Isabel Conway visits Ardtara Country House, a hotel whose story reaches back to the origins of the glory days of Northern Ireland’s linen industry.
Linen has been called the aristocrat of textiles – strong as steel and delicate as silk – and few places on earth have a history that so entwines the highs and lows of the linen trade than in Northern Ireland.
The family history of the Clark family, former owners of a majestic home, today an award-winning high-end hotel and restaurant is nestled in mature woodlands, a stone’s throw from the powerhouse of their linen empire at Upperlands in the heart of the Mid Ulster countryside.
The nine-bedroom 19th century mansion that is Ardtara Country House, crowned ‘most romantic hotel of the year’ has won accolades for its food in this peaceful oasis, surrounded by traditional Victorian gardens, woodland, and millponds.
The silence is blissful as morning sunlight gently peeps through the sumptuous brocade curtains. My evening ends with a nightcap relaxing in front of the bedroom (easily lit) flickering open gas fire to take away any chill in the high-ceilinged elegant bedrooms.
Each bedroom, overlooking lawns and bedded flower gardens are individually decorated with authentic period antiques and furniture to spirit guests back into a past era of Victorian elegance. Tastefully clad with cream and grey marble these bathrooms are miracles of modern plumbing that include power showers in place of yesteryear’s leaking taps.
Just fifteen minutes away from Ireland’s temple to famous poet Seamus Heaney his ‘Home Place’, within 45 minutes of both Belfast and Derry, as well as the Giant’s Causeway and Game of Thrones landmarks along the Antrim Coast, we are in for a real treat.
Add a visit to magnificent nearby Lough Neagh and historic ancient Armagh city and here you have a perfect base from which to discover this hidden Ulster.
A past winner of best guest accommodation in Northern Ireland, Ardtara Country House was the former home of Victorian adventurer and linen baron Harry Jackson Clark. The demesne retains the feel of a country residence as you approach along a tree-lined lane admiring a grand stone-built house and attached conservatory, then entering an entrance hall that has a baby grand piano, beautiful stained-glass windows, and comfortable sofas.
Working up an appetite for dinner we stroll back through history in the grounds following its Upperlands Mill and Dam trail, then reaching four man-made lakes or ‘dams’.
Craig’s dam, Island dam, Green dam and Lapping-room dam once served the linen mills. The relentless rhythm of the thundering Beetling machines that date back to the early 1800s have long fallen silent but dilapidated forlorn buildings, covered in ivy, fine cornices, decorative doors and windows broken off and gone to rack and ruin still retains a certain grandeur and sense of past power and glory.
Back in 1888 Henry Jackson Clark (Old Harry) ran away at the age of 18 determined to seek his fortune in America instead of joining the family empire. His father caught up with him in Liverpool and made a deal, allowing him to go but as a salesman for Upperlands linen. The US trip was a brilliant success.
Harry not only inveigled his way into the White House, meeting the President and many notables, visited an Indian chief and collected a bad debt in Chicago but he also booked hundreds of orders, saving the turbulent fortunes of the business, by now employing over 200 workers.
In 1896 Harry built Ardtara Country House, to be a family home but also a grand promotional centre of excellence and prosperity to welcome and entertain buyers and agents from at least 40 Clark linen buying countries from around the world.
After our walk we took a seat in the Clark restaurant, the former billiard room, walls adorned with hand painted fox hunting scenes for a memorable dining experience featuring ingredients like lamb and free-range chicken and locally sourced vegetables, together with herbs from its own gardens. Deserts included a perfect mini soufflé with seasonal fruits.
Breakfast at Ardtara Country House, featuring superb soda bread and porridge laced with a mixture of whiskey and honey, double dairy cream on the side was another highpoint.
Well-fortified we struck out for Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Ireland and Britain measuring over 300 square km. From Toomebridge following a delicious lunch of fried eels and more delicious locally milled brown bread at the lovely Toome House café, we boarded a fishing boat to hear about Lough Neagh’s stories.
The earliest settlers who navigated their way along these waters quickly discovered its treasure – eels by the millions – and to this day Lough Neagh is Europe’s centre of eel production. Generations of Lough Neagh fishermen catch eels with traditional nets and fishing techniques.
Ireland’s renowned poet the late Seamus Heaney devoted one of his most famous works “A Lough Neagh Sequence” to the magical enormous expanse of water. The poet reciting from this and other poems inspired by the beautiful countryside here in mid Ulster is heard at the permanent exhibition to his life and oeuvre at Seamus Heaney Home Place in nearby Bellaghy.
Armagh city is also a hidden jewel of Northern Ireland and local expert guide Donna Fox is the’ go to’ person for insights into the impressive Georgian city’s past and recent history. Her walking tours have been featured on news channels worldwide. Tonight, we are on a tour that includes, theatre and music with some unique little-known highlights.
The classical Robinson Library is one, housing 42,000 printed works, many rare gems of literature, including Jonathan Swift’s own copy of Gulliver’s Travels, from 1726 with corrections in his own hand. Armagh’s attractions include an interesting county museum that tells intriguing stories of local lives, a famous Observatory and the site where St Patrick founded his first stone church in 445 AD, today occupied by St Patricks Church of Ireland.
Relaxing a day later at Ardtara Country House we awaken to majestic bird song, admire the early morning views, and engage in some online mindfulness to awaken our senses before setting out to explore further afield.
Seamus Heaney’s famous lines” even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained” run true today in a confident and forever optimistic corner of Northern Ireland.
Tell me more about Ardtara Country House
Ardtara Country House, 8 Gorteade Road, Upperlands, BT46 5SA,
T: 0044 (0) 28 7964 4490 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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