Monday, 12 August 2019

Castle Coole

I love a National Trust Scone roadtrip but I'm never prepared for each of the properties. If I set off to visit one single place for the day, I know everything about it in advance - I know where it is, what it looks like, the name of the third Earl's second favourite horse etc.

A roadtrip is totally different. And so it was on Day Two of my Grand National Trust Scone Tour of Northern Ireland. I turned up at Castle Coole in Enniskillen not knowing whether it was a ruin or Buckingham Palace.


Castle Coole

It turned out to be the greatest Neo-classical country house in Ireland - I actually did a double take when I walked round the corner and caught sight of it. It's huge.

You have to join a guided tour to see the house, as with most Northern Ireland properties. I have developed a new-found respect for NT tour guides this week - the first group I joined at The Argory included a man who kept asking worrying questions about whether items ever got stolen, while the second guide at Florence Court had to shout over a chatty baby (the baby disappeared at some point - I'm hoping that this was a voluntary arrangement). But at Castle Coole the tour leader had to fit 400 years of history into an hour while keeping a beady eye on two bored French kids who kept shoving each other into the antique fireplaces. I was a nervous wreck so I've no idea how she did it. 

Anyway, this is what I managed to learn:

Castle Coole was built in 1789-1797
The 1st Earl of Belmore, Armar Lowry-Corry, decided to build the house to show off his social status. He initially engaged the services of a Dublin architect called Richard Johnston but replaced him with James Wyatt, brother of Samuel who had worked on Blickling and Shugborough. James Wyatt was the king of Neo-classical design, with all its focus on balance and symmetry. In practical terms, this means a lot of fake doors - they don't open and are just there to balance up another door that does actually work.

The Corrys had arrived in 1641
John Corry was a Scottish merchant who had settled in Belfast. In 1655 he bought the Manor Coole, which included a castle built in 1611 during the Ulster Plantation. It burnt down during the siege of Enniskillen in 1688 and was rebuilt in 1707, then rebuilt again in the 1790s by Armar.

Divorce in the family
Armar's first wife had a son but she died young. His second wife was Lady Henrietta Hobart, daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It was a political match - he became Lord Belmore as part of the deal - but she was 22 years younger than him and wasn't consulted about it. She hated Castle Coole and she hated Armar and so, after just one year of marriage, he demanded a separation. They both remarried.

Somerset Lowry-Corry designs the furniture
Armar died in 1802 and his son, Somerset, inherited Castle Coole and became the 2nd Earl Belmore. It had never been properly furnished, as his dad had run out of money on the build. Wyatt's style was now out of fashion and so Somerset began filling the place with Regency luxury furnishings, as well as souvenirs from his extensive travels in Egypt. He got into debt and ended up as Governor of Jamaica, which went wrong after a rebellion.

He built a State Bedroom...but George IV didn't turn up
Poor old Somerset also designed a bedroom for King George IV when he heard that His Majesty was coming to Ireland shortly after his coronation. It sounds like Somerset was the only person in Europe who didn't know that the King had a thing going with the Marchioness of Conyngham and that the royal entourage would be heading straight to Slane Castle so he could meet up with her. The unvisited bedroom remains intact and untouched. The guide told us that only one person had ever slept in it. We asked who. "Oh just the Archbishop of Armagh".

Another Somerset takes over
The third Earl of Belmore died young, which meant that his son, Somerset, inherited at the age of nine. The estate was deeply in debt but his mother and grandmother managed to rescue it. He eventually became Governor General of New South Wales.

The house was acquired by the National Trust in 1951 (but not the contents)
Somerset had 13 children, but the 5th and 6th Earls never married and so Castle Coole passed to his great nephew. He couldn't afford to run it and so the house was acquired by the National Trust. The 8th Earl, born in 1951, still lives on the estate. It always ruins it a bit when you can't take any photos inside the house at all, especially when the property is so magnificent, but John owns all of the contents and them's the rules.


Castle Coole

Let's move on to things that I was able to photograph. If I were a betting woman, I would have put a considerable amount of money on this scone being terrible. It was small and it looked rock hard, possibly even stale. My mind was scrambling for positives as I carried it to my table - 'at least the tea room is very nice' was about the extent of it. 

I cut into it and realised that this was probably going to be the third time in National Trust Scone Blog history that I had to actually take the scone back for being inedible (Penrhyn Castle and Baddesley Clinton being the other winners of that illustrious title, although Coleton Fishacre came close).

But I was WRONG, viewers. I bit into the scone and it wasn't stale. I tried a bit without cream and it tasted very nice. I'm not 100% certain that it had been baked today but the cherries had stopped it from drying out and it was actually delicious. 

Castle Coole scone

Cherry scones are definitely all the rage in Northern Ireland this year - I also had one at The Argory and another at Crom yesterday. I'm not complaining though - I've decided that cherry is The Third Way when it comes to scones and every property should offer them.

Castle Coole: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5 - it was a bit small
Eyes-in-back-of-head super-power of tour guide: 5 out of 5

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