Gardens at Kilquade

Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland. Whenever we visit, we are impressed by the exuberance of the verdant landscapes and woodlands, and outstanding gardens abound. Do you remember our exploration of the Kilruddery Estate a few weeks ago? Here’s another venue well worth a visit: Kilquade Arboretum, formerly the ‘National Garden Exhibition Centre’. The modest 5.2 acre site is billed as the perfect escape from the stresses of everyday life – and rightly so. Not only can you wander through a collection of inspirational gardens, formal and informal, which were designed by a number of highly experienced horticulturists, but also you can eat and drink in superb outdoor dining settings: everything is well maintained and efficient. And – if you are a gardener yourself – there is a great shop to supply your every need!

As you can see, you never know what might await you as you traverse the grounds, moving from one creative vision to another. At the height of this Irish summer – which is unmatched, so far, in its brilliant weather – you are guaranteed shady nooks and surprises, and plenty of places to rest and contemplate. You will happily spend half a day or more at Kilquade, and come away satisfied in body and mind! Here’s an enigmatic sculpture by Fiona Coffey:

Water is used refreshingly within the gardens – at times you have the feeling of wandering beside a mountain stream; at others you can just find a spot for contemplation by a cool pool.

You can be methodical in your walks through each of the garden areas or you can, like us, wander haphazardly, not taking any particular straight line. If you do this, you are sure to miss something – but that’s good reason for a return visit. We are keen to come back when the autumn is setting in: the colours will be a treat. But we will return before then anyway: the excellent coffee and snacks are calling!

I haven’t mentioned the profuse planting that veers between formal and – as you can see – naturally wild. Finola is particularly pleased to see the latter: she firmly believes that wildflowers have a big part to play, nowadays, in any established garden: have a look at our post on West Cork’s Bantry House Gardens, here. Allowing nature to contribute to established planting schemes will ensure that good habitats evolve to support our pollinators and a balanced eco-system.

One of the things that struck us on our visit to Kilquade was how easy it is to get away from the crowds! We saw others walking through the gardens but we often had each little designed space to ourselves. Possibly the unbelievable (for Ireland) weather (temperatures approaching 30 degrees) meant that many visitors were sweating it out on the beaches. We were calm and cool, and felt safely tucked away from ‘the madding crowd’. All in all, the experience was exceptional.

The Luxuriant Gardens of Bantry House

Pandemic days can be well spent in West Cork. Visit Bantry House: for a small fee you can walk around the extensive gardens all day, pausing en route to partake of more-ish refreshments from the Tea Kitchen. There’s ample room to socially distance; panoramic views out to the Bay – and plenty of history to absorb.

On 11 May 1689, the Battle of Bantry Bay was fought between the French and British forces (above). It was inconclusive, but considerable damage was suffered by both fleets.

Originally a farmhouse known as Blackrock, the property was built by Samuel Hutchinson in 1710; it was purchased by Captain Richard White of Whiddy Island in the 1760s. His grandson – also Richard – renamed the house Seafield, and witnessed an engagement between the French and British forces in the Bay in 1796. He became the first Earl of Bantry and his eldest son – another Richard – extended the house and laid out the grounds more or less as we see them today (here is a post from Finola narrating a visit to the house in pre-pandemic days). The idyllic view above dates from 1840, around the time of the renovation and landscaping work.

More naval activity in Bantry Bay can be seen in the background of the above photograph, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century.

. . . For eight days past, the mammoth battle ships Bellerophon, Lord Nelson, and Agamemnon have been manoeuvring in Bantry Bay, between the Roancarrig Light and Whiddy Island. The thunder of the big 12-inch guns can be heard at immense distances, and electric and searchlight displays may be witnessed at night from places far inland . . .

Southern Star, 27 March 1909

The fortunes of Bantry House have varied during the last hundred years, but it remains in the ownership of the descendants of the Whites, and has been opened to the public since 1946. Now a very significant tourist attraction, the property has eased itself into the 21st century and can be seen today pursuing a laudable philosophy of encouraging the grounds to support informal wildflower spread and natural habitats within the previous strict formality of the terraced gardens laid out by the second Earl. In our view, this approach is highly successful and in fact softens, complements and enhances the mature house and its setting of terraces, steps, courtyards, paths and woodlands. It also provides excellent habitats for pollinators and contributes to a more sustainable world.

Every part of the grounds is worthy of exploration. There are two former stable blocks: both are time capsules. The activities of generations of gardeners, groundsmen, grooms, and farriers can be imagined from the surviving evidence.

