Hidden Gems Competition - Highly Commended

Jenny Cathcart describes the Summer House at Florence Court

Pathway to Summer House at Florence Court (c) Jenny CathcartThe summer house, a delightful and unique feature in the grounds of Florence Court House in Co Fermanagh, is a place for reverie and relaxation amid the natural beauty of the Pleasure Gardens. The location for this elegant arbour, also called the heather house, was perfectly chosen, most probably by Thomas Wright (1711 - 1786) astronomer, mathematician and architect.

The mid-day sun rises atop Benaughlin mountain, beaming its warming rays directly onto the hillside summer house. The panoramic view from the summer house takes in the high blue plateau of 'Bin' and, alongside it, the peaks of the Cuilcagh range. In the valley, is a picturesque array of specimen trees and plantings, copper beeches, weeping willows, wispy pines and yew trees of the unique Florence Court variety.

Early eighteenth century plans for a sumptuous mansion named after his wife Florence Bourchier Wray were drawn up by Sir John Cole, lately titled Baron Mount Florence. The present day Florence Court House was completed between c. 1756 and 1764 by the Baron`s son, William Cole, the first Earl of Enniskillen.

Close up of Summer House at Florence Court - (c) Jenny CathcartThe crinolined ladies Cole surely found repose in the charming summer house. They probably took afternoon tea or worked their needlepoint beneath its shelter. In the only extant photograph of the house dated 1869, a bearded gentleman elegantly dressed in breeches and brimmed hat, certainly William Willoughy Cole, the fourth Earl of Enniskillen, sits proudly on the stoop. Also included are four ladies of his household. Luxuriant ivy and other foliage festoon both the forward great arch and the tripartite arches, adding to the bucolic charm of the scene.

Sadly, the summer house fell into disrepair and was raised to the ground following a period of storm damage and neglect during the second world war. Florence Court became a National Trust property in 1953 when Viscount Cole, son of the 5th Earl of Enniskillen officially handed over the keys of the family seat.

In 1993, funding became available from the Ulster Garden and National Trust garden schemes to rebuild the summer house. David Raffles, a master thatcher from the firm Raffles Brothers of Derbyshire was employed to reproduce the original 18th century design. On his first visit to Florence Court, Raffles consulted the aforesaid photograph. He located the original cobble stone floor and found the positions of the main support posts, and with this information he produced a ground plan for 'The Second Heather House'.

All of the materials, including wheat straw to recreate the perfect weave of the thatched roof were found in England. Suitable timbers for the latticed wooden framing and the intricate geometric patterns of the stickwork were felled from coppices and forests in the Midlands. Heather cladding for the outside walls was harvested from the Ashdown forest in Kent. The shell was constructed in England and shipped over to the Florence Court,  where the final assembly took place over fifteen days. In his final report, David Raffles noted that he used 7000 nails during the construction. He obviously surveyed his handywork with pride for he wrote, 'the work of man and nature fairly takes the breath away'.

By Jenny Cathcart