Annes Grove: Saying goodbye to the family pile after 400 years

The Annesleys have been at the Co Cork estate since the early 1600s but as the OPW takes over, it’s time to move on

Jane and Patrick Annesley pictured at their ancestral home, Annesgrove near Castletownroche in Co Cork. The family have been there for close on 400 years. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Jane and Patrick Annesley pictured at their ancestral home, Annesgrove near Castletownroche in Co Cork. The family have been there for close on 400 years. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

 

“During a tour of the garden an American visitor asked me how long my family had lived here. When I said about 400 years he said: ‘Don’t you think that’s long enough?’ And I suppose he had a point.”

But standing among the ordered confusion of departure, Patrick Annesley adds that when he, his wife Jane and their two daughters settled at the house in 1976 it didn’t occur to him that they would be the last Annesleys to live at Annes Grove, Co Cork.

That wasn’t the plan. Instead there was always a feeling of a continuing personal relationship with house, gardens and farmland and, in Patrick’s case especially, with some of the formidable characters who had defined the house, among whom, in his childhood, had been the housekeeper Molly O’Reilly.

Now he has offered his library of horticultural books, photographs and records to the Office of Public Works (OPW) when he and Jane depart because that archive tells the story of their famous garden. “We hope that it will be returned ultimately to the house and will remain here to tell the story of when this place was alive.”

Annes Grove isn’t dead. Instead it is in the process of regeneration, although there is a finality at the house in sight of familiar rooms whose furniture is already gone to the OPW’s stores.

The noisy traffic of packers and vans emphasises the sudden clearance of spaces otherwise thronged with the remnants of 40 years of family life. This is a personal finality but there is a sense, not expressed by the Annesleys, of something larger and more resonant coming to an end.

Annes Grove in April
Annes Grove in April 

The renowned garden has been the centrepiece of the 420-acre estate over the past century. No mean endowment, but a very demanding and unexpected one. Jane and Patrick met when both were reading Classics at Oxford; they were married and working in London when the sudden death of Patrick’s father, EP Grove Annesley in 1975 led to Patrick’s agreement to manage the property on behalf of the Annes Grove Estate Co.

“Certainly it was a bit overwhelming at the time”, remembers Jane as she thinks back to the change from London to the village of Castletownroche. “What convinced me to agree to the move then was duty rather than any great affection for it. But what I did know made me feel that it was somewhere worth keeping. Such places have a spirit which comes from having one family in charge from generation to generation. It was over 40 years ago but I think that was what I felt.”

Growing old

The days when staff could still be found to manage big houses deep in the countryside were gone and Jane thought at first that there was an obligation to keep everything going. She can’t pinpoint the exact date or year in which the associated difficulties became so apparent that the search for a solution began in earnest. “Definitely at least ten years ago; it was the physical problems of living in a largely unheated 30-room house on four floors. Our experience here is that it’s difficult to grow old in an isolated place. We need now to be closer to family, and to shops, doctors, libraries, transport and entertainment.”

Their move to England meets all those requirements. “The house has 11 rooms, all much smaller, with no substantial landings or passages. The garden in Castletownroche consisted of about 30 acres, the new one is a tiny courtyard suitable only for containers, a few climbers and a table and chairs. But Patrick has become a skilled container gardener and as Annes Grove suffered so badly from cold and wind and the increasing problems of maintenance, we are philosophical about this bit of drastic downsizing!”

As entertainment is what you make of it, there is a dedicated fishing room for Patrick, whose future plans include returning to the boats along the Blackwater in Co Cork and they have held on to a small back-avenue lodge at Annes Grove. Jane will miss her work with the classical concert series North Cork Music and she herself will be greatly missed if her involvement in the annual Elizabeth Bowen commemoration service at the Bowen’s Court church in Farahy is discontinued. It may be some consolation that the house in Kent is not only close to one of their daughters but also is not far from Bowen’s former home at Hythe.

Legacy

Annes Grove was known as Ballyhimock when building began here in the early 17th century. Patrick’s grandfather, Richard Arthur Grove Annesley, inherited it in 1892 and was one of those Irish gardeners who supported the plant-hunting expeditions led by Frank Kingdom-Ward to Tibet, Yunan Province, Burma and Bhutan which brought spectacular rhododendrons and the blue poppy to Ireland, along with the primula Florindae which flourished so splendidly in the river garden at Annes Grove.

The loss of such other legacies as Belgrove and Lakelands in Cork gives added weight to Annes Grove’s claim to historical importance. “It was essentially my grandfather’s creation”, says Patrick, “although when he took over it was already notable. Thanks to him it reflects a certain era of plant introductions with the sharing of botanic discoveries and ideas and the influence of William Robinson as a garden designer giving it international significance.”

Jane and Patrick Annesley pictured at their ancestral home, Annesgrove near Castletownroche in Co Cork. The family have been there for close on 400 years. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Inevitably from their early days the property itself became the couple’s employment. Introducing an entry fee on opening the garden to the public helped to keep it all going, along with letting the farmhouse, organising shoots (pheasants all over the place for decades) and, crucially for the proper upkeep of the walled garden, borders, lawns, shrubberies, an exotic cliff walk down to the river Awbeg, and a structured annual programme of horticultural students from Europe.

Patrick’s belief in the possibilities of the estate and his growing awareness that Ireland was approaching a time when fine country houses and gardens would be left to fall into ruin, strengthened the urge to preserve Annes Grove “in one form or another”. Feeling that it simply wasn’t the family’s right to sell, he made an unsuccessful approach to the under-funded Irish Heritage Trust and subsequently began negotiations with the OPW in 2009.

The OPW designated the estate as a heritage property in 2011, but long and corrosive delays were caused by deficiencies in the enabling Finance Acts of 2007 until finally, the Annesleys could make an absolute gift of the property to the Irish State, free of any commitment to any individual or organisation.

Admiring the scope and quality of the work now being carried out on both house and grounds, Patrick’s hope for Annes Grove is that its historical importance will be asserted. “The time has come to stop being sentimental about it”, he resolves as Jane tries to practice uncharacteristic brutality on 40 years of family memorabilia spanning London life to country life in Cork. Her exhausted advice to potential down-sizers is to start rationalising possessions as soon as possible and to get a realistic and bossy friend to prevent clinging and changes of mind.

The walled gardens of Annes Grove
The walled gardens of Annes Grove

Is there, among the bubble wrap and tape, a sense of disappointment? “Yes, I think so, but I can’t put my finger on what I haven’t done.”

For Patrick the importance now is to feel that they have made the best decision possible. “We’re going to feel a sense of loss on behalf of our descendants, but we’ve run out of road. Now we’re just waiting to be confident that it’s a good idea to go.”