I was fascinated by the plaque, above, and added it to my collection of classic signs. I then set about trying to find photographic evidence of this squadron, sadly without success. But I did find an equivalent from Suffolk, England, dating from 1910, which is worth a share:

I hope you will follow in our footsteps and visit the gardens at Bantry House. This is a great time of the year to experience the burgeoning growth of the wilder elements, and, if you have the happy fortune to hit a good spot of sunshine (or even if you don’t), there is no better place in West Cork to while away the constraints of this pandemic.

Brunch at Liss Ard!

Just along the road from us in West Cork lies Liss Ard Estate. One of Ireland’s ‘big houses’, it was built in 1853 and was for generations the home of The O’Donovan, leader of that Gaelic clan. During the ‘cold war’ era of the 20th century it was owned by the Swiss government, who saw in West Cork a potential safe haven if the world descended into a nuclear holocaust. Just recently it has been taken over by an American company who will continue to run it as a hospitality venue. Finola’s eagle eye picked out the other day that Liss Ard were opening up for outdoor Sunday brunch! How could we resist?

Here’s the brunch group: George, Una, Finola, myself, Con and Clair. We thoroughly enjoyed the occasion – partly because it was like being let out of jail (although I doubt – but can’t say for certain – that any of us has experienced that particular phenomenon), but also because, as customers, we were able to follow the excellent breakfast and coffee with a walk around the 163-acre estate.

Finola and I have special feelings for Liss Ard, as we were married there in 2014 in an ancient ringfort! So, easing ourselves out of our chairs in the summer sunshine our first port of call was the feature after which the house is named: Lios Ard = High Fort. At our wedding the souterrain which was an integral part of the fort was not visible: today it can be seen, from above (at least, the entrance to it can be seen). The souterrain is a series of underground chambers, and this one – cut from rock and clay – has survived for well over a millennium. It was fully explored by a good friend of ours, Lee Snodgrass and her partner Paddy O’Leary – both archaeologists – back in the 1980s, and an information board just beside the fort tells the story in their words.

Above: Lee and Paddy’s survey drawings of the fort and souterrain, with a view of the entrance at the west side of the enclosure, and the cave-like structure which can be seen today, surrounded by ferns. Below is our group standing in the circle of the fort: such structures were probably high status homes defended by banks and timber palisades. They would also have provided protection for domestic animals who would have been predated by wolves.

Another feature in the grounds of Liss Ard may also seem like something ancient, but actually only dates from 1992:

. . . The Liss Ard Project brings together the conservation of nature and contemporary art: it will combine animal wildlife preservation, controlled ‘wild’ gardens and a contemporary art project – the Sky Garden . . .

The Irish Sky Garden is an incomplete work of art by Californian James Turrell (born in 1943): I wrote about him and his work a few years ago, here. Turrell had West Cork connections:

. . . Turrell traced his wife (Julia)’s ancestors to Castletown Bearhaven. He had his two youngest children, Sophie and Arlen, baptised in the church there . . . This (West Cork) is the countryside that inspired his Sky garden. It could not be realised anywhere else. Jim is responding to what he has found in Liss Ard, and his sensitive response will enhance the attraction of the site even more. Jim and Veith (the Zurich art dealer who bought the estate in 1989) study the site like two conspiring brothers. Both radiate assurance. Something unique and shared is being created there. The joy of it shows in their faces . . .


James Turrell
from the exhibition – Long Green, Turske & Turske, Zurich 1990

The Irish Sky Garden is an as yet incomplete work of art. The whole project was set to incorporate other ‘land works’ including a pyramid and a vault. Turrell’s most famous work, perhaps, is the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert. It is also work still in progress: construction began in 1977.

Quite apart from the ancient history and modern art, the gardens at Liss Ard have so much to offer. There is a maze of paths and steps, lush – almost tropical – growth and views across the substantial lake which forms part of the demesne: Lough Abisdealy.

As we walked beside the lake I was entranced by the sound of the wind in the reeds, and have tried to capture it with this little recording: you can imagine the combination of the swaying reeds, the crescendo of the light wind, the distant birdsong and the lapping water.

I can only give you a brief impression of our sensory experiences from the day: much is left unsaid and unseen but – all you need to do is book your Sunday brunch, and you stand a good chance of following our footsteps. I only hope that the day is as brilliant for you as it has been for us!

