Florence Court

Florence Court

Florence Court estate

Florence Court estate

There is something for all the family at this warm and welcoming 18th-century property, the former home of the Earls of Enniskillen. The house enjoys a peaceful setting in west Fermanagh, with a dramatic backdrop of mountains and forests. There are glorious walks to enjoy, as well as fine vistas and play areas. There is even a charming walled garden. Every aspect of life in this classical Irish house, with its fine interiors and exquisite decoration, are brought to life on fascinating guided tours. Outside there are numerous places to explore, including a sawmill, ice house and thatched summer house.

 

The history of the building of Florence Court is subject to conjecture and the current house was built in at least two, if not three, phases. The first house on the site was built by John Cole, Esq. (1680–1726) and named after his wife Florence Bourchier Wrey (died 1718). She was the daughter of Sir Bourchier Wrey, 4th Baronet (c. 1653–1696) of Tawstock, Devon. Her grandmother was one of the earliest English women to bear the name, Florence Rolle (1630–1705), the daughter and heiress of Denys Rolle (1614–1638), of Stevenstone and Bicton in Devon. An anonymous history of Fermanagh written in 1718 describes John Cole's house as being 'very costly and sumptuous' but in 1739 Rev. William Henry described this building as being 'but small, being only the left wing of a grand building, designed by Mr Cole, which he did not live to execute'.

The architects of the current house are unknown. The central block was built first and various dates from 1730 to 1764 are proffered for its construction. It has been attributed to the German architect Richard Castle who worked at nearby Castle Hulme in 1728-9 and Florence Court shares similarities with some of Castle's other Irish houses. An estate map of 1768 shows the central block, standing alone, as having a heavily framed oculus window (in place of the current pair of windows and large, squat niche) on the second floor. This was a recurring device in Castle's work. Were Castle involved, dating the initial phase of building to 1730 may be plausible. On the other hand, Mr Henry's account nine years later does not mention there being a new house, lately built. Rowan suggests the plans could have been drawn up by Castle, but not executed until a much later date, pointing to the 'old fashioned' style of the house; and reflects that 'the design, for all its charm, is far too gauche for [Castle]'.

The baroque plasterwork in the library and study at the front of the house appear to date from an earlier period to the rich rococo plasterwork in the dining room, drawing room and stair hall on the western side of the house, and the floorboards in these two rooms differ in width from those elsewhere in the house. It is conjectured that the central block may have been completed in two phases, with the rooms at the back of the house, along with the Venetian room, finished by 1764, when John Cole's son, Lord Mount Florence, held a famous housewarming party.

The colonnades and pavilions were built c. 1771 and are attributed to the Italian engineer and architect Davis Ducart. These are built of dressed sandstone as opposed to the rendered limestone rubble of the central block. The south and stable yards are by the mason Andrew Lambert. The Introduction to the Enniskillen Papers proposes there may have been an addition stage to completing the front we know today, pointing out that the heavily rusticated window dressings may have been 'an afterthought by another, less accomplished hand'. They do not feature on the facade shown on the 1768 estate map; the introduction suggests further work may have been 'a vain attempt to harmonise [the central block] with the sophisticated cut-stone of the links and pavilions'.

Whether there was a final phase is a matter of conjecture. The 1979 National Trust guidebook points out the similarity between the unusual pedimented doorcase at Florence Court with the doorcase of the now vanished Nixon Hall near Bellanaleck (built c. 1780). Major improvements were made on the estate c. 1778–80. These included the landscaping of the park by William King and his laying out of the new drive, and the building of the Grand Gates. Florence Court was the seat of the Earls of Enniskillen until 1973. The 5th Earl of Enniskillen transferred the house and fourteen acres surrounding it to the National Trust in 1953. In 1955 a devastating fire destroyed the upper floors of the house. Sir Albert Richardson was entrusted with leading the National Trust's restoration and extensive efforts have since returned Florence Court to much of its former glory. Some rooms on the upper floors, however, remain closed.

 

Early on the morning of 22 March 1955, a fire broke out on the first floor landing at Florence Court, adjacent to Lady Enniskillen's bedroom. Whilst fire brigades almost had control of the fire by 9 a.m., dry weather conditions helped re-ignite the blaze. Flames reached the roof of the building which crashed down into the hall, so that by the evening around two-thirds of the Florence Court interior lay in ruins. Lady Enniskillen, born Mary Cicely Nevill of the Marquesses of Abergavenny, discovered the fire, which broke out during one of her husband's rare absences from home. After rushing downstairs to the servant's quarters to raise the alarm, she went to nearby Killymanamly House to telephone the elderly 5th Earl of Enniskillen] (1876–1963), who was at the Ulster Club in Belfast, to tell him that the house was on fire. He is said to have cried "What the hell do you think I can do about it?".

Much of the damage to the interior of Florence Court was caused by the gallons of water pumped onto the flames. The Dining Room, with its exquisite plasterwork decoration, was saved only by the prompt action of local builders Bertie Pierce and Ned Vaughan who, on the instructions of Viola Grosvenor, later the Duchess of Westminster, drilled six holes in the flat part of the ceiling to allow the water which had accumulated on the floor above to quickly drain away and thereby preventing ceiling collapse. Two of these holes are still evident in the Dining Room today. The fire was only one of a series of events in the 1950s and 60s at Florence Court which marked the end of an era for the house and family. Following World War II falling agricultural prices, rising wage costs, death duties and a drastic reduction of the size of the demesne, the lifestyle of the 5th Earl of Enniskillen and his second wife Mary (née Nevill), was increasingly difficult to sustain. To secure the long-term future of the house, Lord Enniskillen gave Florence Court to the National Trust in 1953. It was opened to the public the following year.

