Tommy Barker admires a lovingly-restored house in Co Cork which is stuffed with architectural gems.
Bandon, West Cork €820,000
Size: 373 sq m (4,000 sq ft)
Bathrooms: 4 +swimming pool
Pictures: Denis Minihane
LIKE any good Gothic thriller, West Cork’s intriguing Gurteen House comes with many chapters, griffins, gargoyles, and assorted stone carvings, some fantastic work by masons (of the hammer and chisel kind), pairings and partings, a mystery or two, plus a monster, possibly a ghost, and is back in startlingly good health, after a 50-year hiatus when it lay idle and unoccupied.
Oh, and apart from a history spanning 170 years, and a design by acclaimed 19th century Cork architect WH Hill, it now has a lap swimming pool in its basement, and hydrothermal/geothermal heating, most of it delivered underfloor.
Gurteen House is one of the more engrossing period places to visit, or to consider buying.
It’s on six acres with a stream, a pond, old outbuildings, and croquet lawn, and is only a few miles from Bandon and half an hour from Cork city and airport.
And yet, it’s a world away from the banal and the humdrum, home-hunting herd. Read on.
Dating to c 1851, stoutly-built of sandstone and lots of red Cork marble from East Cork, and generously festooned with stone carvings, from the very fine regal heads to the fantastic and grotesque, it has construction links to the Gothic revival-style St Peter’s Church of Ireland, on a high commanding plinth in Bandon town.
St Peter’s was design by an architect Welland, and overseeing its build was WH Hill, a friend of the Earl of Bandon and an acclaimed engineer and architect.
Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe is a proud descendant of Hill lineage, and has engagingly discussed his role in also apparently building Gurteen House with its current owners and saviours, the South African-born Richard and Anita Tarr.
Storytellers to their fingertips, as well as accomplished renovators, the couple and their children, moved to the derelict Gurteen House in 2005, having sold a Georgian home in Laois.
Richard’s a computer programmer, Anita’s a writer, and when they bought, Anita kept telling the children it was all just one big adventure: which, to be fair, it has been....
Richard nonchalantly recalls allowing their son to drive the digger when he was aged just five years “but he was warned not to go near the house with it!”
Age five? Most other parents would balk at a child on a mini-quad at that age, but as a result their son (who’s only now in secondary school) is a demon with a digger.
Despite its Gothic grandeur and acreage and most private setting, the surprise is that Gurteen House is actually a pair of semi-detacheds, though of entirely different character.
To the left is a Georgian home of c 3,000 sq ft, dating to the 1700s and which featured here a few years ago for sale on two acres, at €490,000.
That left part is now back on the market, with estate agent Roy Lee of Bandon who guides at €435,000, and Mr Lee also is selling the home on the right hand side for the Tarrs, at a guide of €820,000, down from an initial higher sum when offering this multi-faceted property mix some months ago.
It’s understood that an early Gurteen (it means ‘little field’) resident, County Surveyor Nathaniel Jackson was involved in the redesign of the 1700s section of Gurteen House, and had the latter, faux-Gothic wing added on for a daughter.
Subsequently, and twice in the past century, Gurteen House was split into two homes, then reunited, then separated again in the 1930s by the Cogswell family.
With the Gothic section abandoned for nearly 50 years, both got offered in the early to mid-2000s and were sold to two co-operating buyers who each embraced their respective renovation challenges, and got on well too as next-door neighbours, and again now too as vendors.
Both, in fact, say that rather than seeing the semi-detached status as compromising privacy, they prefer that they are not isolated, and each has good neighbours to call. Yet each has acres, a pond and stream-frontage river to call their own.
And, while each is still available separately, there’s a chance that someone might buy both on what would then be total of eight woodland and pasture acres with further site potential (though then the bill goes up to c to €1.255 million).
Stranger things have happened, and if ever pressed into the accommodation business, it will be yet another tale to tell of Gurteen’s many partings and re-pairings, like some elaborate courtship.
The location is lovely and rural, up a long leafy avenue past a derelict gate lodge off the Bandon-Newcestown road about two miles from Bandon town.
The shared access avenue passes a listed C17th bridge and path which, it is said, may have carried the armies of O’Neill and O’Donnell on their march to the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.
There’s also a second bridge on the Ballymahane stream, with stories that surveyor Nathaniel Jackson even had the then Bandon-Macroom road diverted around his house when the ‘new’ bridge built.
The stream now feeds two trout ponds, one with each house, and they recall the day when they would have been used as flax ponds, when the flax industry employed 30,000 in County Cork alone.
Gurteen House’s own personal history includes the integration of stone also used in St Peter’s Church.
Since they started renovations and extension in the 200s, the Tarrs say they have been visited by descendant of previous owners, who’ve told them stories of the provenance of much of the peculiarities.
They say many of the carved, ornate stone fireplaces, and gargoyles “were, apparently brought from a derelict castle in Scotland, so it is an early example of architectural salvage.”
