Oakfield Park, Oakfield Demesne, Raphoe, Co. Donegal – garden only

contact: Louise Devenney
Tel: 074-9173922

www.oakfieldpark.com

Open dates listed in 2022: Mar 30-31, Apr 1-3, 6-10, 13-18, 20-24, 27-30, May 1-2, 4-8, 11-15, 18-22, 25-29, June 1-30, July 1-31, Aug 1-31, Sept 1-4, 7-11, 14-18, 21-25, Oct 1-2, 8-9, Nov 30, Dec 1-4, 7-11, 14-23, Mar, Apr, May, Sept, Oct, 12 noon-6pm, June, July, Aug, 11am-6pm, Nov, 4pm-10pm, Dec 1-18, weekdays, 4pm-10pm, weekends, 12 noon-10pm, 19-20, 4pm-10pm, 21-23, 12 noon-10pm

Fee: adult €9, child €6, family and annual passes available

Folly, Oakfield Park, July 2022. In the lower gardens a boggy field was transformed by the current owners into a large lake, planted with reeds and wild flowers. This is now home to swans and abundant wildlife. A Castle Folly built on the opposite shore provides stunning views.

We visited Oakfield Park in July, on a trip to County Donegal. Unfortunately the house is not open to the public, but there is plenty to see in the grounds, and it has been created as a family-friendly destination complete with steam train! There’s also a shop and café.

The Earl of Oakfield blue diesel engine, Oakfield Park.
Oakfield Park, County Donegal, July 2022.
Buffers Tea Rooms and shop.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage tells us that the house at Oakfield Park is a five-bay two-storey over basement former Church of Ireland deanery with dormer attic, built c. 1739, having courtyard of outbuildings to the north with curved screen walls to the north-west and north-east of the house. [1]

Oakfield Park, courtesy of National Inventory of Architectural Heritage [1]

The Inventory continues:

This impressive, well-maintained and well-proportioned mid-eighteenth century country house retains its early form. It has recently been extensively conserved and retains its original character. It was originally built as the deanery for the Church of Ireland Diocese of Raphoe in 1739 at a cost of £1,680. Its form with dormer attic level and Tuscan pedimented porch was slightly old fashioned for its construction date and it has the appearance of the house dating to the second half of the seventeenth century or to the start of eighteenth century. This is something it shares with the contemporary Bogay House, which is located a few kilometres to the north-east of Oakfield.

Bogay is indeed very similar, built in around 1730 as a hunting lodge the Abercorns of Baronscourt, County Tyrone [2]. Bogay seems to be for sale at present [ https://www.daft.ie/for-sale/detached-house-bogay-house-bogay-newtown-cunningham-co-donegal/4022904 ] with 18 acres, furnished, for just €650,000! It also served as a clerical residence.

Bogay House, courtesy of daft.ie
Cantilevered staircase, Bogay House, courtesy of daft.ie
Cantilevered staircase, Bogay House, courtesy of daft.ie

The reason that the Inventory calls the style “old fashioned for its construction date” is because, according to Alistair Rowan in his Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster, the elevation has a seventeenth century character, or at latest, Queen Anne. It is “not essentially different from Inigo Jones’s design for Lord Maltravers at Lothbury in the City of London of 1638.”

It was William Cotterell, Dean of Raphoe, who commissioned the building of Oakfield Park. Robert O’Byrne tells us:

Oakfield is of interest for many reasons, not least its links to one of the loveliest estates in England: Rousham, Oxfordshire. The main house at Oakfield, built in 1739 at a cost of £1,680, was commissioned by William Cotterell, then-Dean of Raphoe. Cotterell was a younger son of Sir Charles Lodowick Cotterell who, like his father before him (and several generations of the same family thereafter) held the court position of Master of Ceremonies. In 1741 Dean Cotterell’s brother, Sir Clement Cotterell who performed the same role in the royal household, inherited the Rousham estate from a cousin. William Kent had already been working on the gardens at Rousham but now also undertook improvements to the house. Clearly the Cotterell brothers were men of taste and this can also be seen at Oakfield even if Kent did not work there. In fact the house’s elevations are stylistically somewhat anachronistic and seem to harp back to the late 17th century. Nevertheless, it is a handsome building in an admirably chosen setting: on a bluff offering views across to Croaghan Hill some five miles away.” [3]

The Inventory continues with more particulars about Oakfield Park:

The detail of Oakfield is kept to a minimum with plain sandstone eaves course while the impressive pedimented Tuscan porch provides an effective central focus. The ranges of outbuildings are hidden behind quadrant screen walls to the north-west of the house in a vaguely Palladian fashion, a style that was en vogue at the time of construction. The house is composed of graceful classical proportions with a rigid simplicity and order to all the three main elevations with the architectural composition defined by the diminishing size of openings on the upper levels, the raised ground floor, overhanging eaves and the central entrance doorway.

Oakfield remained in use as a deanery until 1869 when it was purchased by Captain Thomas Butler Stoney of the Donegal Militia. Captain Stoney further built up the estate by acquiring additional land in Raphoe including the ruins of the Bishops Palace.

Ruins of Bishop’s Palace, Raphoe, County Donegal.

Robert O’Byrne tells us that Thomas Butler Stoney was a younger son of James Stoney of Rossyvera, County Mayo and that as well as being a Captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, Stoney also occupied all the other positions expected of someone in his position: County High Sheriff, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Justice of the Peace. Following his death in 1912 Oakfield was inherited by his only son, Cecil Robert Vesey Stoney, a keen ornithologist who eventually moved to England in the early 1930s.

