Diarmuid Gavin unveils his stunning creation to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
It’s a garden fit for a queen – and exactly what Diarmuid Gavin was aiming for.
The celebrity gardener, who’d been tasked with creating a permanent, bespoke installation to celebrate the reigning monarch’s Platinum Jubilee, set himself a challenge of producing “magic through design”.
And, remarkably, he appears to have achieved it with the Clockwork Garden in the grounds of Antrim Castle, which officially opens on Saturday, June 4.
Coming to life every 15 minutes, the unique performing garden boasts trees that dance and plant pots that move; individually, then together in a mystical, almost outer-worldly space.
The Queen, a keen gardener herself, will no doubt be delighted with this affectionate tribute to her 70 years on the throne. The majestic black gates that lead to the garden — which wouldn’t look out of place at Buckingham Palace — were specially commissioned to mark the Queen’s Jubilee.
And for Diarmuid, there was immense satisfaction at seeing this regal task literally grow before his eyes.
Casually dressed in jeans and a blue crew neck jumper as he put the finishing touches to his horticultural magnum opus, the 57-year-old Dubliner spoke of his delight at how the project for Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council — his first major commission locally — had turned out.
“Previously, the only gardens I’ve done in Northern Ireland have been as part of a television series,” Diarmuid said.
He officially opened Garden Show Ireland last month, giving visitors a sneak preview of the Clockwork Garden, which took six months from conception to completion.
It not dissimilar in style to his award-winning and critically acclaimed ‘garden of pure imagination’ created at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2016, which was visited by Her Majesty and attracted tens of thousands of visitors.
Crucially, though, this will be the first garden of its kind to have a permanent residency anywhere in the UK.
“Every 15 minutes the garden comes to life and engages in a short performance which surprises spectators and creates a few smiles,” he said.
“It has been my dream to bring it home to where it belongs; Antrim Castle Gardens is that place.”
He worked alongside students from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise at Greenmount in the physical building of the project, which finished ahead of schedule.
It was Claire Faulkner, event director of Garden Show Ireland, who brought Diarmuid on board, following a decision to move the show from Hillsborough to Antrim.
“We had talked years ago about ideas for shows in Ireland,” he recalled.
“Realistically, nothing could compete with Chelsea Flower Show, so what would make a show special?
“When Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council acquired the show, Claire suggested asking me to do a permanent garden that would be appropriate for the site in an historic park; something that would last forever and not just for the week of a show.”
Having been “overwhelmed” by the Antrim Castle Gardens during the one and only time he’d visited it, Diarmuid jumped at opportunity to create something special there.
“I’m a big ‘history of garden design’ nut, and Antrim is a very pure 17th century European-inspired formal garden with its canals and walks and working perspective,” he said.
“It’s one of the best of its type in Britain or Ireland, and I was
delighted at being asked to come up with something there.”
Diarmuid had to present his design concept and idea to the local council before getting the green light.“I wanted to do something I thought would be appropriate for such a magical place,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be too contemporary, it would charm but also could attract people of all ages — boys, girls, men and women.
“And I thought, with the castle that was here and the myths and legends, doing something with myths and legends and adding a mechanical aspect would be something that may be appropriate, hence the clockwork.”
On the night the council voted in favour of his idea, Diarmuid was already in Belgium looking at the trees which are now in situ.
“I was sourcing them before I got the go-ahead, so there was a risk it would be a wasted journey, but I had a feeling about it,” he said.
“Also, the other aspect to this was getting it ready for April 29, so there was no time to lose if it was going to happen.”
He added: “I had to have faith in the idea and believe that they would think favourably about it… so I just had to put the work in.”
The purpose-built folly that forms part of the installation “is representative of the type of house that the person, whose garden this is, might live in”, according to Diarmuid.
“It’s a quirky type of architecture,” he said.
Explaining the wide-ranging appeal of clockwork, Diarmuid cited “Wallace and Gromit, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Roald Dahl”.
“It brings the element of eccentricity in a digital, fast age,” he said.
“Something that would make people suspend belief.”
But what was the original inspiration behind his Chelsea Show garden, the ‘prototype’ to the one now taking pride of place in Castle Gardens?
