Monday, February 22, 2010

The Shell House at Ballymaloe Cookery School

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For anyone passing through Co. Cork, in Ireland who has a love for fantastic food and beautiful gardens with all sorts of hidden gems, a visit to Ballymaloe is an absolute must.

Ballymaloe house and gardens are nestled in a 400 acre estate that dates back to the early 1800’s in the rural setting of Shanagarry, East Cork. Alongside this renowned Irish country house hotel and restaurant owned and run by the Allen family for over 40 years is there famous cookery school and gardens. It is here in one of the many individual gardens of Ballymaloe that you will find the Shell House.
As you enter the Shell House garden through the gate, a straight grass path leads towards the Shell House. At the far end of the of the herbaceous border is a deceptively simple little building with a slate roof and gothic windows. When you enter it will take a moment for your eyes to adjust to the light, you then begin to realise that the exterior was indeed a deceptive, careful ploy. The walls, window sills and ceiling are encrusted with a myriad of shells. In the centre of the pebble studded floor is a circular pool of shallow clear water. This extraordinarily beautiful Shell house was Darina Allen’s idea, a surprise present for her husband Tim.
                                                  Inside the shell house
The interior of the shell house was created by the fantastic award winning shell artist Blott Kerr-Wilson in July 1995 and was completed on the 26th of October. The day before Darina and Tim celebrated their silver wedding anniversary.
During the construction
The shells that were used in the creation of this house came from many different sources. Darina had been collecting shells for many years with a vague idea of building a folly. Blott brought some shells with her and more were given as gifts when people heard about the project. Gazing upwards to the ceiling, you will notice how scallops and mussels, laid rank upon rank, increasing in size give the illusion of more light. Every shell used in the roof once encased a mussel or scallop that was consumed at Ballymaloe House or at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Ceiling of the shell house, complete with shell chandelier

Tim and Darina designed the building themselves. Tim wanted a very classical building with something completely different hidden inside to amaze and delight when you step across the threshold. Blotts own inspiration for her design came from the time she spent at the Alhambra palace in Granada.
Closeups of various details on the walls
When creating her designs, she would work out the patterns in her head and then sketch the ideas onto the wall with chalk, and she would then cement the shells on. Although Blott like to work at night, she was rarely alone. There was always someone around to watch in wonderment at the work that was progressing. An article from Gardens illustrated, wrights that, soon after Blott began work on the shell house, the school holidays began, and hordes of children descended on Ballymaloe, as her work never ceased to interest and amuse them. In the article, Blott tells “I love to work at night and they would sneak out in their pyjamas, and cycle to the field where I was working. It was just like E.T. I would see the lights of their bicycles lined up outside the shell house and hear them whispering “Shh, Shh” very loudly”
                                Closeup of shell chandelier
Another visitor who came often to review the progress was Tim's father the late Ivan Allen. He gave Blott the inspiration to turn the window sills into seat because when he would come he would sit on the sills and from there he was able to admire the emerging patterns as they were created whilst he was seated.
Sill seat for Ivan. It’s design partly accredited by the shells eaten the day before.
Ballymaloe house and gardens are a magical place, the shell house being no exception. The gardens are open to the public all year round, so do go and see it for yourself, as the memory will stay with you for years to come. Check out their website for more information

For all of those who admire Blotts amazing shell art, you can find more examples of her works on her website

Thanks to Blott and the Allen family for their kind permission for the use of Photographs and information from there lovely websites.


  1. Fascinating read..beautiful.. brilliant and magical!Wonderful post!Gorgeous photos!

  2. I have always wanted to travel to Ireland. I heard the gardens there are absolutely breath-taking. My uncle went a few years back and he is an avid gardener. He has been several times since his first visit. I am hoping to take a trip there in 2011.

  3. How gorgeous! And the romance of it sweeps me away..... :-)

  4. I honestly can't imagine having that much patience! It's absolutely stunning though!

  5. For all that it's very pretty (and definitely very clever!) I find it hard to like shell art (unlike flint). I would have liked it as a child though and would have loved to cycle there in my pyjamas - and the Alhambra reference makes sense too.


  6. Really i never seen such type of shell information ever before.

  7. How cool... although my first thought was, "I wonder how dusty those shells get?" :)

  8. This is just too amazing! I'd love to be standing in this room and taking it all in. As a mosaic artist myself I have to admire the work here and will be checking out Blott's website. Thanks so much for showing this beautiful art work.

  9. Fascinating posts you have. Nice to find a garden blog a little more unordinary:-) I added you, looking forward to more!!

    Cheers from Hillevissan, your garden designer in Stockholm, SWEDEN, wishing you a nice weekend!

  10. Hello there ! Thank you for visiting my blog : )
    This is an amazing place and the detail is awesome .. such time and effort and love poured into this work !
    Thank you for posting this and leading me to it : )

  11. What a delightful post!! Shells are so beautiful and this is an amazing work of art! A joy to see . . . thank you! Carol

  12. Beautiful work of art and such love went into this place....

  13. So amazing. I'd love to see it in person. I like the picture of the little bikes lined up outside at night, just like ET. Good thing the artist wasn't shy about working with an audience.

    The Bruno sculpture garden below is also a sight to behold. The sculptures really do look shell shocked.

  14. Thank you for showing the wonderful art of the stone.
    It is a very precious building.

    From the Far East.
    Best regards.

  15. Wonderful - reminds me of the Gaudi houses in Barcelona.

  16. That shell art is amazing! Thanks for sharing it. -Jean

  17. Certainly a magical place!
    It would be grand to travel to Irleand and see the many sites and gardens. Maybe one of these days...
    BTW, great photographs!

  18. Oh, my goodness. I like the first photo best - the way it seems to repeat the patterns of shells, with shells. There's something nicely surreal about it.

  19. It's amazing what people can imagine, and it's even more amazing what they can fulfill!

  20. I saw this garden house years ago in a magazine and it was so stunning it stayed with me, but I did not remember where it was. Thanks for bringing it back to my memory with your narrative & photos. Just amazing! Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm having a great time wandering through yours, and the stone art website is so inspiring. Beautiful art.

  21. What a fantastic structure and a great story....I love the pebble floor...gail

  22. Dear Sunny, What an intriguing place. Although I have been aware of the Cookery School for some time, I have been unaware of these most remarkable gardens until today. I have most enjoyed your entertaining and engaging posting about the whole process of the Shell House.

    I am reminded of the Grotto in the garden of 'The Menagerie' in Northamptonshire, also made of shells. I am always entranced by these constructions and admire the effort of their makers but am never certain that I should wish to live with them.

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my latest posting, through which I have now found you. I look forward to visiting again.

  23. Wow, what a lovely, magical place to be able to visit. What a creation of love it is. Thanks for sharing that.


  24. I'm making note of this wonderful place for the next trip to Ireland. We visited Helen Dillon's Dublin garden on the last trip, and their new bathroom was proudly displayed to us -- yes, covered floor to ceiling in shells! It is an amazingly beautiful thing to see up close.

  25. Oh, what a treasure. This is just breathtaking. Thank you for sharing.

  26. I like your art blog. Nice thing to share. It is really worth full.