To The Manor Born: Colebrooke Park

In the first of a new series, Jenny Cathcart visits the seat of Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough to learn about the history of Colebrooke Park and find out how the owners are shaping up for the future

Colebrooke Park, the ancestral home of the Brooke family, stands in 1000 acres, a short distance from the village of Brookeborough on the A4 Enniskillen to Belfast road. Minor approach roads meander through a leafy landscape and then, quite suddenly, a grand triumphal arch marks the entrance to the private estate.  The travel writer Robin Bryans described his arrival in 1964. 'The parkland is perfect. It is neither too wild nor too tame with the hoary oaks, trout stream and cattle sleek with summer grasses.'

At that time the 1st Viscount Brookeborough, who had just retired after 20 years as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was in residence. When he died in 1973, a sale of the entire farm machinery and stock as well as the contents of the house was necessary to offset duties and tax liabilities. Colebrooke House was to remain empty for seven years.

The Brooke family have owned lands in Fermanagh since Elizabethan times, when Captain Thomas Brooke was granted almost 30,000 acres as a reward for his part in quelling insurrection during the 1641 rebellion. The original house was built sometime between 1641 and 1700 and was named after Thomas Brooke and his wife Catherine Cole.

When Sir Henry Brooke commissioned the present building in 1824 he did his best to match the mansions built by other Fermanagh gentry. The £10,000 which were available for his new house was considerably less than the £110,000 which the Earl of Belmore invested in his neo classical mansion at Castlecoole almost 30 years earlier. The Earl had been determined that Castlecoole would outshine Florencecourt, the home of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Enniskillen. While Portland stone was imported from Dorset for Castlecoole, Colebrooke was built with local red sandstone quarried at Altawark.

In the end, William Farrell’s plan for Colebrooke presented a pleasing two-storey, nine-bay frontage. It boasted a free standing portico of four ionic columns in a brave attempt to rival a similar feature on James Wyatt’s splendid façade at Castlecoole.

The current occupants of Colebrooke, the 3rd Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough, married in April 1980 and moved into the dilapidated house in July of that year. By September, on a wing and a prayer, they found themselves welcoming their first paying guests, hunting, shooting and fishing enthusiasts. It was the beginning of a business venture designed to save the house from ruin.

Together the couple had all the attributes needed to develop Colebrooke as a farm, a business centre and a country house destination. Educated at Harrow and the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, Alan Brooke joined the British army in 1971 before inheriting the Brookeborough title from his father who died in 1987. A natural leader, he combines genteel civility with infectious enthusiasm, boundless energy, and a talent for organisation. When they were young, he and his younger brother Christopher Brooke were among the hosts at his parents’ riding school where children from Europe paid £100 a week to perfect their riding skills and learn English.

Lady Brookeborough, daughter of an eminent linen manufacturer from Ballyclare, was trained as an art historian and worked for Sotheby’s in London. She inherited her mother’s gifts for sewing, cooking and careful husbandry. At Colebrooke she quickly developed a flair for interior design, choosing all the furniture and fittings for 12 new en suite bedrooms. Single handedly she set about designing, sewing and hanging all the new curtains. Discontinued fabrics at £3 a metre were found at a shop in Hollywood, County Down. So much material was purchased by mail order from Laura Ashley that her ladyship jokes she might as well have bought shares in the company. Latterly she has been able to buy materials from Peter Jones in London.

The cool pastel tones of the paint work and fabrics – lemon yellow, aquamarine and turquoise – complement samples of original wallpaper which have been conserved and displayed in each bedroom. The bathrooms are just as spacious as the bedrooms and equally luxurious.

Back in 1980, although Colebrooke was in a parlous state, it retained some pleasing features. The entrance hall is graced by a double return staircase, its lobby dominated by a large, predominantly red and gold stained glass window, the central panel portraying a classical female figure draped in rich silks. Miraculously, the original wallpaper dating from 1834 remained intact in the drawing room, library, and billiard room. In his 1980 Pevsner guide to North West Ulster, Alistair Rowen commented: 'The plasterwork throughout the house is wonderfully crisp and generously detailed. It is perhaps at its best in the library which has a high segmental ceiling with shallow octagonal coffers.'

Despite the enormous problems they faced, Lord and Lady Brookeborough firmly believe that it is worth saving the family home, reflecting that it would have required even more courage to live nearby in the dower house at Ashbrooke and watch Colebrooke crumble away.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board contributed a small grant for certain tourist related refurbishments in the building. Paul Hyett, a London based architect, was called in. There had only ever been four baths in the entire house and a key decision was made to install a completely new water system. Ceilings had fallen down in the north wing, so new dividing walls on the upper storey were hung from the roof beams to avoid putting weight on the ceilings below. Even the baths were suspended on plates. Sadly, because the walls in the dining room were damp, the wallpaper could not be salvaged.

