There is much that is dreamlike about Tempo Manor. On a sunny summer afternoon when a slight breeze ruffles the reflections on the lakes, the happy visitor sitting in the gardens must resist the temptation of being transported back to a Victorian croquet party. The swaying of crinolines and excited chatter of long ago are abruptly dispelled by the splash-down of a family of ducks quacking appreciatively to their kind hostess for providing a snack on the lawn in front of the house.
Everything looks so natural, the trees and shrubs skirting the lake, the trim lawns and colourful borders, the climbing plants about the gables. Nature has played an important part in providing Tempo’s charms, but there is, too, much that is unnatural. The harmony of the setting is not accidental. It results from generations of hard work and loving care, and from a sympathetic response between architecture and gardening which is rarely rivalled in Ulster. How was this all achieved? Medieval Fermanagh was Maguire territory. One branch of the family, more anglicised than the rest and more prepared to play the Plantation game, held the lands of Tempo not only through the difficulties of the seventeenth century but almost to the end of the eighteenth. Then the estate was bought by a Londonderry merchant called Samuel Lyle in 1799, and he in turn sold it in 1814. The new owner was the distinguished Belfast banker William Tennent who, no doubt, regarded Tempo as a both a rustic retreat and a good investment. How much he used the property is not known, but certainly if he had plans for its enhancement, they were not begun at the time of his early death from cholera in 1832. His estate passed to his only surviving daughter, Letitia, and her husband James Emerson who assumed the name Tennent. Knighted for his government and colonial services, Sir James was a typically successful Victorian, an able administrator, a vigorous politician, a tireless letter-writer, and an energetic pursuer of anything that took his interest.
Sir James seems to have fallen for Tempo. Even in its overgrown and tumbledown state he could see its advantages. He probably read the Parliamentary Gazetteer and agreed with its author’s description of the surrounding countryside as ‘tumulated, hilly, partially mountainous, everywhere much diversified and prevailingly of agreement appearance’. Looking forward to the prospect of a comfortable and secluded retirement, Sir James and his wife seem to have determined about the middle of the century on a programme of land improvements and building renewal. It is their Tempo, cherished and developed by their descendants, which survives today. With sound business sense Sir James began with land improvements. As many as a hundred men were employed at one time in drainage works and cleaning the waterways. Attention was then turned to the demesne and the planting, or replanting of the screening tree beltings which were to provide shelter and privacy for the gardens. An eye witness of these works was Henry Coulter who arrived in search of material for his book The West of Ireland: its existing condition and Prospects which was published in l862. He was impressed: ‘The demesne of Tempo,’ he wrote, ‘is of unusual beauty, being richly planted with extremely fine old trees; and, besides a river which flows through its entire extent, the hills enclose three small lakes wooded down to the water’s edge. When Sir James came into possession of the demesne, it was in a wild and neglected state. The fine old timber had been allowed to suffer considerably from decay, the ground was overgrown with weeds, and sadly in want of drainage, and the lakes were choked with sedges and foul with decaying vegetable matter ….. for thirty or forty years it was little better than a wilderness’.