Garden Visit: Breenhold, Mount Wilson
Tom Breen is waiting for us at the entrance gates of Breenhold, his property at Mount Wilson, a small town on the top of a basalt peak in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. We tumble out of the car, our last stop on a two-day garden expedition, teetering on the edge of mild garden fatigue.
Any sense of weariness on arrival immediately evaporates as we begin our tour of the estate with Tom, walking down the main avenue flanked by Norwegian pines and layers of autumn foliage. It soon becomes apparent Breenhold is a very special place – a garden estate of a scale rarely seen in Australia, and a deeply personal endeavour for Tom.
Tom’s parents started buying land in Mount Wilson in 1965. His father, Thomas Essington Breen, had visited the area as a young man and decided he’d like to own property there one day. He went overboard. “Nothing with father was done by halves,” says Tom. He’d soon bought around 45 hectares of the rich, basalt land Mount Wilson is renowned for, and his shaping of the landscape soon began in earnest.
A few years into his father’s Mount Wilson project, Tom’s mother, Charlotte Breen, passed away. “To some extent, the garden became a memorial to mother,” Tom says. “She died in 1968 when she was only 56. Her death broke dad apart. He really dedicated the garden to her.”
As Tom suggests, his father was clearly a man with vision. There were never any designs for the property done, nothing drawn up on paper, just ideas and the capacity to make them happen. “Father would say, ‘we’ll have a wall there, it’ll be 50 meters long, and we’ll get a Scottish stonemason to do it,’ and a few months later it would be done,” he says.
Thomas’s influence on the landscape of Breenhold is phenomenal. In 30 years he and his team of workmen planted thousands of trees, and built walls, walkways and roads to create a monumental garden estate. Whether it was grief, a grand vision, or a desire to make his mark that drove him, I don’t know. What I do know though, is that his son shares his passion for the property and is building on his vision, as a legacy not only for his family, but also the wider community.
I was a teenager when my parents started developing the garden up here,” Tom says. “I was enthusiastic about it then, but I’m 100% more enthusiastic about it now.”
He tells me he’s still got a long way to go to be as good with botanical names as his father. “He would wander around the garden sounding like a priest conducting Latin mass,” he says. “He and Mother loved plants.”
Tom took over the running of Breenhold in 1996. The property was very run down and covered in blackberry bushes. “I realised the only way to get on top of it was to work out in circles from the house, which we did. We’d finish one thing, and then we’d have to start again,” he says.
Managing a garden of this scale is a bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – a continuous process.”
Tom’s plans for Breenhold are simple – to build on his fathers vision for the property. He tells me there’s still areas of the property to be developed, and he’s got ideas for them, as well as enhancing and maintaining the existing plantings and structures. “My vision is to drive it well into the 21st century,” he says.
Having the garden publicly accessible is clearly an important part of Tom’s approach. “We enjoy opening the garden because it enables us to share it. I feel as though we’re conserving it for the next 100 years and having people enjoying it adds to its beauty.”
This, I guess, is what strikes me about Tom. There’s a real generosity in his approach to the property and its future. Whilst it’s a deeply personal endeavour, it’s also a gift – his investment in Breenhold is essentially an investment in beauty to be shared. “Its important to me to give something back to the community,” he says.
It’s really wonderful to be able to share Breenhold, and it’s very much a part of paying it back.”
Usually garden visits are over within an hour, two at the most. After four hours, we wind up our walk not because we’ve seen everything but because, well, lunch. Our stomachs are protesting about lack of attention, and we’ve had run out of adjectives to describe Breenhold. We’ve explored the many walled gardens, pathways flanked by rhododendrons and tree ferns, walking tracks through native bushland, vast lawns framed by huge trees, intimate hiding spots, reflection pods, orchards and more. But we’ll be back. Oh, yes, we’ll be back, because Breenhold is a particularly special place, even on an empty stomach.