Walking through history of Castle Coole - Queen Anne Tour

Artist's impression of the Queen Anne House at Castle Coole

Castle Coole is widely recognised as one of the finest neo-classical houses in Ireland. While the 18th century mansion is the longest standing, it was not the only historic house which called the famous Fermanagh estate its home. It was in fact the third historic house which belonged to the Enniskillen parkland. Unearth the story of three historic houses hiding in plain sight.

The history of Castle Coole

Prior to the building of the current Castle Coole in the 1790s, the Enniskillen estate was home to two other historic houses. Evidence of these houses remain through some prominent earthworks. Sited near the Pump House, it is the only structure which remains today. It is very likely that the footings or foundations of these demolished houses still survive below the ground. As part of the building of the Queen Anne House, a double oak lined avenue was also created as an entrance. This remains the main entrance to the parkland today, with a few of the ancient oaks still lining the drive.

The Pump House at Castle Coole
The Pump House at Castle Coole
The Pump House at Castle Coole

The Tower House at Castle Coole

The first building at Castle Coole was a defensive structure. Built in 1611 by Captain Roger Atkinson, this fortified tower house took its name from the lough on the estate which was known as Lough Coole. Historical references recount attacks on the tower house, then known as Castle Atkinson, in the 1640s and 1689. This house was subsequently sold to the Corry family (later the family of the Earl of Belmore). As the family enjoyed increased prosperity in the 17th century, Col. James Corry inherited the land from his father. The 76-year-old Col. decided to build himself a new home on the site of the existing tower. His ambition would make major developments to the estate. His new house would become know what we know as the Queen Anne House.

The Queen Anne House at Castle Coole

Though nothing now remains of the first grand house of the Corry family, we know it was built  in c.1709-10 by Irish architect, John Curld. Copies of his plans and elevations survive in the collection of Lord Belmore. These drawings tell us is that this was a somewhat conservative house for its date. Made of red brick in the style of an English villa with Dutch architectural features, it was accompanied by a large walled deer park which was also mostly lost. 

The seven-bay façade of two stories height featured a dormered attic in a high wide-eaved roof and had four tall chimney stacks. The key to the plan of the ground floor notes ;passage to the now dwelling house' which helps pinpoint the location of the earlier 17th century tower house which would have been enclosed in a bawn to the north side. A description of the house from 1718 mentions it had ramparts and gates for defence. Curld's elevation drawings of the ground floor plan also show a walled courtyard to the west front of the house, again this may have been enclosed by a gate. Surviving estate records detail the extensive repairs which were needed to the house, including re-slating and painting, were carried out in 1780 by Armar Lowry-Corry.

The most striking feature of this old estate was not the house, but the formal gardens which followed in the mid-1700s. Flower beds were laid out in a symmetrical pattern connected by paths. The impressive gardens also included, a sunken bowling green, orchards and a water garden. The magnificent man-made water garden featured a boating lake in the shape of a banjo with canals flowing in and out of it. Parts of canal can still be seen in the landscape today. These earthworks are frequently cited and referred to as a defining type-site for this form of gardening. This makes the landscape at Castle Coole a special archaeological discovery as it is ‘the most complete archaeological survival in Ulster of an 18th century formal garden layout’.

An archaeological discovery 

While there are earthwork traces of early gardens across Northern Ireland, few can match the complexity, completeness and preservation of those at Castle Coole. Lying as they do at some distance from the later grand house their ‘reading’ in the landscape has not been badly compromised by later landscaping schemes. The importance this infers is reflected in the earthworks site being designated as a Scheduled Monument.

Aerial photo showing the formal gardens earthworks at Castle Coole including the sunken parterre
Aerial photo showing the formal gardens earthworks at Castle Coole
Aerial photo showing the formal gardens earthworks at Castle Coole including the sunken parterre

We can read the features of this garden by a combination of 18th century estate maps, the physical traces of the earthworks on the ground and the results of geophysical surveys carried out in 2015. To the east of the position of the Queen Anne house, are two large sunken square areas, one of which was a Bowling Green and the other a decorative parterre. North of this and on a higher level was another parterre. A Flower Yard, Orchard and Melon Ground were also arranged to the south side of the former house.

The formal garden which once adorned the setting for a Queen Anne period house contains most of the major features of a garden of this time. These include a formal geometric layout with an axial arrangement of linear features with the house. The Oak Avenue, which still survives as the approach to the present house, leads in a straight line to the Queen Anne house, beyond which the line is carried on by a banjo-shaped canal. The arrangement of farm buildings, orchard and gardens in intimate association with the house is today in strong contrast to the neo-classical mansion, set in splendid isolation.

The Bowling Green and the Sunken Parterre consist of excavated terraces on the low ridge on which the former house once stood. The Bowling Green is not designated as such on the c.1783 estate map but has always been known by that name and it is reasonable to accept that this was its function. The Sunken Parterre is separated from the latter by a bank 12m wide and 1.5m high. The 1783 map also shows a double row of small trees or bushes along this. Access to the Parterre was from the narrow terrace running parallel with the house by a semi-circular ramp, which was probably stepped. The parterre contains a walkway which consists of a central circle within a larger concentric one and from its centre linear walkways radiate, surviving today as low earthworks and which show up particularly well from the air. The northern parterre is approximately 1.6m higher than the latter and on the unaltered natural land surface. It is divided by wide walkways into five triangles and one square. A low edging hedge around these is indicated on the old maps. The ‘Banjo’ Canal measuring c.250m long by 25m wide is first depicted on the c.1783 estate map.

Artists impression depicting the layout of the Queen Anne house and formal gardens at Castle Coole around the 1760s, viewed from above the banjo canal looking west
Artists impression depicting the layout of the Queen Anne house
Artists impression depicting the layout of the Queen Anne house and formal gardens at Castle Coole around the 1760s, viewed from above the banjo canal looking west

Unfortunately, in 1797,  just as the present house was near completion, the Queen Anne house burnt down, reputedly caused by an ashpan left on the staircase. This forced the family to move into their new neo-classical mansion earlier than expected.

A new house

The new and current house at Castle Coole was furnished with what had been salvaged from the flames. Built in 1798 by architect James Wyatt, the new mansion was accompanied by the Grand Yard in 1817. The Grand Yard, which can still be explored today, was created by architect Richard Morrison, alongside the creation of a wider landscape park in the Brownian style between 1780 and 1820.

Sadly, the formal gardens from the Queen Anne House were eventually allowed to return to nature to compliment the parkland setting of the ‘palace in the park’. Today, we can enjoy watching the cows and sheep which sustainably graze this protected site.

Visiting

Volunteers at Castle Coole are looking forward to resuming their tours of the Queen Anne site as soon as the opportunity allows.