Tuesday 13 August 2013

Enchanted Isle

Lambay island sits in the Irish Sea, just a few kilometres off Dublin.  It's privately owned, but visits can be arranged by appointment and, from the moment I heard that there was a beautiful Sir Edwin Lutyens-designed house sitting at its centre, I plotted to find a way to get there.  To be perfectly honest, the island almost didn't make it on to my blog at all.  I was quite tempted to delight over the experience in private.  

Being a private island, there's no ferry service to Lambay: our trip was by fishing boat.  We were tossed a little on the waves, but our first glimpse of the misty island made up for this.  

The island is really a perfect microcosm of Edwardian life (with some traces of the earlier Tudor, Viking, Neolithic inhabitants).  From the moment you step onto the pier and catch a glimpse of the real tennis court, you have a sense of being in a place that might be in the early 21st century ... but might equally still be existing in 1912 or so.

There are actually two main houses on the island.  This first was built for the grown up daughters (and families) of the original owners.  By Lutyens, naturally.  The pantile roofs are his hallmark and all I can say is - oh please, won't my parents build me one of these?

This house is shaped like a letter 'E' without the middle cross: two wings and a central section.

One wall of windows gives almost directly on to the sea.

And just across the fields is the island chapel.

But please bear in mind that this is only the warm up act, so to speak.  The main event is encircled by this sturdy wall.

You go through this rather lovely gate,

and walk into a wood which looks like every magical wood from every story you ever read as a child.  Quite apart from their charm, the curtain wall and wood serve the very practical purpose of protecting the garden within from the elements, a key consideration for any would be island-gardeners.

The would-be island gardener in this instance being Gertrude Jekyll.  I know: a Lutyens house and a Jekyll garden.  It's not really fair, is it?  Although apparently Miss Jekyll never actually visited the island (more fool her) - she drew up her plans in consultation with Sir Edwin and they were executed by others.

Encircled by all this loveliness sits the house, the labour of love of Sir Edwin Lutyens, working closely with his clients, Maude and Cecil Baring.  Onto the original 16th century castle (or fortified house, to be perhaps strictly accurate) has been added a typical Lutyens-style design (more pantile roofs).  The joins between old and new-er haven't been hidden (in fact, Lutyens went to some pains to develop a kind of architectural grammar that indicates where the walls are original and which he added) but each section flows gracefully into the next.

Having walked around and seen the house from multiple angles, levels and visits all I can say is - I was within seconds of sitting down on the floor and refusing to move.  I'm not sure I've ever fallen harder for a house.  But sadly the tide wouldn't wait and our boat had a narrow window to get back off the island.  So we said goodbye to the island.

Throughout the visit I kept thinking of a book called The Enchanted Castle - of one of E. Nesbit's (author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It) less well-known children's books.  In the story, the castle may or may not be enchanted and magic may or may not be responsible for the events that take place.  The book was published in 1907, just a couple of years before the house on Lambay was completed.  I did try to find a connection between Edith Nesbit and Edwin Lutyens - it's not impossible that they would have known each other - but nothing has come up so far.  But apart from their shared Edwardian sensibility, perhaps both of them understood that a castle ringed by gardens and woods and stone walls and fields and sea must be enchanted.

I certainly thought so.    


  1. Very nicely written Eithne
    makes me want to just go to Lambay and stay forever :)