A Petite Country House that seduces its Guests
I read somewhere that Newforge House is a Country House than can seduce you. That’s a big statement and naturally one was curious to see if this were true. Travelling to Newforge House is an easy drive from either the Belfast direction or from Dublin. Near Newry the landscape was quilted with patches of yellow gorse now in full bloom – a wonderful sight. I was travelling along the A1 from the Dublin direction and when I saw the B2 sign for Dromore I happily turned off driving along the seesaw roads up and down eskers and drumlins before ending up in Banbridge. Don’t take the first B2 turn; take the second B2 turn off (signposted Lurgan!). A couple of miles along the correct road I noticed that there were plenty of cattle in the fields nearby. Interestingly there was a pecking order as the herds of black and white Friesans appeared to be in smaller fields whereas the more exotic white and brown limousines were given larger fields and more space to themselves. It is good for the soul to observe these oddities.
Newforge House when it comes into view presents a charming a symmetrical six bedroom Georgian Country House dating from the early 1800’s and set on 50 acres. It is close to Lurgan and Magheralin in Co. Armagh. The House is set back off the Newforge road with its front exterior covered in Virginia creeper; green in the spring and summer and warm red in the autumn. Newforge House has been in the Mathers family for six generations, so it has an uninterrupted family history. The current owners, John and his wife Louise, decided to try their hand in the hospitality arena 10 years ago in 2005. John is a fully trained Chef and Louise looks after all the administration and marketing, although she is no mean hand at producing sumptuous desserts. It took them two years of hard work to make their dreams come true and the result is an adorable petite Country House with a chic Dining Room.
Taking a walk around the gardens it is clear that this is a couple who know exactly how to run a small enterprise in a rural location and make a success of it. The gardens are split into various sections, each one with their own special appeal. They even have their own hen run with 13 hens and one bantam rooster (called Reg), who according to John is hen pecked by his harem. When I heard his high pitched rather asthmatic crowing I was wondering if a sex change had taken place! I was very taken with a pretty rockery garden complete with a very accurate sun dial and a place to sit and take the sun. Mind you Louise tells me that it is only accurate for summer time and one hour out for winter. I finally worked that one out, not being that mathematical.
The front hall is typically symmetrical for this Georgian style of architecture; a square hall decorated with two very interesting antique tapestries on either side. To the left is the Drawing Room, a warm west facing room with walls of soft creamy yellow complimented with curtains made with swags and tails. To the right is an identical size and shaped room which is the Dining Room. The Drawing room is one of those relaxing contemplative rooms where you can imagine ladies from previous generations sitting doing their embroidery or composing a little sonnet. What is very distinguishable about Newforge are the vases of fresh flowers everywhere and nearly all from their own garden. No shop flowers on steroids on display here. They also have excellent front of house staff who not only make you feel welcome but are full of knowledge about the locality and history of the area.
History and Bedrooms: The walls offer plenty of family history in the form of paintings and photographs of the family. Two family photographs in the bedroom that I was allocated were most interesting. One was of a family event outside the front of the house, from around the late 1800’s judging by the attire. There was a grass tennis court on the front lawn where there is croquet now. Another family wedding photograph portrayed all the men sporting moustaches or beards, with the exception of the very young men. It is fascinating how fashions change and yet repeats itself. Here we are over a 100 years on and beards appear to be back in fashion. All the bedrooms are named after the maiden names of the six generations of owners. For this visit I had been given ‘Hanna’. My bedroom was the perfect intact Georgian size and had a really comfortable four poster bed and a pillow menu. The menu said that my pillows were firm support, hollowfibre, hypoallergic but I could change to a luxury white goose feather and down if they didn’t suit. The bathroom was a super size facing on to the front garden. No curtains meant it was in full view but the working shutters were half shutters ensuring that I had both privacy and light. How clever this was. The bathroom was very well equipped with free standing bath and separate shower and gorgeous ‘White Company’ toiletries.
Cuisine: On arrival I indulged in coffee and tiny coconut meringues with lemon, which were a welcome change from the usual shortbread biscuit or scone. These were melt in the mouth. All of Newforge’s food produce is sourced locally. There is even a Suki Tea Menu (Farmer’s Market in Belfast) in the bedroom with over a dozen choices, including a favourite of mine – Oolang. The menu was produced on arrival in the afternoon and orders taken for the evening meal which is served at 8pm. Knowing what I was going to eat so far in advance made it a little difficult to last until the appointed hour. However, when 8pm arrived it was worth waiting for. Char grilled Asparagus with Garden Leaves & Parmesan Salad to start. This was followed by a Dry-aged Shorthorn Ribeye. The meat was dry-aged for over 30 days in Hannan’s butcher shop in Moira in a Himalayan salt chamber. This a really famous butcher shop and John knows how fortunate he is to have such an iconic butcher shop on his doorstop (see website below). Lou’s superb Rhubarb & Apple Streusel finished off a splendid meal.
There are lots of activities on offer in this location including visiting nearby historic villages and towns such as Moira; Hillsborough and Lisburn. The Hilden Brewery Visitors Centre has a very interesting tour. For the more active there is sailing on the nearby Lough Neagh and riding in the Lime Park Equestrian Centre. What really took my fancy in the very comprehensive guide that John and Louise have painstakingly put together was skiing at the Craigavon Golf Ski Centre. However, this is only available from September to June but it is the first time I have seen this activity on offer on my travels around Ireland and yes I do realise it is not real snow!
Oh and by the way, Newforge House did seduce me, without having to swop my pillows. These past 10 years have firmly established Newforge House as a hidden treat. John and Louise are a relaxed couple who know exactly how to look after visitors. They have just recently won some very prestigious awards including the Northern Ireland Tourism Award “Best Place to Stay: Serviced Accommodation 2015” and the Licensed and Catering News “ Guesthouse of the Year 2015” for the second year. Now that they are winning awards such as these I expect a lot more people will be heading across the eskers and drumlins of Co. Armagh to a petite Country House that exudes peace and quiet served with an abundance of panache.