In 1956, the 5th Lord Enniskillen's only son and heir Michael, Viscount Cole, died suddenly aged 36; he was unmarried. In 1961, as the restoration of the house was nearing completion, Hurricane Debbie devastated the estate. In 1963, the 5th Lord Enniskillen and his wife, Lady Enniskillen, died within three months of each other. The 5th Earl, upon his death, was succeeded by his nephew, Captain David Lowry Cole, M.B.E. (1918–1989), in 1963, who became The Rt. Hon. The 6th Earl of Enniskillen. David Enniskillen (as he was popularly known) had spent much of his life in the Colony of Kenya, having been elected a member of the Legislative Council of Kenya in the early 1960s, just before independence. In 1955, he was divorced from his first wife Sonia (née Syers), stepdaughter of his uncle the 5th Earl (who died in 1963 with his wife, Sonia's mother). By her, he had issue: one son and one daughter.

David Enniskillen and his second wife, Nancy, Countess of Enniskillen (née Nancy MacLennan; formerly a diplomat with the United States Foreign Service), moved back to Florence Court, living there from 1964 until 1973. In that year, in the early years of The Troubles, the Earl and Countess of Enniskillen left Florence Court, moving over to Kinloch House in Kinloch, Perthshire, in Britain. David Enniskillen thus became the last Earl of Enniskillen to actually live in Florence Court. He was succeeded by his only son Andrew, who became The 7th Earl of Enniskillen in 1989. Andrew Enniskillen continues to live on a vast estate in Kenya.

 

The house features exquisite Rococo decoration and fine Irish furniture, many pieces of which were acquired for the property by the National Trust and others loaned from other Irish houses. The majority of the original furnishings were removed when the Cole family moved to Perthshire in 1973 but many were returned at the bequest of the Dowager Countess of Enniskillen on her death in 1998.

The house is framed by Benauglin and Cuilcagh mountains in an 18th-century landscaped park, laid out c. 1778–80 by William King. The 18th century walled garden (extended in the 1870s) includes a rose garden, the Rose cottage (the former head gardener's residence, now let by the National Trust as a holiday home), orchards and a working vegetable garden . A working water-powered sawmill stands in the pleasure garden and nearby are a carpenter's workshop and Victorian hydraulic ram used for pumping water uphill to the house. The grounds also contain an ice house, the eel house bridge and a natural spring well. The pleasure garden contains displays of both temperate and semi-tropical plants, most notably Rhododendrons in abundance.

The Larganess and Finglass rivers flow through the estate, most of which is occupied by pasture and forestry, principally Larch. The Glen Wood nature reserve is a semi-natural oak woodland conserved by the Forestry Service near to the old deer park on the edge of the estate. The most notable tree on the estate is the Florencecourt Yew, the survivor of the two original specimens of Irish Yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata) discovered in 1764 on nearby Cuilcagh mountain. As the Irish Yew can be propagated only from cuttings, this tree and its sister (which died in the 1860s) are the progenitors of all Irish Yews found across the world.

 

After the quiet of winter, Florence Court starts to get a little noisy in spring. Birdsong can be heard again. frogs spotted and plenty of spring flowers are in abundance including the cheery daffodil. The woods around Florence Court are filled with birdsong at this time of year at the beginning of the breeding season. Resident robins, blackbirds, thrushes and wrens are joined by migrant warblers like chifchaffs and blackcaps. The chiffchaff has a distinctive call that sounds just like a repetition of its name. Ponds become noisy places as the male frogs wake up from their winter hibernation and croak to attract females. You might spot the frogs on their way to various ponds across the estate, or witness some of the splashing activity for yourself in the pond in the Walled Garden, producing masses of frogspawn. At the tail end of spring you'll start to see the young frogs disperse.

You might spot the odd bee out and about, these are often the large queen bees that have slept peacefully through the winter. Butterflies and caterpillars also start to appear with the caterpillars providing a vital food source for breeding birds like the blue tit. A new addition to the estate, the great spotted woodpecker begins to 'drum' to attract mates in spring. Both male and females take part in the activity. If you're lucky enough to spot them at Florence Court, you might witness the elaborate courtship ritual of the male bird as he performs a spiralling chase around the tree.

 

The visitor can enjoy home made delights in the Stables restaurant and the Coach House shop offers a range of gifts. There is parking available, 200 yards from the house. Dogs are welcome on leads in the garden and grounds. Baby-changing facilities are available. Baby back-carriers admitted. There is a children's play area. Front-carrying baby slings for loan. There is a children's quiz/trail. There is separate mobility parking with a drop-off point. There is an adapted toilet in the house beside the shop. A Braille Guide is available. There are four steps to the entrance of the building, a ramp is available. Two wheelchairs available. The Ground floor is fully accessible. Partly accessible grounds with some slopes and some cobbles. There is a Map of accessible route. One single-seater PMV is available. Assistance dogs are welcome.

 

Location : Florence Court, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, BT92 1DB

Transport: Londonderry (NI Rail) then bus (at least 2 hours). Bus Routes : Ulsterbus 192 to Creamery Cross (2 mile walk).

Opening Times : House - Daily, 11:00 to 17:00; Grounds - Daily, 10:00 to 19:00

Tickets House Tour: Adults £4.09; Children £2.27

Tickets Garden/Forest Park: Adults £6.00; Children £3.00

Tel: 028 6634 8249