The reception rooms at the front of the house, darkened through neglect, were repainted with the help of scaffolding made from spruce trees felled in the grounds.

The dining room, once described by Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, as 'Golgotha', was divested of hundreds of animal horns, trophies which had been collected by Sir Victor Brooke, Lord Brookeborough’s great grandfather, who travelled around the world indulging in his passion for big game hunting.

Among the photographs still on display is a famous portrait of Sir Victor Brooke’s youngest son, General Sir Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, meeting with Churchill and Montgomery just after the British Forces had crossed the Rhine. It is noteworthy that 23 members of the Brooke family went to the front in both world wars and 18, including two of Lord Brookeborough’s uncles, died. His father, the 2nd Viscount, was wounded.

Once, during a rare black tie dinner, a serious storm blew two holes in the roof. Men in dinner suits were commandeered to haul 40 breeze blocks up ladders to help hold the roof down. The National Farmer’s Union, who insure the building, have made sure that the roof has been completely re-felted and re-lagged. Repair work has now extended as far as the yard and the stables, where the original wooden stalls and wrought iron railings have been restored.

There is no army of servants at Colebrooke. The Brookeboroughs, who essentially occupy ten smaller rooms on the garden (south) side of the house, receive and entertain guests who do not book as individuals but as group parties who stay for three or four days or longer. They rarely stay for one night. Snipe shoots are arranged from October to January.

All visitors are carefully briefed about the kind of holiday they may expect and just as importantly what they should not expect – no butler to polish their shoes, no television in the bedrooms. They will share the house with their hosts and live as they do. They will enjoy comfortable beds, warm rooms, hot water (enough to draw 27 baths at one time), good food – home produced vegetables, venison and lamb and salmon from the river, homemade breads, preserves, and biscuits - and a congenial atmosphere.

The magazine Country Life summed up the Colebrooke experience as 'a brilliant example of how comfortable an historic stately house can become in the 21st century, the ultimate in luxury'. Hundreds of effusive thank you letters received by the Brookeboroughs bear this out.

Lord Brookeborough led me on a whistle stop tour of the house and grounds. The nursery, its windowsills low enough for little people to look out, is now an ensuite bedroom. In the former schoolroom, also a bedroom, an original McDonald Gill map dated 1927 is displayed on the mantelpiece. In the park Japanese sika deer, introduced by Sir Victor Brooke in 1860, graze alongside the cattle and sheep.

We met with Lady Brookeborough in her bespoke kitchen, the homely hub of the house, formerly the servant quarters. The windows look out on a small enclosed herb garden, and an adjoining conservatory provides an airy dining area. The general manager, Kate Crane, joined us for coffee and some of Lady B’s delicious biscuits while Merlin, the beautiful black labrador looked on enviously.

Crane is a qualified arboriculturist. Among her varied tasks on the estate, she is overseeing the restoration of the walled garden. This will include the refurbishment of an A listed conservatory believed to be one of the earliest examples of William Turner’s work. Turner later created the magnificent curvilinear range conservatories in Kew and the Botanical gardens in Belfast and Dublin.

As well as the production of fruit and vegetables for the house, the garden will be used as an educational facility for Craig Sands, the head gardener, has experience of delivering courses in all aspects of horticulture. Community involvement is very much encouraged and the garden will be open to the public. Colebrooke has links with Riverbrooke, a cross border organisation which twins Brookeborough with Rivertown in County Sligo.

One of the Colebrooke gatehouses, also a listed property, has recently been restored by the Irish Landmark Trust. The modern home which Christopher Brooke and his wife Amanda have built on the site of the former gamekeeper’s house was runner up in the BBC’s competition to find Northern Ireland’s house of the year, 2010. Now Christopher is planning to refurbish Ashbrooke where he and Lord Brookeborough grew up. Designed by William Farrell at the same time as Colebrooke, it is a miniature version of the larger house.

Back at Colebrooke, life continues apace. Facilities for corporate meetings and training are constantly in use. The BBC TV series The Last Resort, screened in January 1010, was filmed here.

As I take my leave, Lady Brookeborough is in the kitchen preparing an election night dinner party for friends. The clock in the front hall strikes the hour as it has done for nigh on 200 years.

Log on to the Colebrooke Estate website for more information.