“Harrods had asked me to do a garden for them to represent their brand, their heritage, their architectural heritage,” he said.
“I thought they were asking the wrong person because it’s not my type of garden; it’s not what I’m known for — it’s pretty flowers and elegant architecture; I’m more contemporary and quirky…
“So I was really in turmoil because Harrods is such a wonderful brand.”
Rather than have Diarmuid turn them down, he was given a couple of weeks to come up with an idea.
“I was at Hampton Court Flower Show with a friend who observed that something was ‘very Heath Robinson’ and instantly I knew what I was going to do,” he revealed.
“Heath Robinson was an amazing guy. He was an Edwardian cartoonist who, in drawings, invented the most complicated machines to do the simplest tasks — for example, a machine to test a chicken to see if it was cooked.
Diarmuid asked himself what Heath Robinson, who died in 1944, aged 72, would do if he was asked to design a garden.
He also recalled how brewing giant Guinness had created a unique, hugely popular clock for the 1951 Festival of Britain at Battersea Park.
“It was one of the smallest exhibits at the festival and yet, when you look at the photographs, you see people gathering around waiting for something to happen,” he said.
“And every 15 minutes the clock would perform.”
The ‘Guinness Clock’ had an assortment of mechanical characters emerging to perform set pieces, accompanied by fairground music, before withdrawing back into the clock in reverse order.
“The clock became so popular they ended up making seven different versions which travelled around Britain, Ireland and America for 20 years to seaside resorts, main streets in towns and shopping centres...”
That magical, animated contraption gave Diarmuid inspiration for the garden — and the dancing trees which has “never been done before”.
“Slowly it came together that there should be a sequence of six trees and we could build on that,” he said.
“Like people watching the Guinness Clock, they’d see one thing and somebody would point it out and then something else would happen… and all of a sudden all six things are happening and the garden is putting on a performance but part of it is the magic of it all stopping and being just a garden for another 15 minutes.
“And this time we’re able to do it to music and that song ‘Pure Imagination’ [from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory].
“In terms of total moving parts, there are 12 balls, six twisted stem bay trees, a carousel, and a water spurt moving for four minutes, every 15 minutes, and then they stop and it just becomes a garden.
“I had a weird experience when we did it in Chelsea. The fashion designer Paul Smith was filming the garden. He said he was taking a video of the garden and sending it to Jony Ive (who designed the iPhone for Apple.)
“He said Jony would love it because it’s totally the opposite to an iPhone — it’s mechanical. Paul invited me to his HQ a week later for tea. It was unbelievable — he showed me from the basement to the attic and he was like Willy Wonka.”
When asked about the being the first of its kind to be installed in any location, Diarmuid said it was “a real privilege to get to do it”.
He also told how some professional espionage revealed the idea to be a winner.
“In Chelsea, I asked the props people to use black glass so I could be in the folly looking at people’s reaction,” he said.
“I saw the reaction I needed. I took a video from in there, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do.
“That’s how I knew the concept worked and that’s very important. I did not want to let down anyone who’d put their faith in me.
“My brief was to produce magic. I knew there was only one garden that could come here.
“And it’s that garden that makes people smile or hold up their phones to film it and send it to their friends.
“I can’t wait to see their faces… and know that myself, Paul Smyth, who works with me, and a whole new team from the area have built it.”
Councillor Stephen Ross, the Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, said they were thrilled with the “breath-taking creation”.
“Having an expert like Diarmuid design a permanent tribute to the Queen at Antrim Castle Gardens is very special,” he said.
“It’s a huge asset for the borough and its people and will delight local residents and visitors alike.
“Our investment in the Clockwork Garden very much aligns with our vision and strategy to be a council devoted to the provision of green spaces, health and wellbeing.”
But there’s resting on his laurels for this internationally acclaimed garden designer.
Rather than choosing a favourite of his creations to date, he believes his best work is yet to come.
In the meantime, however, there’s the Clockwork Garden.
“It will make the place a happier one — it fits and should enhance a trip here,” he said.
“It’s engineered to last. It’s future-proofed. It’s here for as long as it’s wanted.”