Get in the driving seat with lovely Lisselan

Classic 315-acre estate has links to Ford founder Henry Ford, and Gold Cup winner Imperial Call, reports Tommy Barker.

Get in the driving seat with lovely Lisselan

RECOVERY is underway in the Irish country homes market — and West Cork’s Lisselan is about to test its rebound and strength.

A classic 315-acre estate, with French Chateau-esque 1850s home on Edwardian era Robinsonian gardens along the Argideen river by Clonakilty, it carries a price guide of €9 million with agents Sherry FitzGerald in Dublin and Clonakilty, jointly with Knight Frank in London.

With links to the ancestral home of Henry Ford, Lisselan coincidentally is owned by now-retired overseas businessman David Blackburn, who held UK and European franchises for Mitsubishi Motors. The family been in part-time occupation since 1990, as well as holidaying on a West Cork island on visits.

Lisselan is one of Munster’s prettiest-sited and serene homes. It was conceived along French chateau lines, to a design by Lewis Vulliamy for William Bence-Jones, who was also responsible for the garden layout — which still is such an integral part of its appeal. It was the first house built (1851, through to 1853) on the river valley grounds, notes the chronicler of Irish estates, big houses and privileged (and sometimes impecunious) families, Mark Bence-Jones in his acclaimed A Guide to Irish Country Houses. The writer was born in 1930, the year his Bence-Jones family departed from Lisselan, and its origins were tinged in family tragedy. William Bence-Jones was ‘aided’ in marking out his future family home’s foundations and rooms by his three young daughters, yet, by 1851 two of the three children had died, from scarlet fever.

After late 1800s additions by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, as well as a conservatory transported from the 1902 Cork Exhibition, Lisselan was purchased in 1930 by the pioneering entrepreneur Charles Orr Stanley of Pye Electrical fame.

This Waterford-born tycoon also had links with Sunbeam Wolsey and the Ark advertising agency, and had fought off Land Commission and Church pressures to sell Lisselan in the mid-1900s and have the estate broken up.

Although it originally had thousands of acres, it is now on a reduced but still considerable 315 acres, near the West Cork coast and 45 minutes from Cork airport and city.

Lisselan last sold in the early 1990s, to the UK-based Blackburn family, who upgraded and added other elements, such as a fledgling motor museum linking with the Henry Ford legacy, developing the challenging nine-hole golf course on 80 scenic acres (it has two trains, one an uphill funicular to ferry golfers from one hole to another), and running extensive farm and livestock enterprises.

In Blackburn control, Lisselan Farms was also the place associated with Cheltenham Gold Cup 1996 winner, Imperial Call, trained by Fergie Sutherland.

After several months being quietly prepared for its sale, and still overseen by estate manager and general factotum Sheila Lane (she received Imperial Call’s Gold Cup from the British Queen Mother) Lisslean comes to market on 315 acres, all-in, with 170 acres of pastureland, 80 acres in golf use, and 30 acres of top, sublime riverside gardens, walks, bridges and birdsong.

Its gardens feature in Shirley Lanigan’s 100 Best Gardens in Ireland, with the steep, dense rockery singled out for special visitor mention. As an estate, it has land sections on either side of the N71, and this main, prime Munster property offer follows on the 2011 sale of some 210 acres of top dairy land at Lisselan, bought for around €3m by a West Cork farm family.

It’s a package of many elements, complete with a main dry and warm-seeming house of — dare to say it — quite manageable proportions, at just shy of 11,000 sq ft. It has a feature turret wing on three main floors over basement, a distinctive presence in the master bedroom suite, in one other overhead bedroom, and in the drawing room. In the basement, it houses a WC pan.

There are also courtyard buildings, guest cottages/lodges, outbuildings used as a motor museum with a Ford flair, and a 2,500 sq ft golf club house. A nine-hole course was opened here in 1994, and extended in 2004, and the second nine holes is played off different tee boxes for a par 72 course. The picturesque setting has earned it accolades such as Fore Magazine’s “If Hans Christian Anderson ever wrote a story about a golf course, this is where he would have set it. If you want golf in another dimension, you’ll find it here.”

French influences aside, the Ardigeen river setting is Lisselan’s trump card, with the house elevated on a promontory, close to the road, facing south for river views , and the estate has a kilometre of double bank fishing, and 450 metres of single bank fishing, with small lake and ten pools. Rising in Reenascrena, and joining the sea at Timoleague/Courtmacsherry, the Argideen is best for sea trout, and salmon later in the year. The ‘catch and release’ policy on many Irish rivers has been relaxed in 2014, with 57 Irish rivers, including the Argideen, now fully open for salmon — indicating a healthy surplus.

Also on the grounds is a rubble of stones, the remains and ancestral site of the Ford family home, birthplace of the father and grandfather of Henry Ford, the pioneer of modern motoring. The Ford family had 30 acres leased here, leaving Ireland in 1847 after the Famine, and those links are also recalled in nearby Ballinascarthy with a pristine stainless steel replica of Ford’s Model T.

Country homes specialist David Ashmore, with Sherry FitzGerald in Dublin, describes the house and setting as enchanting, in a simplified French style. While the price guide is at the upper end of the scale, at €9m, he points to good Munster country sales in Waterford such as Wood House and Fort William (€7-8m) and some multi-million euro sales in Tipperary around Lough Derg, as well as West Cork’s period home Seamark in Glandore making c €4m.

