Historical Landscapes – our Present & Future

All too often, there is a complicated relationship and perception that the writer has noted – a curious and somewhat understandable perception of the populace in treating country houses (sign of the invaders) in isolation to ordinary landscapes, towns, activities and movements.

I really do feel that country houses do not stand in isolation but are part of a designed landscape, a demesne, and as such an integral part of, in this case, Ireland’s history, that the picture has to be widened and 250 – 300 years of history not to be ignored or set aside.

I envy countries that preserve history – I come from a country that in the midst of a civil war lost most of its records – and I admire how Ireland and England have retained such meticulous records, even though some were lost for example the PRO (Public Records Office) documents of births, marriages and deaths in 1922 with the bombing of the Four Courts on the 30th June, 1922.  Yet so much more survived, for example the 1901 and 1911 census returns, Church of Ireland parish records, the Griffiths Valuation, local muster rolls, poll tax lists and more dating back to the early 1600s.

Why though do we preserve as much history as we can? It informs us of our past and the road ahead, if we pay attention.

Most country houses were retained with a tenanted estate, which formed part of the main income, together with gate lodges, entrances, estate workers’ houses and classical features including temples, ice houses, walled gardens, stable yards and more.

John Nelson’s capture of the “Town and Parks of Kells, Co. Meath taken by Henry Simmonds in January 1865” is a great read for anyone really interested in the landscape of the town of Kells at that time.

The landlord had a great influence outside the demesne to the rest of his estate village – in Kells this is quite notable in the road structure and buildings, and employment.

Elizabeth Bowen calls these bounded landscapes “house islands”, where the house is presented in a landscaped park according to the predominant fashion.

Many of these landlords utilised natural characteristics of the existing topography and added scenic and aesthetic interest, such as rustic and formal garden buildings.

Follies were often a feature, although the term “folly” I believe is inadequate – these were expressions of the genre of the time of enhancement (and admittedly allowed by the prevalence of cheap labour) – and in Kells we have one of the world’s finest examples – Ireland’s only inland lighthouse – the fabulous Spire of Lloyd – also known as the Tower of Loyd.

I often wonder if we personally, and today, had the power, planning permission, money and labour – what would we add to our current landscape to honour what went before, to add our own influence and to look to the future?

Headfort House

Here at Headfort House are some of the most fascinating and complicated histories about the English ascendancy and the town of Kells.

I read with great interest about one of the great planners of the Headfort Estate – Sir. Geoffrey Taylour – and his wife – whom he spurned London society to marry – her having achieved great fame as one of the Gaiety Girls who sang in musical comedy spectacles at the Gaiety Theatre on the Strand, London.

The Royal Court spurned the couple initially, but Kells took the couple to their heart. Sir Geoffrey was a great proponent of the Kells landscape.

One of the things I find fascinating is how much interest the Edwardian and Georgians had in landscapes and their histories and the design of their houses and placements.  It is no coincidence that Headfort House faces the distant roll of Loughcrew.

In the middle ground the elements of medieval and Georgian town come into sharper focus and below the house the river catches the light – informing us how the very decision to situate the house here was determined by the natural characteristics of the landscape.

In the 18th century, the Blackwater and Boyne rivers were coveted as part of a desirable landscape – so we see the context of the buildings and estates that arose near it – Blackwater, Williamstown, Newtown, and Bloomsbury, Stackallen, Slane and more.

Thomas Cooley completed most of the architectural work in the exterior of the demesne of Headfort – he designed the handsome three-arch bridge in the park and the distinctive series of rusticated gate piers found at the old entrance to the demesne on the Navan Road and seen greater profusion at the present entrance to the estate beside Headfort Bridge.  His design is also to be seen at the main entrance to the church of St. Columba in the town, this evident architectural consistency confirming the nature of the relationship between the Headforts and the town.

In particular, the Headfort family made great efforts in creating a landscape around the house that was completed in 1776, so much so that the agriculturist, Arthur Young, wrote that “the improvements at Headfort must be astonishing to those who knew this place seventeen years ago; for there were neither building, walling, nor plantations.”

Trees were unquestionably the defining signifier of all demesnes, integral to how the landscape was shaped, defining the perimeter in blocks planted as shelterbelts, distributed in the park in clumps or singly, or lining avenues in rows, all to enhance the visual and horticultural interest.

Young describes the successful transplanting of oaks, 20 feet tall, some of which must be among the champions that burst into leaf today, and he went on to mention some of the monumental achievements at Headfort that we still enjoy today – the wonderful walls that are so well constructed and for their age, still in excellent condition.

These on the approach from Kells form a ha-ha, effectively screening traffic between the walls while maintaining relatively uninterrupted views from the house to the south across the demesne.

Lord Geoffrey was the President of the Royal Horticultural Society in Dublin for 30 years and was a great plantsman – he sponsored George Forrest, an unrivalled plant hunter, who ensured a legacy of enviable colour at Headfort every spring with a profusion of rhododendrons and azaleas; and the Pinetum that he laid out on the islands in 1913 with the assistance and advice of Sir Frederick Moore of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, and his counterparts at Kew, was awarded an RHS gold medal in 1931, and is host to several of the champion trees of Britain and Ireland, including the largest Balsam fir, Umbrella pine and Chinese larch.

And so, over 3 centuries, the Taylour family contributed to the uniqueness of Headfort, and the town of Kells, each adding to it without detracting from its integrity.

We now have a growing acceptance of the shared possession of Headfort and its impression on the landscape of Kells and its hinterlands. Now within the Architectural Conservation Area, it is protected for future generations.

All are welcome to the Tree Walk this coming Saturday as part of the Hinterland Festival – the landscape expert, Tim Whitley is leading the walk and has mapped some of these fabulous trees.

With thanks to Riocht na Midhe.




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