As Valentine’s Day approaches, elegant countryside mansions in Ireland seem like the perfect romantic getaway.
How does a 300-year-old Irish country house with ivy clinging to its walls, a giant stately yew tree in its front garden, a cosy sitting-room with an open fireside and a seductive four-poster bed sound?
Try Newforge House, near the village of Magheralin in Northern Ireland, which is offering in a special overnight stay, with a six-course dinner, breakfast, tea and shortbread on arrival, homemade chocolate and fresh flowers in your room, prosecco and canapés and a nightcap.
This elegant six-bedroom house in county Armagh, the heart of Ireland’s apple-growing country, offers a nostalgic journey back in time.
Here, guests are gently cocooned from the rest of the world, enclosed by forest and field, and surrounded by period furnishings dating back centuries.
A cosy-sitting room with a stucco ceiling features heavy velvet curtains and an aromatic turf-fire with an old-fashioned coal shuttle and brass tongs. Glass-fronted book shelves offer a diversity of reading choices while a chess set in the corner challenges the analytical mind.
Ornate vases colorfully embellished with Greek and Roman themes are complemented by framed portraits and landscapes, including watercolors by Scottish artist, Rodney D. Beaumont, who now lives nearby in Moira.
Staying there recently, my companion and I immersed ourselves in the classic Old World ethos, including a delightful four-poster bed with Egyptian cotton bedlinen. Our room was awash in vintage furnishings including a large wardrobe, a writing desk and an old-style vanity mirror. Fireplaces in the bedroom and bathroom, though non-functional, added aesthetic value, while large windows overlooked the front gardens. A lamp created out of a whiskey decanter and black-and-white and sepia photographs of Newforge House in bygone times added to an attractive atmosphere.
Aside from its all-embracing aura of nostalgia, food is a notable highlight of a stay at Newforge House.
Family member and chef John Mathers is extremely keen on using either products from his own garden, or those he sources locally so assiduously. A small orchard on the grounds provides fruits for desserts, chutneys and preserves, while the demesne is home to a flock of chickens so eggs offered for breakfast couldn’t be fresher.
Then there’s the hand-churned Abernethy butter from Dromara, in the neighboring county of Down; three types of fresh-ground coffee from Upperlands Coffee Company in Maghera; and 12 different teas from Suki Tea Makers, an operation by partners Annie and Oscar that began its life selling its beverages from a Belfast market stall.
And, of course, pure-pressed Armagh apple juice.
For breakfast, try the sinful ‘Ulster Fry’ – freshly-baked wheaten bread and sourdough breads made by Luisa, John’s wife; dry cured Moyallon from The Meat Merchant in Moira, two miles away; Madden’s award-winning sausages from Lurgan, a mere four miles away; yoghurt made from milk from herds of Holstein and Jersey cows on the Clandeboye estate in Bangor, north-east of Magheralin; and farmhouses cheeses from Corleggy (meaning ‘little windy hill’) in county Cavan. If you’re a fish lover, try the salmon or the kippers. John also makes his own crunchy granola.
Dinner is an equally enjoyable occasion, with all meals being taken in a comfortable downstairs room with an open fireside and windows looking out on to a pine forest. We feasted on a starter of risotto with artichoke and jerusalem artichoke with crispy bacon shavings, chives, parsley, baby kale, followed by wild halibut, mashed potatoes, broccoli, samphire, dulse (red alga) and butter sauce. Guests also have a selection of eight Irish cheeses, with homemade biscuits, pear and apple chutney.
Surpassing our calorie intake by a zillion (who’s counting, anyway), we also indulged in succulent chunks of delicious chocolate cake.
Not only is the cuisine of a high standard so is the drinks selection, ranging from hefty craft beers such as local brewery, Hillstown’s comically titled products – ‘Goat’s Butt,’ a wheat variety, ‘Squealing Pig’ IPA, ‘Spitting Lama’ golden ale and ‘Hilda the Hen’ ale. The wine list is also impressive with most countries well represented. Our choice was a fine a bottle of Uruguayan Garzon Albarino 2017, emanating flowery, tropical aromas cut by lively acidity.
Being an incurable gin aficionado, I was more than pleased to find a three-page listing of 31 brands, including a Listoke 1777 from county Louth containing a multitude of aromas such as cardamom, juniper, coriander, angelica root, jasmine and rowan berries.
The menu also displayed a local candidate, Shortcross Gin from the 500-acre Rademon Estate near Downpatrick, a town named after the nation’s patron saint solely responsible for such frivolity on March 17. Thirteen single malt whiskeys from Scotland and Japan also featured on the menu and seven from Ireland.
Interestingly, John also makes his own gin and vodka infusions using home-grown fruits such as raspberries, blackberries, damsons and sloes.
While cradled in quiet countryside, Newforge House is but a short drive from many of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourism sights, such as the Titanic Museum in Belfast, the Ulster Museum & Botanic Gardens, the scenic Mourne Mountains and the famed Giants Causeway on the northern coast. There are also interesting county museums in the nearby towns of Craigavon and Dungannon.
Travel to and from Newforge House is relatively easy. Northern Ireland’s main highway, the M1, is just two miles away, providing easy access to both Belfast International and Belfast City Airports and the terminal for ferries going to Scotland and England, all of which are no more than a 30-minute drive away.
For a rustic, rural Irish getaway, both comforting and convenient, and a nostalgic glimpse into the past, Newforge House is a very strong contender of choice.