Kells Bay Gardens, Unearthing a forgotten garden.

July 15, 2012

The Ring of Kerry has long been one of Ireland’s main attractions. The views of ocean, bays, islands, lakes and mountains have stunned visitors for generations and the traditional 200km circuit has more magnificent views per kilometre than any other route in Europe. Since Queen Victoria visited Killarney in 1861 the route has been well explored and recorded, so it is therefore a big surprise to discover that it still has secrets to be uncovered.

One such jewel, currently in the process of being recut to take its glittering place on the Ring, is hidden in the valley leading to Kells Bay. At this point of the traditional tour, about 30km west of Killorglin and at a considerable elevation, the eyes of most visitors are drawn to the north and west. To the north, across the waters of Dingle Bay, the peaks of Caherconree, Brandon and Mount Eagle draw the eye gently westward to the Blasket Islands, then, straining across the wide mouth of the Bay, to catch a first glimpse of the Great Scellig.

Little do these visitors know that literally under their noses, lies one of Ireland’s most magnificent gardens. Kells is a Victorian garden, and the Victorian inclination to engineer and improve is evident, but in reality the visible attempt to improve the landscape thankfully peters out quickly outside the walls of the Walled Garden.

Dingle Bay is a ria , one of the great drowned river valleys of southwest Ireland. Kells is formed by the perpendicular intersection with it of a short v-shaped valley, formed by a fast flowing river, draining the mountains to the south into the bay. This river has cut a spectacular path during its short descent from Foley’s Mountain, falling 250ft in a kilometre through the estate, and the gardens take advantage of its noisy and adventurous passage. At times a rocky gorge and at other times surprisingly pastoral, the garden would be intriguing enough even without its central attraction.

The landscape was first modified by Rowland P. Blennerhasset in the mid 19th century, when a ladies walled garden, a long drive and a woodland were developed. Blennerhassett, a scion of the Tralee dynasty developed his garden at the site of a family hunting lodge. The ladies walled garden is set over three levels and has many unique features. This area offers a sheltered environment to nurture tender exotics and experiment with new species. Traditional walled gardens are set out symmetrically and have an area containing vegetables to supply the household. This is not the case at Kells where the pathways lead off in all directions, quickly disappearing into the growth, giving the garden a mysterious, possibly even an ominous feel.

Surrounding the walled garden on three sides is Kells most spectacular feature. Eight acres of primeval woodland, a mass planting of tree ferns, which has no equal in the Northern Hemisphere. The trunked ferns here are predominantly Dicksonia Antarctica and Blechnum Chilense but the discerning visitor will spot an occasional even more exotic variety. Standing amidst these prehistoric wonders, it is not hard to imagine oneself lost in the wilderness of a New Zealand national park.

This wild area has evolved through both nature and design to maximise the visual impact of the tree ferns. The sloping terrain and the density of the foliage combine to lend an oppressive, almost claustrophobic atmosphere to this part of the garden, so much so that one would not be totally surprised to see a pterodactyl flying towards the mountain, through a gap in the dense cover. For this observer, this is the heartbeat of Kells, so natural in its appearance but yet undoubtedly an accident of the design of a long lost Victorian.

The extent to which the antipodean ferns have colonised the area has to be seen to be believed. Ferns are notoriously difficult reproducers so to see these species self-propagating in an Irish environment is a rare privilege. Unfortunately, few records exist documenting the voyage from the South Seas of the original ferns and their planting at Kells. What is evident, is that these aliens have adapted to their new home like bats to caves, initially benefiting from, and now no doubt modifying, the unique microclimate of Kells.

The gardens and house have now come into the posession of Billy Alexander, well known in horticulural circles as a fern obsessive, with a particular devotion to the great trunked ferns of the Southern Hemisphere.

Since acquiring the property in 2006, Alexander has put together a small team of dedicated professionals to sensitively recover from the neglect of the intervening decades what has been hidden. Mark Collins, a local resident, tree fern expert and a dedicated collector of exotic plants has done Trojan work in separating the chaff from the wheat in the walled garden and primeval forest. He has been involved since the beginning of the project as an advisor and confidante.

Since October 2006, Jonathan Pearce and Jules Mutton a husband and wife team of plant experts with experience on the Eden Project in Cornwall and the German Tropical Islands rainforest project have resided in Kells and become attuned to its nuances. The growing familiarity of the team with the garden has allowed them, under Alexander’s direction, to expedite the development of the garden, which will be open to the general public in Spring 2008. At present it is open by appointment only.

Along the eastern boundary of the property, the river ‘in coop and in comb the fleece of his foam’ flutes through mixed native woodland underplanted with tree fern, native fern and rhododendron. An aggressive clearance scheme of the more invasive species is underway. In the future the team envision a loop walk through sixteen acres of yet to be uncovered native heath, that displays some traces of a previous design, which will link up with the magical river walk.

At this stage in its re-emergence the plans for the gardens are focussed on enhancing the key features and adding plants sympathetic to the location. The national media has already covered the arrival of a giant fourteen metre high Jubaea Chilensis, which makes an impressive spectacle viewed from the long driveway. This Wine Palm, imported from Chile and planted after a challenging logistical operation to transport it to its new home, is a clear statement of Alexander’s ambition to push the boundaries of the plants grown in Ireland. Other plants in this Palm garden will include the Central American Yuccas and succulents from the deserts of southern Africa.

The second new garden planned by the team is a Bamboo Glade. Current work includes preparing the ground and laying hundreds of metres of root barrier to manage the spread of these plants. A planting programme is being drawn up to include over forty species, the majority of them Asian. With their colour variety and growth they should make a wonderful addition to the flora of Kells.

Clearly then the work at Kells will continue for some time yet. The team is under no illusions in regard to the magnitude of their task. Some of the new plants will not survive. In a garden like this the guiding principle has to be ‘First, do no damage’. The type of painstaking work required is difficult, time consuming and expensive. The necessity to develop a sustainable project, while repairing the ravages of time, produces its own difficulties and pressures. Though the Ring of Kerry is scarcely in need of additional sparkle, nevertheless it has been so ordained that unto those that have, more will be given.

If the plans for Kells Gardens do come to fruition over the next decade it will be no surprise to hear them spoken about in the same breath as some of the other magnificent features of the Iveragh peninsula. For the horticultural expert Kells is a treasure trove of exotica, for the novice the garden is a showcase of strange and wonderful plants in a magnificent setting. To achieve for the garden an exposure worthy of their location and content as well as preserving its globally important stock of plants is a challenge that will no doubt keep Alexander profitably occupied for some time to come.