Three years ago, gardening guru Helen Dillon and her husband, Val, moved from their elegant Georgian two-storey-over-basement home in Dublin 6 to a bungalow in south Co Dublin, but don’t mention the D-word – according to Helen, the move had nothing to do with downsizing, and everything to do with the desire to create another amazing garden.
“We loved the house; we loved the garden. I hate the word downsize; to me, the word means sitting in a shabby armchair that’s sunk in the middle and being rather miserable,” Helen says dismissively, adding, “If you are a gardener, getting a new garden is the most exciting thing that can happen. It’s an empty palette.”
Still, it’s hard to believe that she minded leaving her own stunning garden that she created from scratch, and which was so magnificent that it’s written up in publications all over the world, and was something of a Mecca for garden lovers here and abroad, but Helen is adamant. “We were 45 years in the same place. What happens after five or 10 years is everything gets very crowded, and you don’t like to take this out because it was given to me by a great-aunt or whatever, and you don’t want to take that out because it was given to me by a nice person, so everything is very squashed, and the soil gets very overused and you get things like honey fungus and vine weevil. So to start a new garden was a wonderful prospect,” the delightful Helen enthuses.
The new garden is almost the same size as the old one – about half an acre – and the prospect of creating a new floral paradise would daunt the hardiest of creatures, but not Helen. She’s been gardening since her youth in Perthshire in Scotland. “I was always into gardens at home and at school. It was a bit unusual for girls. I went to boarding school – it was a terrible education, but I was allowed to keep plants in the greenhouse and take care of them,” she notes, adding with glee, “I used to water them while the others had to run around the pitch.”
After school, she moved to London and got into the antiques business. “I always collected china in a small way, then what happened was I won some money. I used to go and stay with great friends, and they had a cleaning lady who loved the races. I was there on Grand National day, and she said Foinavon was going to win, so I put five shillings each way on the tote. He did win, all he had to do was get around,” Helen explains, adding that all the others fell that year – 1967. It was so remarkable that one of the fences is now named after him. “I got £137 pounds, on the strength of which I went into Chelsea market and started to sell my china,” she says, adding, “So if it wasn’t for a horse, I wouldn’t be in Ireland and I wouldn’t be married to Val.”
It was through her burgeoning business that she met Val, who hails from Clonsilla in Co Dublin and who already had an antique shop in London. “She had asked me to look out for candlesticks, so I got some brass Queen Anne sticks and some Georgian pewter,” Val reminisces. “She was very shy in those days,” he says, adding, “All you’ve got to do now is press a button and she’ll come out with all sorts of information! Anyway, I remember her hopping from one foot to the other outside the shop; she wouldn’t come in.”
After getting together, they moved to Ireland and bought the house in Dublin, though they continued the London business for some time, and then Val continued it in Ireland.
Shortly after coming to live in Ireland, Helen started to make a name for herself in the gardening world. As well as creating the Ranelagh garden from scratch, she has presented TV series for RTE, written six books, and lectured all over the world, though she always kept up in an interest in antiques. Val still does the odd bit of business, but they both say it’s not the same as the old days. “It was such fun in those days, but the internet has taken all the excitement out of it,” Helen explains, while Val adds, “And, of course, no one is interested in ‘brown’ furniture.”
Helen and Val – whom Helen calls Grub, though she insists she can’t remember why – used to have stunning antiques in their old home, but they gave the bulk of them to family and friends when they decided to move house. The move came about just over three years ago, when Helen randomly hit upon the idea. “There was no particular reason, it just came into my head, ‘Let’s move’. The first thing Val said was ‘absolutely not’. The next morning he said, ‘Do you know, I think you’re right’, which is extraordinary, as normally there’s an argument over everything,” she volunteers.
They decided they wanted a small house with a relatively big garden, and the only other stipulation, she decided, was it shouldn’t have stairs. In other words, more than likely a bungalow. That was something of a battle, too. “I said, ‘I’m not going to a bungalow’,” says Val. “It’s because he’s a terrible snob,” Helen says in her lovely, fine, cut-glass tones, which the Irish public loved when she was broadcasting. “He said, ‘If you think I’m going to live in a bungalow, you’ve got another thing coming’.”
But she won him over on that, too, when they found the 1960s bungalow they subsequently bought, and after it was completely renovated, they settled in with their two adored dachshunds, Ruby and Rosie.
The bungalow was full of small, low-ceilinged rooms, but architect Michael Kelly created a stunning new home for the couple by knocking three of the rooms into one long one, and giving it an unusual barrel-vaulted high ceiling. There’s a small kitchen off that room; it’s purely for cooking. There’s a utility room hidden behind doors in the panelled hall, and off the hall, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.
Despite the size of the living room, it’s both elegant and cosy – it’s tastefully furnished, and there’s underfloor heating, and also a gas fire. The original house had lots of tiny windows, but the architect ensured ample light with the addition of larger expanses of glass, giving lovely views of the new garden as well as several glass doors to different areas, including a secluded courtyard for sitting in.
Though Helen, who still writes a bi-monthly gardening column, is not one for sitting.
She mentions that between the beds, the ground is gravel, which means less work. “Not that I’m avoiding work. I love work. I adore being outside; I find it calming,” she notes, adding that apart from the plants, the garden is kept quite plain with only two large urns and some wrought-iron fencing. “I’ve grown out of cherubs and ladies. I think these look better,” she says.
The plants, as always, are very exotic, and to Helen’s delight, some, which she had to grow in the greenhouse in Ranelagh, are thriving outside in their garden in south Co Dublin. Plants like Sonchus, which they brought back from Madeira; the new location, being near the sea, is one or two degrees warmer than Ranelagh, and that makes a huge difference to what can grow. It’s obvious that far from regretting her old garden, Helen is getting huge pleasure from seeing her success with the new one.
“People were convinced I’d miss Ranelagh,” Helen says, “They were determined I was going to be depressed at leaving. They kept saying, ‘You will miss it’. The new owners asked us back for dinner; they’ve done a wonderful job but we didn’t turn a hair, and we’re glad we moved.”
So definitely not the D-word, but just starting a whole new chapter in a wonderful life.
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
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