A small pair of cannons sit on the front steps at Florence Court. The owner won them in a drunken bet and carefully positioned them to point at their previous home, Castle Coole. This was a deliberate insult to Earl Belmore, reminding him of the treasures he had lost every time he visited.
Florence Court and Castle Coole lie just 10 miles apart, near the town of Enniskillen. Both look very similar from the outside with a central house flanked by colonnaded walkways. The walkways served little purpose and were mainly added to make the houses look more impressive, a theme that continued throughout. But, which one is better? We visited both to find out.
Gardens At Florence Court
Fire At Florence Court
In 1953, the National Trust took over Florence Court and opened it to the public. In the interests of fire safety, one of the first things they did was to install electric lighting. Sadly, this backfired quite spectacularly when an electrical fault caused a fire. The fire destroyed parts of the house and the water pumped in to quell the flames caused even more damage. Most has been restored now though.
Entering the dining room our eyes were drawn upwards to the eagle flying around overhead. Part of an impressive Rococo ceiling, it turned out to be Jupiter, complete with a claw full of thunderbolts. We also saw tiny holes that had been drilled through the plaster. These were used to drain the water after the fire, which saved the ceiling from collapse. Surprisingly, the other major treasure in the dining room was a mustard pot. Dating from the Battle of the Boyne, it once belonged to William of Orange.
View From Florence Court
Next door in the drawing room, we took some time to admire a portrait of one of the ladies of the house. Years after the portrait was painted, the artist was recalled to add a bustle to the back of the lady's dress. Clearly a vain creature, she was keen for her portrait to keep up with the changing fashions of the time. She also looked like she was texting but we were assured that this was unlikely.
The Servants' Quarters At Florence Court
Making our way down one of the servants' tunnels, we came to the kitchen, a circular room with a bizarre ceiling. Fanning out from the central supporting pole, it felt like we were standing under a giant metal umbrella. The ceiling was designed to prevent fire spreading up to the room above, which housed the Earl's fossil collection. The Earl was more concerned about his valuables than the safety of the staff working in the kitchen.
On our way out of the servants' quarters, we passed the wine cellar. Despite having a capacity for thousands of bottles, we were more intrigued by a fearsome contraption, nearly shoulder high, in the middle of the room. We wondered whether it was a giant corkscrew or some kind of torture device. As it turns out, it was neither. So much wine was consumed at Florence Court that they bought it in barrels and decanted it into bottles themselves. The mystery device put corks into the newly filled bottles.
In The Sawmill
The Gardens At Florence Court
There was also a lot to see in the grounds at Florence Court. We wandered past row upon row of carefully cultivated vegetables in the kitchen garden. Disappointingly, the produce isn't used in the tea shop on site but supplies a local restaurant instead. We saw the ice house, an early alternative to a freezer, and came across a water-powered sawmill. Still functional, at regular intervals the blade began to spin, reaching a formidable speed as it rattled noisily.
Summer House At Florence Court
Around Castle Coole
In contrast, there wasn't much to see around Castle Coole at all. There were no formal gardens, flowers or summer houses, just a grassy lawn and a view across Lough Coole to some hills in the distance. Though this unspoiled view was so important to the Earl that he bought the hills to ensure nobody could build there.
Inside Castle Coole
Just like Florence Court however, only two of the four doors leading off the entrance hall at Castle Coole are real. The others don't go anywhere, they were just installed for symmetry and to make the house appear more impressive. Walking up the stairs, a row of animal skulls in the plasterwork seemed to watch us as we passed. This brought us to the first floor corridor. Bright and airy with a glass roof, it was designed like a Greek courtyard. The children of the house would play here while the adults could watch over them from the walkways upstairs.
From here we entered the King's bedroom. This room had been richly decorated, at great expense, in preparation for the King coming to stay. It had a grand four-poster bed and even a side room for his assistant who had to be on hand at all times. The King however, got involved with a woman during his trip and never even made it to Castle Coole.
The Servants' Quarters At Castle Coole
Down in the basement, we saw the only bath at Castle Coole. It was a deep plunge pool used exclusively by the Earl. He would ride his horse right into the house, dismount and step straight into the bath. Nobody else in the family was afforded this luxury and would have had to make do with basins of hot water.
Almost next door to the bath, we found the kitchen and the many ovens within. One range had been removed during WWII to provide metal for the war effort. A replica now sits in its place. This was installed when Miss Julie, a movie with Colin Farrell, was filmed at Castle Coole.
High above the other range was the smoking oven. The youngest member to staff, a boy of around 10 years old, was responsible for climbing the ladder to get food in and out. The young boy wasn't even allowed to sleep in the house. Instead he lived in a tunnel outside, built so servants could get to the house without being seen.
Florence Court Or Castle Coole?
The houses at Florence Court and Castle Coole were both built in the 18th Century and are very similar in design. However, they each have some unique features. The metal kitchen ceiling and the plunge pool bath are not things we have seen in any other stately home. In the end though, we preferred Florence Court. This was mainly because there was more to do in the grounds, the gardens were in full bloom and the views were better.
Florence Court And Castle Coole Travel Tips
To see inside the houses at both Florence Court and Castle Coole, you have to take a guided tour. Book your tour at the visitor reception when you arrive.
No photos are allowed inside either house. The one exception at Florence Court is the Colonel's room, where you wait to meet your tour guide.
Both Florence Court and Castle Coole close over winter, usually around October to March. Check the opening times on the National Trust website before you visit.
It's possible to visit both Florence Court and Castle Coole in the same day. This can get quite expensive though. If you intend to visit more National Trust properties, it might be cheaper to get an annual membership instead.