Rossyvera House, County Mayo, former home of Thomas Butler Stoney. Photograph courtesy of National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The National Inventory continues: “It was later the home of Captain George B. Stoney in 1881 and a Captain Thomas Butler Stoney in 1894 (Slater’s Directory). When Captain Stoney died in 1912 the house was inherited by his son Cecil who retained it and some land, letting it out during the 1920s and 30s.

Robert O’Byrne tells us that the house and surrounding lands thereafter passed through several hands. The Oakfield Park website tells us it belonged to several local families, including the Morrows, Mc Elhinneys and Pattersons. Twenty-six years ago it was purchased by businessman Gerry Robinson who together with his wife Heather has since undertaken an extensive restoration of the property. The website tells us of their renovations:

Alterations made during Victorian times and earlier were reversed and where possible the house returned to its original design. Wherever possible, the existing floorboards, stairs and panelling internally were retained and restored. The gardens have matured quickly and to-date more than 40,000 trees have been planted. An international collection of Oaks (Quercus) has been established in recent years. A Victorian Ram Pump which was installed at Oakfield Park in 1864 is still in operation. It was used to pump water from a nearby stream up to the main house. For any Donegal sightseeing visitors, this pump has been restored and is still in use today, supplying fresh water to the formal ponds in the walled garden.

The Inventory continues: “Occupying attractive mature grounds with extensive recent alterations and additions, Oakfield Park is an important element of the built heritage of the Raphoe area and is an integral element of the social history as a former Church of Ireland deanery. It forms the centrepiece of a ground of related structures along with the walled garden (see 40906218) to the north-east, the complex of outbuildings (see 40906214) to the north-west, and the icehouse (see 40906219) to the south-east.

Unfortunately we arrived too late in the day to see the upper gardens, which are only accessible via a guided tour. They include a clipped box parterre, planned by Tony and Elizabeth Wright, based on a design by Sebastiano Serlio, and a semi-circular pergola.

Robert O’Byrne tells us:

Over the past two decades, not only have the Robinsons restored the residence at the centre of Oakfield, but they have created a 100-acre parkland around it. Some of this is based in the old walled gardens immediately adjacent to the house but the rest is spread over two areas bisected by a road. This division applies also to the spirit of the two sections, the upper garden having a more classical aspect thanks to elements such as a Nymphaeum on one side of the lake. The lower garden’s principal architectural feature is a newly-created castellated tower house overlooking another stretch of water. Between this pair of substantial structures are other, smaller buildings to engage a visitor’s interest. Oakfield is an admirable demonstration of what imaginative vision allied with sound taste can achieve. Walking around the grounds, it is hard to believe this is County Donegal. But that is what sets Oakfield apart: like Rousham on the other side of the Irish Sea, once inside the gates one is temporarily transported to Arcadia.

The website tells us that there are many kilometres of designated walking paths through the gardens, which pass under native woodland, alongside sculpture, over natural wetland and via many beautiful viewpoints and features.

Boardwalk, Oakfield Park.

The website tells us about the trains:

Over 4.5km of narrow-gauge railway track weaves its way through the trees, around the lakes and along the meadows, revealing many pleasing vistas throughout the park – both sculpture and nature. Tickets and departure times are available at the gate on arrival, in Buffers restaurant or in the ice cream truck. No booking is required except for group visits. The trip will take about 15 minutes.

One of three locomotives in Oakfield Park, The Duchess of Difflin steam engine, with her carriages in the traditional red and cream livery of the Wee Donegal is a nostalgic delight that runs on the last Sunday of each month in the season – Steam Sunday. This is a family attraction in Donegal like no other.

At least one of the two diesels run every other day, at least on the hour. The Earl of Oakfield blue diesel engine, delights children, Thomas the Tank Engine fans and train enthusiasts alike and the green locomotive, Bishop Twysden is the first full locomotive ever built in Donegal.”

In the Lower Gardens, there are many sculptures. “The Longsleeper” by Lockie Morris is the largest, constructed from oak and steel. Other sculptures include “The Keepers of the Knowledge” and “Serene” by Owen Crawford, the “Love Seat” and a number of expertly crafted chainsaw sculptures by local carver, Gintas Poderys. Other garden sculpture in Oakfield park includes “Reading Chaucer” by sculptor Philip Jackson, known for his bronze sculptures depicting life-sized elongated figures. Then there is “Deer” by Rupert Till, two life-size mesh statues by one of the leading contemporary wire sculptors in the UK.

“The Longsleeper” by Lockie Morris, constructed from oak and steel.
“The Orb” by Anne Hamilton, set inside a circle of oak trees with Aspens surrounding, which cause susserations.
I was particularly impressed by this “vase” made of slate slabs.

The slate of the sculpture reflects the slate that leads up to the folly by the lake.

The slate is even part of the brickwork near the folly.
The Castle Folly.
The Castle Folly.
The Castle Folly.
Sadly, Gerry Robinson passed away in 2021.

The website tells us about a maze, which unfortunately we did not get to try:

“A Maze” is a really popular addition to the park and offers hours of endless fun. The maze was designed by Jennifer Fisher and set out and planted by our team of gardeners at Oakfield Park.

The maze a must do family activity in Donegal suitable  for both children and adults alike, working you way into the centre toward the imposing 10-metre-tall brick tower – then spend the afternoon trying to work your way out again! If you get stuck just look up the free Oakfield Park app where you can use the map to guide you out.

We often think it’s a terrible pity that the railway no longer goes to Donegal. There used to be a terrific rail service, but it ended even before Stephen’s family moved to County Donegal in 1969.

[1] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/40906201/oakfield-house-oakfield-demesne-co-donegal

[2] https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/40904709/bogay-house-bogay-glebe-co-donegal

[3] https://theirishaesthete.com/tag/oakfield-park/

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