Oli­garch’s Water­ford bolt­hole for ¤6m

In the 1990s Zakharenkov’s lav­ish bud­get trans­formed Rock­etts Cas­tle on 250 acres, while the cur­rent own­ers max­imised the es­tate for sport­ing use, even adding a polo club

The Irish Times - Thursday - Property - - Front Page -

The back­ground to Rock­etts Cas­tle es­tate, near the model town of Port­law in Water­ford, reads like a roller­coaster novel with land grabs, lost for­tunes, Rus­sian ty­coons and polo clubs.

Dat­ing from the 13th cen­tury, the orig­i­nal for­ti­fied round tower, over­look­ing the wide sweep of the river Suir on the edge of the es­tate, was built by a Nor­man fam­ily named Rock­ett (or de la Rochelle). Years passed and the land was “taken over”– in the way of takeovers of that era – by the Earl of Or­mond un­der King Charles I. Later Cromwell passed it to Sir Al­ger­non May who named the es­tate May­field, and in 1787 a Medl ycott fam­ily bought and farmed the land with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess un­til the 20th cen­tury. In 1861 they com­mis­sioned the house that still stands a few hun­dred me­tres from the orig­i­nal cas­tle ruin.

So far so colo­nial. Fast for­ward to 1997 when the es­tate on 250 acres was ac­quired by a Rus­sian oli­garch. Fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Soviet Union Valery Zakharenkov was in­volved in the set up of a com­pany here to sell Rus­sian air­craft and spare parts in Europe in part­ner­ship with a ma­jor Rus­sian bank called SBS Agro. Zakharenkov’s ten­ure at Rock­etts Cas­tle only lasted eight years (his time in res­i­dence prob­a­bly amounted to no more than three or four months in to­tal), but his legacy sug­gests every wan­ing Ir­ish coun­try es­tate could do with a pass­ing oli­garch to take it in hand.

The 1,068sq m (11,499sq ft) house was lav­ishly re­stored, and though it dates from the 19th cen­tury it is very much a 21st-cen­tury prop­erty hav­ing been ex­ten­sively up­graded with a new roof, dry-lined in­su­la­tion, zoned cen­tral and un­der­floor heat­ing, in­su­lated sash win­dows and new hard­wood floors. The dé­cor was com­pleted by the Amer­i­can wife of the oli­garch’s agent in Ire­land. The es­ti­mated ¤700,000 spent on be­spoke Water­ford Glass chan­de­liers pro­vides a small in­di­ca­tor as to the bud­get at her dis­posal.

But with all that wealth and in­trigue came a cer­tain se­cre­tive­ness, and Zakharenkov cer­tainly di­alled up the “in­ter­na­tional man of mys­tery” per­sona. Dur­ing his vis­its (ar­riv­ing by Lear­jet to Shan­non and trans­fer­ring in two he­li­copters – one for fam­ily, the other for se­curi- ty) staff were cleared from the prop­erty so no­body could set eyes on him, and no staff mem­ber was ever al­lowed have friends or fam­ily visit the prop­erty. Zakharenkov’s vi­sion was to make the es­tate en­tirely self-suf­fi­cient so he could lit­er­ally live off its bounty should his pur­suers even­tu­ally drive him to ground.

An abun­dance of duck, pheas­ant and par­tridge were in­tro­duced, a lake was in­stalled and stocked with trout while land was con­verted for crops; he even started a pig­gery and built a very fine abat­toir for the killing of meat for per­sonal use. An underground net­work of ca­bling and pipes de­liv­ers wa­ter and elec­tric­ity through­out the es­tate, dis­pens­ing with un­sightly over­ground poles and ca­bles.

When Zakharenkov moved on (to Louis Vuit­ton’s Paris town­house by all ac­counts) the cur­rent own­ers Thomas and Rosemary Driver stepped in. The Driv­ers, who op­er­ate plant equip­ment, haulage and waste busi­nesses in Water­ford, are also ex­ten­sive potato farm­ers, and Rock­etts Cas­tle with its acreage seemed a nat­u­ral fit to ex­tend the busi­ness.

“It was like walk­ing into a brand new house in per­fect con­di­tion. There was sim­ply noth-

‘‘ The house was lav­ishly re­stored, and though it dates from the 19th cen­tury it is very much a 21st-cen­tury prop­erty

ing to be done,” says Thomas, while dim­ming and bright­en­ing chan­de­liers and swoosh­ing the vast con­ser­va­tory blinds over and back at the flick of a switch. All very James Bond.

It is an el­e­gant six-bed house with many fine de­tails, in­clud­ing orig­i­nal cor­nic­ing, a frieze in the smok­ing room, dec­o­ra­tive mar­ble chim­ney pieces through­out, hand­made kitchen units with Swarovski crys­tal door han­dles, four-poster beds that came from the Michael Collins film set, V’soske Joyce car­pets and Cole­fax and Fowler fur­nish­ings. Aside from all this though, it’s a very live­able home of man­age­able pro­por­tions that clearly runs on wheels. Who­ever buys can sim­ply hang their hat and move in.

So­phis­ti­cated se­cu­rity is still in ev­i­dence through­out the es­tate, and the Rus­sian’s ul­ti­mate ruse to out­wit his ad­vanc­ing foes was that he only ever stayed in a beau­ti­fully re­fur­bished stone fish­ing lodge ad­ja­cent to the main house. Un­for­tu­nately the orig­i­nal en­closed court­yard didn’t sur­vive the restora­tion, but the five-bed lodge is in pris­tine con­di­tion, com­plete with sauna, a steam room (that lat­terly dou­bles as a snug dur­ing par­ties) and hot tub.

Apart from en­joy­ing the house, the Driv­ers have been fine cus­to­di­ans of what are prob­a­bly Rock­etts Cas­tle’s great­est at­tributes: its vast plea­sure grounds. Lo­cated across the road from Lord Water­ford’s sub­stan­tial Cur­ragh­more es­tate on 8,000 acres, Rock­etts Cas­tle sits in the heart of big coun­try, and once through the gates it’s a world apart. The Driv­ers have nur­tured every el­e­ment of the es­tate’s hunt­ing, shoot­ing and fish­ing po­ten­tial.

They founded and ran Rock­etts Cas­tle polo club from the fish­ing lodge, and the grounds are also home to Water­ford polo club. An ac­com­plished horse­woman who rode for the Ir­ish event­ing team, Rosemary in­tro­duced a hunter t ri al course through­out the es­tate, and the Water­ford Hunt meets here reg­u­larly. The Driv­ers have also de­vel­oped many rides and path­ways through the es­tate’s 60 acres of pic­turesque wood­land, while adding to the ma­ture shrub­bery where pos­si­ble with as many species of tree as they could grow.

The es­tate’s up­keep has clearly been a pas­sion. Thomas could ex­tol the es­tate’s nat­u­ral virtues all day, but he doesn’t need to, they are al­ready in ev­i­dence. On a sunny au­tumn af­ter­noon we see buz­zards, dragon­fly, red ad­mi­rals, heron, duck, pheas­ant, and a wa­ter hen. The walled gar­den is in full bloom and the ar­ray of trees in­clude mon­key puz­zle, cop­per beech, wild oaks and hazel­woods, and a mag­nif­i­cent stand of lime trees.

The Driv­ers are re­main­ing tight-lipped about their next move (though it will doubt­less have been metic ul ousl y planned). It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how­ever what al­ter­na­tive could be an im­prove­ment on this pas­toral oa­sis.

Rock­etts Cas­tle es­tate on 250 acres is for sale through James But­ler of Sav­ills for ¤6 mil­lion.

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