While Sherry FitzGerald have links with Christies International Real Estate in UK, also on board here for international buyers at Lisselan is Alasdair Pritchard of Knight Frank, London, while Clonakilty’s Sherry FitzGerald country agent Ray O’Neill is also tasked with the sale for Blackburns; as to where a buyer comes from, is anyone’s guess right now. “But, I hope they love their gardens,” ventures keeper of the estate, Sheila Lane, who started work part time here over half a century ago, and happily found it taking over her life.

Over a 20-year span, buyers of Irish country estates average 50% Irish, and 50% overseas, and that balance scythes wildly as trends change. In 1995, it was 70% overseas buyers, by 2003 it was 70% domestic, by 2006 at Celtic Tiger roar it was 90% domestic. That reversed completely in 2012 to 90% overseas, and last year, it was coming back to some equilibrium, with 65% overseas buyers. Recent overseas buyers included the 35,000 sq ft Humewood Castle, bought by US billionaire John Malone for c €8m, and Charles Haughey’s Abbeville, sold by Sherry FitzGerald, reportedly to a Japanese-based buyer for about €5m. In a different league was Fota Resort, hotel and golf course, sold to Chinese buyers, the Kang family for €20m, and home next week to the Irish Open.

Accommodation at the altogether more homely Lisselan includes a reception hall, formal dining room, a drawing room, card room, library, basement level billiard room, Bavarian room, conservatory, gun room and kitchenette, with scope to part-excavate and lower some of the courtyard, to make for a more regal and family-friendly kitchen.

Upstairs, over two levels, are a main suite, with dressing room, a guest suite, six other bedrooms and two more bathrooms, with large landings. There’s a lovely old-fashioned feel — it’s been maintained, rather than upgraded, although the Stanley family did move out for two years in the mid-late 1940s for a two-year long overhaul, which included replastering, and the now-dashed exterior walls.

The lofty house’s lower ground floor has a staff flat, domestic offices and lots of storage, and there’s also a wine cellar, utility, laundry, etc, with second stairs from basement to top floor for servants’ use. A dumb waiter links the basement to the ground level by the dining room, a reminder of the day when cooking was out of sight, out of sound, out of scent and out of mind, save for serevic. In the Stanley heyday, maids changed coloured uniforms and aprons three times a day, for different tasks and meals, recalls Sheila Lane.

The ground floor’s original kitchen is now a games room, with full-size snooker table, and walls are covered with newspaper pages recalling the triumphs of Imperial Call, his major Cheltenham victory, and floor-to-ceiling, enlarged Irish Examiner photograph of jockey Conor O’Dwyer at his 1996 Gold Cup win.

Main reception rooms are elegant, without being overwhelming, and period features kept include good ceiling heights, with ornate cornicing and plaster roses, original open fireplaces and wood floors, and sash windows, with re-done slate roofing and ornamental finials. Nicest room is probably the oak-shelf-lined library, with each of the turret niche rooms a little eyrie.

There’s scope for modernising, admits Savills’ Mr Ashmore, and “like many trophy assets, Lisselan is a wonderful house for entertaining on a grand scale, with the floor plan flowing effortlessly throughout and both the drawing and dining rooms open out onto manicured formal gardens and terrace.” That terrace, east-facing is graced by creepers, climbing roses, virginia creeper, views down the river towards Clogagh, and moonlight.

Add in the Pear House, staff cottage and several other cottage/lodges (a number have been rented out) and “there’s ample accommodation to cater for a large number of family members, guests and staff,” say Sherry FitzGerald.

The garden aspect and access is a key attraction here, and the layout is still in the manner of Waterford-born William Robinson, in a way that combines relaxed and seemingly wild naturalised planting, a move away from earlier and Victorian formality.

It has Japanese sections, woodland walks and river weirs, a Ladies Mile walk, and planting features for all four seasons, with spring camellias and daffs, to drifts of bluebells for May, with an early summer rhododendron and azalea (the azaleas show has just peaked) garden and summer herbaceous borders. Backed and sheltered by woodland, the 30 acres of gardens include eye-catching wood bridges, a rose-wreathed pergola, statuary, fountains, jets and ponds, and trees include Japanese maple, pines, spruce and holly, with acacia, myrtle, robinia and a flowering Tulip tree opposite the main door. There’s also a century-old conservatory, liberated from the 1902 Cork Exhibition on the Mardyke and happily reassembled here by Reginald Bence-Jones (who also added the 1907 library) and walled garden with fruit, herb and vegetable sections too.

Lisselan flies the flower flag for West Cork, as the signature fuchsia plant, emblem of this part of the county is represented in an array of varieties in its grounds. Its fuchsias have even been recognised (and supported) by the European Fuchsia Society — and the estate’s a prized (and pricey) flower in its own right.

The estate is a few miles from Clonakilty town, home to sandy beaches, restaurants and bars, an area that’s a paradise for those who relish the outdoors — if they can wrench themselves away from garden duties and joys.

VERDICT: There a whole lot of elements in the mix, from house to garden and golf and farm. A trophy buy, in a winning setting.

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