Castle Coole: Culture and nature

It’s an architectural masterpiece, widely considered one of the most important National Trust properties in the UK AND its extensive grounds have been designated as an “Area of Special Scientific Interest”. We discovered that Castle Coole in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is a rather special place indeed.

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.

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Jumping for joy outside Castle Coole, Northern Ireland

Culture

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.

Visitors on the Staircase at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh.
Visitors on the staircase at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. Photo credit: National Trust Images / Arnhel de Serra
A family in the Saloon at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh
A family in the Saloon at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. Photo credit: National Trust Images / John Millar

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.

A visitor exploring the Kitchen at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh
A visitor exploring the kitchen at Castle Coole, Northern Ireland. Photo credit: National Trust Images / John Millar

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.

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Nature

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:

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The “best climbing tree ever”, in the grounds of Castle Coole, Northern Ireland

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.

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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.

PIN IT:

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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

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

26 thoughts on “Castle Coole: Culture and nature”

  1. What a fantastic place – I’ve never heard of it but as you say it has a whole lot going for it – culture plus history plus nature and you got bluebells too! I always love looking ‘below stairs’ as my grandfather was a butler in true Downton tradition for many years. Pinned for future Northern Ireland visit! #CulturedKids

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  2. Hi Jonny. I loved your post and very timely for me as we are off on a staycation to the Fermanagh Lakes at the end of July. I had never heard of Castle Coombe, but it is on wishlist now. I’m from Norn Iron too, but I don’t know Fermanagh at all, UP DOWN !

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  3. Johnny your last comment, in reply to Katy, made me chuckle! Great post – I love it when you find a place that ticks more boxes than you’d anticipated. And that tree was clearly made for climbing! Thanks for linking up with #CulturedKids

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  4. What a gorgeous NT property! We went to Tatton Park in Cheshire last month and I did the tour of the house. It was so worthwhile as I think it’s harder to take in the history reading from sheets. The kids looked to be having a ball in that tree! #culturedkids

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  5. That is a very magical looking tree. My daughter would be all over it- she’s recently discovered how much she loves climbing trees. And I would love to see Castle Cool. I love exploring castles and old forts. #CulturedKids

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  6. What an awesome property to explore and learn. The downstairs is very Downton Abbey! Fascinating place but the tree. Oh wow, that could keep the children’s imagination entertained for ages…or as long as the rain holds off. #culturedkids

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  7. I enjoy the downstairs parts of stately homes the best usually, so fascinating to see how the real hard work was done and not just the sitting around in salons. That tree is magnificent! Looks like a great place to visit. #culturedkids

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  8. National Trust properties are great for mixing the indoors and the outdoors. I confess that I am the sort of person who would build fake doors just to keep everything balanced, so I am immediately in sympathy with this house. But the tree looks great.

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    1. Sorry to disappoint you but they already have a tenant – the family of the present Earl of Belmore, who still live in one of the wings of the house (the Earl himself apparently lives on another smaller house elsewhere in the estate). But perhaps, for symmetry’s sake, you could apply to live in the other wing? 😉

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  9. Cool indeed! National Trust properties are great, aren’t they? I love all the history and how entertaining and hands-on they manage to make culture for kids. Those grounds look wonderful and I’d love to climb that tree, let alone my kids. Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

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    1. It is definitely worth a visit. Can you believe that I grew up only half an hour away from Castle Coole but had never previously visited? It makes you wonder how many of this hidden gems are lurking in this big world, just waiting to be discovered! Thanks for reading!

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  10. Castle Coole has it all Daisy! I agree, a combo of culture and nature keeps everyone happy. My son has just discovered tree climbing so he would love the grounds. I love the grand interiors. Great find. Thanks for joining #FarawayFiles

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      1. No worries, I get it all the time ;o). In the female-dominated world of family travel blogging, most people assume that either (1) I am Daisy or (2) it is my wife that does all the writing and photography. It’s tough being a guy 😀

        And I agree with you – Castle Coole really does have it all for a family-oriented day out. We were very impressed!

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