Fernhill is a beautifully situated estate on the slopes of the Three Rock Mountain and currently in the process of becoming Dublin’s newest public park. At present, it is only partially open on Sundays between 10am and 3pm. There is no parking available, but in the not too distant future, it is envisaged that there will be full public access, a carpark, and tea rooms, so everyone can enjoy this hidden corner of semi-rural Dublin.
Until then, you can enjoy a historic tour of the grounds of Fernhill every Sunday morning at 11.30am until September 2, 2018. There is believed to have been a hunting lodge at Fernhill since 1723, but the arrival of stonecutter Frederick Darley in 1812 led to the construction of the house that still stands today and the landscaping of the gardens.
Darley was a very prominent Dubliner, serving as High Sheriff, Lord Mayor of Dublin, Chief Magistrate of the police, and various other high offices in the city. He landscaped, shaped and planted the gardens in a style made popular by Capability Brown, who has been hailed as England’s greatest gardener who is responsible for over 170 parks and gardens. Darley created very natural-looking parkland interspersed with trees, but these were very deliberately situated to shelter the house from the prevailing winds.
After his death, his son William F Darley continued to develop the gardens. William and his father were friends with David Moore, who planted the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, and whose own father was the renowned plant collector Frederick Moore. In 1860, William Darley laid out one of Fernhill’s most distinguishing features; a long Broadwalk leading from the house to the boundary of the estate, which was specifically designed to be wide enough to accommodate three ladies in hooped skirts to walk and converse side by side as they took in the mountain air. Giant Redwood trees, which were imported from California, were planted alongside Western Hemlocks and Scots Pines.
A roadway connecting Kilgobbin with Barnacullia, which is also known as the Blue Light path, goes under the Broadwalk, as Darley excavated the land and built a bridge over the right of way. The locals were not impressed, and took Darley to court twice over the matter. Darley won, but the path remains a right of way and a well-known shortcut to the Blue Light pub to this day.
The Walker family took over Fernhill in 1934. Between 1981 and 2007, they partially opened the gardens to the public. In 2007, developer David Arnold acquired the estate for about €40 million. The house went into NAMA after the property crash. It was eventually bought by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for a very modest €4.25 million, around a tenth of its original selling price.
It will be a number of years until Fernhill becomes a full public park like Marlay or Cabinteely, but at least you can have a leisurely nose around on a Sunday morning and learn about its history. Stepaside’s secret garden won’t remain a secret for too much longer.
Free tours of Fernhill take place every Sunday morning until September 2. Meet at the temporary gates on the Enniskerry Road (R117) near the Belarmine roundabout at 11.30am. Parking available at Kilgobbin Lane.