The best fireplaces are in French Caen stone, also used in the UK’s Canterbury Cathedral, while the abundance of red Cork marble also is notable, as most of those veins from Little Island to Midleton/Cloyne have now been quarried out.
Symptomatic of the days and times they were doing the bulk of the work, around the time of the Celtic Tiger’s zenith, there was a crew of up to ten Lithuanian handymen working on site at Gurteen under Richard’s supervision, and they pay tribute to their abilities and work ethic.
One man they single out had been a high-voltage electrician in Lithuania, but when they saw him carve and replace a section of stairs and realised he was also a skilled carpenter, they bought him a tool box, and asked him to specialise on that front.
He did, for several years, and his volte-face is a testament to his abilities to match 19th century craftsmanship and “he was able to buy a house back in his home place with what he earned here,” the Tarrs quip.
All of the the 24 sash windows were taken out, one by one, and repaired with new sections spliced in where necessary, and then refitted with thin double glazing into those original frames.
All floors came up, to have screed placed under them for the underfloor heating which runs throughout, on two levels, apart from the original tiled hall, left intact and so has two cast iron rads, sourced in Turkey.
Other sourcing was fun too, such as bringing back three disassembled chandeliers from Barcelona, as carry-on luggage on a holiday flight, and not only reassembling them, but getting them converted to electric light also.
The couple got advice and assistance from the likes of skilled building conservator Richard Good Stephenson of Innishannon’s Cor Castle, and used lime renders and age-appropriate colours in the inside refurb, while also reinstating wall panelling in a mix of timbers, including dark stained ply.
The result, oddly, is of a place that carries its sombre age with aplomb, as if it had never declined and risen again.
An oddity in its original 1850 construction is the visible use of poured mass concrete, between wooden beams and shuttering, seen still under the hall’s great mahogany staircase with its tapestries, tiles, and stone carvings of a menagerie of animals on top of newels.
More intriguing still are the four carved heads serving as corbels for heavy beams in the drawing room, depicting a king, queen, knight/prince and princess.
From the expertly-carved visages, there’s a definite dynamic going on with the four — guessing what secrets they hold could be a parlour game for parties.
There are a few secret passages and hidden doors: While the big surprise and reveal is the indoor, heated 12.5 metre swimming pool and sauna now put in the basement, the master bedroom also has its own hidden assets.
One is a study/dressing room to the side of the deep bay window, also suitable as a nursery, while across the huge room a wall panel swings back to reveal access to a very large walk-in dressing room, with Hollywood-style illuminated mirror plus bathroom.
Two of the other five bedrooms, one overhead the other, adjoin modern bathrooms and can be connected as en-suites: those rooms which abut the older, Georgian ‘half’ of Gurteen have quite sensibly been configured to allow for easy connecting passages should these two homes go back into single ownership at any future date.
The main bathroom is over-sized and finished in expensive stone, with a bath luxuriously placed by a large gable window, low enough to allow views out over the courtyard building (unroofed) and the pond, which is graced by two ducks and a heron (the pond, not the bath).
A secondary stairs leads down to the kitchen wing extension, and this back section of the c 4,000 sq ft house also has a large utility with recycling bins, scullery/mud room, larder and a laundry.
Handily, there’s a laundry chute from the master suite’s dressing room directly down to the washing machine.
There’s now an efficient modern kitchen and simple painted units, and it’s quite open plan and opens into a sunny dining/living room, with extra-high ceilings, and tall, hand-made hardwood windows by the well-able Lithuanian joiner, double glazed, with access to a sunny, south-facing terrace with box-hedge borders overlooking two ponds and the croquet lawn.
Other atmospheric rooms include a wood-panelled and shelf-lined library with fireplace, a former ballroom which subdivides to a TV room with stunning Caen stone fireplace and stove with back-boiler, linked to sitting room by double doors, with further fireplace, and wood-panelled ceiling.
Enormous work has been done, inside and out, and a saving grace for this property was the fact a grant was given years ago to a woman owner to re-slate the house, while it awaited its current chapter and salvation, courtesy of the Tarrs.
Touring it with them, they have a story about every room, know every inch of it, and while they say it’s a work in progress, the progress has been admirable, and full-blooded. They add that as native South Africans, it was important too for them to have a pool, and for them to be able to heat it all also.
While it still probably costs a pretty penny to get heated up (the pool is heated from spring to late autumn), it has a hydrothermal heat pump exchanger which feeds in from the stream.
Then there’s the stove with back boiler in the TV room, and a beast of a wood-burning boiler in an outbuilding which they christened ‘the Monster’, and they calculate there’s up to two kilometres of piping for the underfloor heating beast. Redoing the windows and double glazing them was also a key move, they add.
Now, with just one child at home, they themselves hope to move, to the West Cork seaside.
The work done here at Gurteen House is huge, and still there’s more scope plus a stone coach-house minus a roof with potential for a self-catering unit, and the back of the six acres has separate access, so given the proximity to Bandon, there may be sites potential.
But, apart from the untold tale of the ghost, that’s for Gurteen House’s next few chapters....
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