Book Review: The House and Garden at Glenmore

To anyone who has been to Glenmore House in the foothills of the Razorback Range near Camden in outer Sydney, it is possibly the embodiment of the popular escapist dream. You know the one – where you shun the rat race, find a ramshackle country cottage on a large estate and spend your days bringing the old dame back to life – and in the process creating a large, whimsical, yet productive garden?

Sometimes, however, escape comes when you’re not looking, as was the case for Larry and Mickey Robertson. It was May 1988, and they were enjoying an urban life in ‘the tiniest house on a back lane in Sydney’s Woollahra’. In The House and Garden at Glenmore published by Murdoch Books, interior designer Mickey Robertson tells the story of restoration and renewal that began when she and her husband made an impulsive decision to buy a collection of historic but dilapidated colonial farm buildings in rural NSW.

“Glenmore was an escape from an urban way of life…. not that we were unhappy the way we were – in fact, we were about to build onto our wee city cottage and hadn’t exactly planned to escape in this way at that stage of our lives – it was a pipe dream, one of those ‘one day we’ll live in the country and have a garden’ tales that so many of us have,” says Mickey of that pivotal decision.

When they first bought the property at Glenmore, it had been vacant for six years and was in a poor state of repair, without power or running water. The purchase came as a surprise to everyone: the real estate agent, the country locals, their friends – and not least Mickey.

All of a sudden it was a reality and we had to make a choice between remaining city dwellers or turning our lives on their heads,” Mickey writes.

“It didn’t take long though before we knew there was no going back…. hands in the soil, plants, the opportunity to grow…. promotes connectivity on so many levels, for mind, body and soul.  It earths you, invigorates and excites the senses – leads you on journeys of many kinds on a daily basis…whether on a perfume trail to another time and place or a visual path of delight, “Mickey explains.

After many years of hard work, Mickey and her husband Larry have created a seriously beautiful home and abundantly varied ornamental garden that enfolds the house and outbuildings. The original farmhouse has been restored and extended, and the former cowshed, dairy, stables, hay shed, barn, store-room and other outbuildings given new purpose. Gradually all have been linked together by the ever-expanding gardens. The result is a unique and charming country property, open regularly for events, workshops and open garden days.

The House and Garden at Glenmore, however, is not a book of gratuitous and aesthetically pleasing escapism. It’s rich, designed for slow, savoured reading, and plots out not only the serendipity behind buying the Glenmore property, but also vividly and sensually walks the reader through the process of restoring the house and garden in detail. They are substantially satisfying chapters – covering garden know-how such as helpful garden structures, companion gardening, composts, seeds, seasons and the essentials of choosing what to grow. Mickey also shares a collection of recipes according to the seasons, all inspired and created from her kitchen garden and it’s produce. They’re are as inspiring as they are beautiful.

“I think in the imagination of many, the term ‘Kitchen Garden’ conjures the images not just of a garden but of a domestic idyll, where the accompanying kitchen smells of baking bread and bubbling marmalade, and colanders of tomatoes, and just dug root vegetables ready to be washed at the kitchen sink”, says Mickey.

The book doesn’t just toast the botanical successes; it also celebrates the failures – from which garden learnings are best formed, with a whole section devoted to the failings of the first kitchen garden.

This book, stunningly photographed by Daniel Shipp over many seasons, is immaculate. Mickey’s thirty years experience as an interior designer shine through everything she touches, and the book generously shares the interiors of the Robertson’s family home as well as the glorious garden. It left me both itching to get into my garden, and dreaming of escaping to the country…

All images from ‘The House and Garden at Glenmore’ by Mickey Robertson (Murdoch Books).