The wind rustles through the leaves, the water laps gently against the shore and the world feels a million miles away.
Walking the woodlands paths around Belvedere House, an 18th century mansion on the shores of Lough Ennell in Ireland's heartland of County Westmeath, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were strolling through a little bit of paradise. But don't be fooled – this peaceful setting hides a scandalous past.
The house was built as a hunting lodge for Robert Rochfort, the first Earl of Belvedere, whose dissolute nature and cruelty earned him the nickname "the Wicked Earl". It sits just 8km from the bustling town of Mullingar, on a small hill overlooking the lake and surrounded by lush parkland, a restored Victorian walled garden and some of Ireland's most extravagant ornamental follies.
To build Belvedere, Rochfort enlisted the help of Richard Castle, the architect responsible for Westport House and Powerscourt House, among others. While the house is surprisingly small, its stunning lake views, lavish plasterwork and fine oak panelling rival some of Ireland's greatest Palladian mansions.
The Wicked Earl: Robert Rochfort
Over the course of his disreputable life, Rochfort showed again and again that his nickname, the Wicked Earl, was richly deserved. He falsely accused his wife Mary of having an affair with his brother Arthur and imprisoned her in his family home for more than 30 years. Arthur fared little better. Rochfort sued him for £20,000 and had him thrown into a debtor's prison, dispossessing his brother's nine children in the process. Throughout this time, the Wicked Earl lived a life of luxury and hedonism at Belvedere House – apparently heedless of the harm he caused.
The Jealous Wall
Rochfort invested much of his time and money in creating the perfect country estate for himself at Belvedere. But when another troublesome brother, George, built a larger mansion within sight of his home, he could not let the insult pass.
He ordered a towering wall built in the gardens – tall and wide enough to hide the offending Tudenham House from his sight. Known as the "Jealous Wall", this elaborate structure resembles the last standing wall of a ruined abbey and is one of Belvedere's three follies. The others, the Gothic Arch and the Octagonal Gazebo, can be found as you wander the woodland paths.
Belvedere's woodland walks
One of the great pleasures of a trip to Belvedere House is the chance to explore the acres of mature woodland, much of it planted during the 18th century. Beech, pine and birch dominate but look out for the plantation of exotic conifers, as well as the yew tree close to the ice house – it's said to be over 800 years old.
When you've toured the house, walked through the woods and marvelled at the Jealous Wall, relax in the visitor centre's restaurant and mull over the fact that such a wicked man left a legacy of so much beauty.