Nature or culture? Culture or nature? A hike to the peak of the Cliffs of Magho, or a visit to a stately home? What to do during our afternoon in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland? Culture or nature?
Glancing upwards, the indecisive mood of a heavily overcast sky made our own decision much easier. Culture it was. Castle Coole, on the outskirts of Enniskillen.
But what we didn’t realise at the time was this: we had made a great choice. We had inadvertently chosen culture AND nature.
Generally regarded as a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, Castle Coole is (mostly) the work of the venerable architect James Wyatt, as commissioned by the first Earl of Belmore in the late 18th century. Symmetry and purity must have been the keywords of the architectural brief: almost every feature – inside and out – has a perfect counterpoint, leading to a clean, graceful and ultimately coherent feel throughout the entire building. The obsession for balance is perhaps most apparent inside the house, where many of the rooms have a “dummy” (fake) door or three, each serving no purpose other than to “stick with the theme”.
Symmetry and purity – The interior of Castle Coole (all photo credits: National Trust Images)
A guided tour of this harmonious stately home could – I suppose – have become rather stale, but our guide did a great job of mixing the high-brow classical stuff with some interesting anecdotes: the bedroom fitted out for the visit of King George IV, for example… who duly failed to show up (the bed is still made); the long scratch on the floor caused by clumsy workmen moving the piano; the ancient artefacts in the library, suspiciously “acquired” by one of the first Earls of Belmore during his travels around the Mediterranean rim, etc. In short, the tour was engaging enough to hold the attention of my eldest son (11) throughout its entire one-hour duration.
Perhaps most interesting of all was the continuation of the tour “downstairs” to the servants’ quarters, where dozens of staff once scurried to meet the whims of their upper class masters. Down here is pure Downton Abbey: communal staff dining room, an intricate system of call bells (currently under repair) and an atmosphere still charged with the ghosts of gossip and the cruelties of class division.
The tour finishes through an 80 metre-long tunnel, leading to the stables and working yard. This impressive and surprising feature is not some architectural folly, but was installed – again – for the preservation of aesthetic purity: servants, tradesmen and deliveries accessed the house via this tunnel so as not to pollute its “perfect” setting. With extravagances such as this, it is little wonder that this “castle” cost a “cool” +/- €25 million (in today’s money) to build.
The tour over, Ash and I emerged from the tunnel to find that the younger kids had been exploring the grounds – and had an exciting discovery to share with me.
“Daddy, Daddy! We’ve found the best climbing tree EVER!“
I initially thought they were exaggerating but, no, I do believe they were absolutely correct:
A partially-collapsed, hollow chestnut tree, its limbs and boughs spreading over the woodland like an immense beached octopus. A wonderland of a tree.
As the kids played, I took a closer look at my surroundings and realised something: the grounds of Castle Coole are full of incredible trees. I didn’t know this at the time of our visit, but the parkland surrounding the mansion has been designated as an “Area of Special Scientific Interest”*. Careful management over hundreds of years has created an environment where trees are “open grown”, i.e. given the space to develop their magnificent potential without the constraints of forest-like competition.
These centuries-old trees – oak, beech, sycamore, chestnut and more – in turn provide the perfect habitat for a multitude of species of lichens, fungi and “creepy crawlies”, some of which are uncommon in Ireland. And the best way to enjoy this magnificent environment is simply to stroll around it on the well-marked and extensive trails.
We had been lucky with the weather, but as the skies darkened threateningly once again we realised that all the other visitors had gone home. All alone in this perfect symbiosis of nature and mankind, we begrudgingly accepted that our visit to Castle Coole had come to an end. A quick (legal) shortcut, a mild dash, and we were back in Daisy the bus just before the heavens opened.
We never made it to the Cliffs of Magho.
Practical information for visiting Castle Coole
- Castle Coole is located just outside Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, on the main road (A4) towards Belfast. It is well-signposted.
- The house has rather limited opening times: summer and guided tour only. It is best to check on the National Trust website beforehand.
- The excellent tour cost us GBP6.00 for adults and GBP2.50 for children. However, we would not particularly recommend the guided tour for children under 8 years old (unless they are exceptionally patient).
- Photography is not permitted inside the house.
- The grounds are open year-round (seasonal opening hours apply). A family ticket cost us GBP9.00.
- Mrs Daisy the bus spent some time (and money) in the gift shop while I relaxed in the adjoining café. Both of us were very content.
- To find the magnificent “climbing” tree, stand with your back to the entrance to the house and walk down the path on the right. It is one of the first trees you’ll come to in the woodland only a few hundred metres from the house.
* Apology: If I had known in advance about the “Area of Special Scientific Interest” designation, I may not have let my children play on the chestnut tree for fear of environmental damage. But there were no signs and we were certainly not the first family to discover this magnificent tree: in fact, photos of children enjoying it (or a very similar tree) can even be found in the National Trust image collection.
Daisy the bus visited Castle Coole in April 2017.
All photos and text (c) 2017 Jonathan Orr