Wicklow Ways

There is a world beyond West Cork! In fact, we quite often visit Wicklow and Ireland’s ‘Ancient East’: it’s a contrast to our wild Mizen, and currently looking verdant in the early summer sunlight. We have taken a trip to Ireland’s ‘garden county’ to celebrate a bit of a let-up in the long, hard lockdown that we have all endured for most of this year. We based ourselves in Greystones (that’s the entrance to Greystones Harbour in the header pic). On a hot weekend it was buzzing with people, but we did all have to keep our distance from each other which, in Ireland particularly, is a sad state of affairs.

Greystones (evidently named after the ‘grey stones’ on the beach) has transformed itself from the sleepy seaside town and small harbour photographed by Co Wicklow man Robert French in the late 19th century (above). You can see many more of his photographs in this excellent website. Today it boasts a smart new marina and harbour, modern houses and apartments, and a major amenity park giving access to the old cliff walk that leads to Bray. It’s an attractive and vibrant venue in the 21st century, popular with residents and visitors alike.

Greystones : nautical connections, dancing in the new park, aqua shades and Patrick O’Reilly’s wonderful ‘Marching Bear’ sculpture on the sea-front. When this statue was unveiled in 2014 it created quite a stir. Some locals claimed it was an eyesore and ‘spoiled the sweeping sea views’. The striking feature cost the town nothing, as it was donated by Dermod Dwyer – a local property developer and guardian of Ireland’s National Gallery – in memory of his daughter Caroline who, sadly, had died of cancer.

Not far from Greystones is Killruddery House and estate. This was founded by William Brabazon of Leicestershire in the 1500s and went through several incarnations, with the present house being substantially reconstructed between 1820 and 1830. The Brabazon family and their descendants remain in the house to the present day: they became the Earls of Meath, a title created in 1627. The estate, which amounts to 800 acres, is open to the public as an amenity and it is possible to perambulate the grounds for a small fee. We visited: in fact, Finola is descended from the Brabazons somewhere down the line, and she knows her way about!

The demesne is beautiful, and elegantly laid out, with canals, pools, fountains and well placed statues. In its fresh summer greenery it is an impressive place to explore. Finola’s post today is all about Killruddery.

On another day we revisited a further Co Wicklow treasure – Glendalough, and admired again the extensive Monastic City, its fine examples of Romanesque architecture, round tower and stone crosses.

Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry) and Peter (Hikelines) were with us on our Glendalough visit and, to my own surprise and delight, we were led to St Kevin’s holy well in the grounds of Glendalough which we had never known about previously. It took a bit of finding, but it was complete with a rag tree – and cures for headaches and eye ailments.

I hope you will agree that County Wicklow has something to offer everyone. We have just dipped in to its treasures in our few days away from West Cork. There is so much more to be discovered… But, of course, the same can be said of all parts of Ireland.

Killruddery: Nature and Nurture

We’ve been visiting the wonderful gardens at Killruddery House, just outside Bray, and it’s been a tonic for the soul.

We talk a lot about managing for bio-diversity, but when you see it in action on this scale, it’s breathtaking. Killruddery is the ancestral home of the Earls of Meath and the house and gardens are open to the public during normal (non-Covid) times. They have just opened the gardens again and when we visited yesterday and today they were teeming with people – a deservedly popular destination for families. There’s lots of room, so the enormous lawns were dotted with picnic blankets, and the largest sandpit I have ever seen was full of delighted children.

Despite the crowds, it is easy to stroll along the woodland paths and never meet another person. And it’s on those paths that the term Nature and Nurture came to me as an apt description. The Meaths are managing for bio-diversity and sustainability on a grand scale, and doing it magnificently, at the same time as providing a wonderful amenity for visitors.  

The mix of natural and designed landscape works so well that it all blends together and you wander seamlessly from the kind of open lawn with specimen trees that Capability Brown would have been proud of to deep woodland with a carpet of wildflowers. The smell of wild garlic, Ramsons, drifted over us as we strolled. That’s the white flower, below, mixed with buttercups and Herb Robert.

There is SO much to Killruddery – a kitchen garden that supplies their own chefs; the house itself, famous as a film and wedding venue and full of treasures and history; the farm shop and farmers market; the farm trails and children’s activities; a formal  parterre and sunken garden; a water clock – and I am only touching the surface. It will repay visit after visit. 

But our readers know that I can’t resist the wildflowers and on my two visits this week I mainly focussed on the woods, with occasional sorties into open spaces and long vistas.

