Garden of earthly delights

Peter Dowdall visits the 97-acre estate at Inish Beg Estate near Baltimore, Co Cork, and meets the owners whose organic approach has reaped resplendent rewards.

Inish Beg has it all — apart from over 90 acres of lush West Cork gardens, this destination locations, which is also part of the West Cork Garden trail, is also on the Wild Atlantic Way and has just received a plaque assuring visitors that they provide excellent service and standards.

The couple who run the grand old house and a cluster of five-star lodges and guest houses on an island on the Ilen River, is Paul and Georgie Keane. They, along with a team of gardeners, including the designers, Verney Naylor and Anthony Cohu, have achieved great things here in Inish Beg and over a large area too.

Paul and Georgiana Keane in a bamboo grove at Inish Beg.

An unremarkable narrow driveway, a few kilometres outside Skibbereen, leads down to the house and suddenly opens up into a sweeping field flanked by the surrounding countryside and then leads into the most beautiful courtyard area, which has been designed and planted with a distinctly French feel.

The silver-leafed pear, Pyrus salicifolius Pendula is planted here giving the impression of an olive plantation. However, the Pyrus will probably do better and create a nicer foliage effect than the olives, so a wise choice of plant.

I couldn’t help but be bowled over by meticulously maintained dry stone walls around the grounds and was lucky enough to be shown around some of the gardens, too by Paul Keane, who was quick to point out to me that they are totally organic and that if a weed is seen, it is picked out, not sprayed.

The walled garden at Inish Beg.

I am delighted to see more and more gardeners behaving like this and as a result you will see some weeds. Similarly at Highgrove, probably the best known organic garden in these islands, there are weeds about and that’s what makes it normal, that’s what makes it a real garden.

I’d much rather see the odd marauding weed or wildflower out of place, but also hear the birdsong and the sound of buzzing insects than walk through a sterileenvironment with none of the other joys of nature about.

I wandered first through a lovely woodland area which can best be described now as a “fairies refuge” as there are homes for these mythical creatures everywhere — since their well-documented eviction from neighbouring woodlands. Paul says the fairies and their doors are more than welcome at Inish Beg.

In all the times that I have visited the beautiful village and gardens of Baltimore, I had never heard the story of The Sack of Baltimore until my most recent trip. Algerian pirates visited on midsummer’s day in 1631 and took the residents away as slaves.

In memory of this event the Keane’s have developed a Pirate Trail in the gardens here and it starts in the Orchard which abuts the Fairy Trail. And it’s in this orchard where you truly appreciate the importance of the organic practices for the apples — they were in full bloom with a carpet of resplendent bluebells beneath when I visited, and several bee-hives are housed in the middle of this area with a simple ‘caution’ sign the only thing needed to keep humans at bay.

Aquilegia and forget me nots at Inish Beg, Baltimore, Co Cork.

I strolled around the whole island and enjoyed the Boathouse and Hannibal’s H2O, a lovely pond area which is so peaceful and atmospheric, I simply had to sit for a while to admire the sounds of nature all around — the birdsong, the buzzing of wildlife, the water and the plants moving gently in the breeze.

Paul and Georgie, who are lucky enough to call Inish Beg home, could not be more welcoming and Georgie says there is a different dynamic in West Cork to the rest of the country. The house is grand and the property at once unique and spectacular, but there are no airs and graces as gardeners come and go from the kitchen to get hand tools, as if it’s their own home. No time here knocking on doors or seeking permission — no owner and worker mentality here, it is truly a beautiful, lived-in family home.

Hannibal’s H20 in the Inish Beg Estate, Baltimore, Co Cork.

Paul and Georgie took over a very dilapidated estate in 1997 and set about re-creating the pleasure gardens around the house and the low-walled kitchen garden. The woodlands, in a shabby state have slowly been returned to life and the organic paddocks are grazed by cattle and horses .

The Walled Garden in the Inish Beg Estate, Baltimore, Co Cork.

I noticed a small label on a recently planted Prunus outside the house, on which was written ‘In Memory of Albert’. Albert was a much loved family member who left too soon and it is touches like this that make the garden such a living entity, a place where Albert will always be remembered and so too, the rest of the family that, for now, call Inish Beg home.



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