen garden and provide a satisfying layering to the garden viewed through arches laden with honeysuckle and rambling roses.
Fine specimen trees, such as the lovely Heptacodium micinoides with its distinctly curved leaves and highly scented flowers in late summer, guard the entrance to the tea room in the handsome and prettily cobbled 18th-century stable yard.
The further acre of kitchen garden is an immaculately ordered treat in which canny visitors come to buy early potatoes or pick their own raspberries, tayberries and currants. There is a proper melon house and houses for peppers and tomatoes, more espalier apple trees, as well as artichokes, radishes, lettuces and corn on the cob.
Mr Montgomery’s parents planted a Magnolia wilsonii next to the asparagus bed to celebrate their marriage in 1932. This often-hard-to-grow magnolia ‘self-seeds like mad’ at Benvarden. One of the other especially lovely places to sit in the garden is on a bench by the woodland pond under the pendulous, scented flowers of one of the M. wilsonii offspring.
If a visitor strikes lucky after a restorative stroll through this tranquil, unhurried, gently surprising garden, he might leave with his own M. wilsonii seedling purchased at a characteristically generous price.
Benvarden Garden, Dervock, Ballymoney, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland. The gardens and tea room are open daily, except non-bank-holiday Mondays, until to the end of August, 12pm–5pm. Call 028–2074 1331 or see www.benvardin.com for more details.
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