Jack, the Earl of Meath, has been writing a nature diary – you can find it here – and it’s the work of a man passionate about preserving natural surroundings, and alarmed about our loss of habitat and species. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a tour of the gardens with Jack, and I can tell you that he knows the name, history and provenance of every tree and every shrub.

His son, Anthony and daughter-in-law, Fionnuala, are committed to an ethos of conservation, looking to the long term health of the land and the animals and plants that make it home.

Almost uniquely in Ireland, this is a garden that has been established since the seventeenth century. It was underway by the 1680s and much of it was already in place by 1711. It’s difficult to imagine that there are taller trees anywhere else in Ireland! Each generation has planted and refreshed, changed and improved, always taking seriously their stewardship of the estate and nurturing the land. 

Robert has shared some photographs of the more formal part of the gardens today, while I have concentrated on the woodland. The last of the bluebells were still blooming (above) and I was lucky enough to stumble on some Sanicle (below) – although it’s common and widespread in Ireland you are most likely to find it under beech trees in woodland – not something that abounds in West Cork.

There’s something for everyone at Killruddery (including excellent coffee!) so do pay a visit if you happen to be anywhere near Bray.

Northside of the Beara

We have written previous posts in praise of the remarkable narrow, remote, and rarely explored byways or boreens that serve the north coasts of our own peninsula – the Mizen – and our neighbour – the Sheep’s Head. Driving them can be an exhilarating and, at times (particularly when you meet something coming the other way!), harrowing experience although always worthwhile because of the unparalleled land- and sea-scapes which are revealed at every turn.

A view from the boreen that skirts the Northside of our own Mizen Peninsula

This week, however, we set out to explore a little corner of our land which we have, until now, neglected: the Northside of the Beara. Not too far away from us, the Beara Peninsula extends from West Cork into County Kerry and draws us like a magnet because of its dramatic scenery and inherent beauty in all weathers. Have a look at this post, for an overview of how sublime it is.

Looking towards the Northside: our route takes us through the Healy Pass and over the mountains

We headed out on the last day of September and were treated to a day of changing skies and theatrical light effects – the header picture, showing sheep on the Beara Northside, gives an example of the cloud atmospherics over the distant Ring of Kerry. We wanted to explore a corner which could easily be by-passed if you were travelling on the most direct routes through the peninsula.

Our first port of call took in the lakes at Cloonee. Finola was on the lookout for a very rare wildflower which has been seen around the shores but, after diligent searching, we concluded that we were too late in the season: we will have to return next year. That’s no hardship, of course.

Clonee Lakes – dramatic reflections and blue boats at rest

As you can see from the route map above, the terrain all around is wild and rugged. After the little settlement of Tousist the road runs mainly close to the coast and offers constant changes and contrasts. The wide panoramas across Kenmare Bay give way to small stony fields, some guarded from the prevailing weather by heavy-duty walls, then occasionally diving inland to briefly present an unexpected tree tunnel or tumbling stream. Always, the road is not far from an indented shoreline unpredictable in its many twists and turns.

The edge of the land – in this part of the Beara at least – is more heavily populated than the Mizen or Sheep’s Head Northsides. The small townland of Kilmakilloge, in particular, offers a substantial harbour, a bar and cafe ‘serving food all day’ (Helen’s Bar), a large cemetery in which it is possible to glean the part played by this little settlement in the whole history of Ireland, and the slopes of a geological wonder – the 330 metre high Knockatee Mountain. Described as ‘…a small hill with a massive view…’, this green-grey sandstone and purple siltstone mass is a spectacular backdrop to the burial ground: we didn’t climb it on our day out but it is evidently well worth it for the vistas it provides! Another good reason for us to revisit the area.

Approaching Derreen Gardens (you’ll find it described in this post), our excursion is close to the finishing line. The Beara is well supplied with hostelries, which seem to be surviving in spite of the Covid-19 difficulties, and one you shouldn’t miss is An Síbín, near Lauragh. I’m always amused by the old petrol pump there, which looks as though it should provide you with a fill-up of Murphy’s Draught! This is also the point where you have to decide which way to return home. In our case it was back over the beautiful Healy Pass: who wouldn’t want to look out again over those amazing views in all directions?

Friendly sheep have the right of way as we traverse the hairpins on the Healy Pass, heading back to the Mizen

It’s an easy day out for us – and we certainly can’t get enough of the Beara! If you have the chance, explore the Beara Northside yourselves!