Your Ulster: Historic houses

A couple visiting Ashbrook House
A couple visiting Ashbrook House

The Your Ulster series continues this week with a look at Ulster’s many glorious historic houses which are open for the public to explore. We also take a tour of Ashbrook House outside Londonderry and learn more about this fascinating property

The idea of having complete strangers traipse through your historic family home checking out the architectural features and prized heirlooms, might seem like a step too far. But the hospitable residents of Ashbrook House on the outskirts of Londonderry, take it all in their stride.

One of the oldest country houses in the North West, Ashbrook has become a “must see” visitor attraction on the tourist trail in the scenic Faughan Valley.

It’s one of 52 rural tourism businesses being supported by Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Rural Tourism Development Programme which is part funded by Invest NI and the European Regional Development Programme.

The distinctive listed building at Ardmore Road on the outskirts of the city has been in the continuous ownership of the Beresford-Ash family for the past 400 years but has just been open to the public in more recent years.

The death of John Beresford-Ash five years ago marked the end of an era for the family and the start of a new venture for his widow Agnes, who conducts seasonal tours of the house assisted by her daughter, Melanie Cunningham.

Agnes arrived in Derry 47 years ago at the invitation of a friend in the city who introduced her to her future husband. It was an unusual union at the time as Agnes was a French Catholic marrying an Anglo-Irish Protestant but she is proud of how well it worked out.

A former 20th High Sheriff of Londonderry, her husband had an exemplary relationship with his Catholic neighbours, many of whom he employed on the estate she recalls.

Guided tours of a ground floor section of the 16th Century house provide a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era where time appears to have stood still amid the grandeur of the rooms.

The house is full of quirky artefacts brought back from around the world by various ancestors. Even as country houses go, it boasts a few surprises like the life-sized stuffed snow leopard transported from India in 1890; the Blunderbuss which would have been used by coachmen to keep highway men at bay; or the many imposing framed portraits of previous generations of landed gentry.

Other unusual items on display include a weighing chair which would have been used by jockeys before competing in races at the city’s Ballyarnett race course, designed by an Admiral Rous who, Melanie explained, organised races on Elba for Napoleon. Visitors also get to view the ornate Chinese lantern in the hallway which came from China by boat in 1860.

The family recently hosted international artist David Best and The Temple team at Ashbrook.

The property was also used to shoot a short film, The Trial of Lundy, last summer, which involved well-known local filmmaker Margo Harkin.

“It was great because we needed some furniture moving so we had all these great big hulking men and we used them to move things back the way we wanted over three days,” Melanie recalls.

The family conducted special tours of the house recently as part of a programme of events organised by Derry City and Strabane District Council to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the surrender of the U-Boats on the River Foyle.

Ashbrook House dates back to 1590 and the Beresford-Ash family have the distinction of being the only family in the area still living in their original home 400 years later, as Melanie explained.

“Thomas Ash came here in 1530 because there is a record of his marriage in Co Meath. He married Mary Bailey in St John’s Abbey, Meath, between 1530 and 1590.

‘‘They turned up here by 1591. We imagine that there was a bawn that would have been the first house. Older sections of the house have been found to have linen in the walls as well as horse hair or straw.

“There was a bleach mill up the road and they would have used the nearest materials and off-cuts. We haven’t had it carbon dated but it’s amazing it’s survived.”

During the Siege of Derry in 1689 Ashbrook was partially burnt by King James I troops as the Ash family were besieged in the city. Captain Thomas Ash wrote the most widely accepted diary of the Siege MSS Ash. His sister Jane was married to Captain Browning who famously broke the Boom with the flagship The Mountjoy.

The family’s records which were stored in Dublin were lost when the Public Records Office was burned after the Easter Rising in 1916.

It’s believed that a Georgian frontage and interior features such as high ceilings and cornicing typical of the time, were added to the house around 1730-1760. In the early 1940s, Ashbrook hosted the US Marines who located part of the Base Camp One Europe on the farm.

There are currently a grand total of 22 rooms in use in the house. Melanie said: “In 1911 my great grandfather added the first inside bathroom along the Ardmore Road and people used to come and see the running water upstairs. He was quite forward thinking as he also had gas fittings installed.’’

She added: ‘‘Houses like this were built to be full of people.

‘‘The days of having your family to stay for three months, thank God, are gone so we have the house open for wedding receptions, with a marquee on the lawn.

“We also do outdoor events like open air theatre. We have the European Heritage Open Days in September.”

Tours of Ashbrook House are available by appointment, priced £5 per person. Tel. 02871 349 223, Email: info@ashbrookestate.com  www.facebook.com/ashbrooklondonderry or Twitter @ashbrook1

For further information on visitor attractions in the Faughan Valley go to www.discoverfaughanvalley.com and Facebook.

National Trust properties

Castle Coole

Castle Coole is one of Ireland’s finest Neo-classical houses, allowing visitors to glimpse what life was like in the home of the Earls of Belmore.

Discover the story of the people who lived and worked below stairs as you explore the splendid suite of servants rooms and service quarters of this magnificent property.

Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, BT74 6JY. Tel: 028 6632 2690

Florence Court

There is something for all the family at this warm and welcoming 18th-century property, the former home of the Earls of Enniskillen.

Outside there are numerous places to explore, including a sawmill, ice house and thatched summer house.

Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, BT92 1DB. Tel: 028 6634 8249

Ardress House

This charming 17th-century farmhouse, elegantly remodelled in Georgian times, offers fun and relaxation for all the family.

The atmosphere of a working farmyard has been rekindled with the return of small animals.

64 Ardress Road, Annaghmore, Portadown, Co Armagh, BT62 1SQ. Tel: 028 8778 4753

The Argory

Built in the 1820s, this handsome Irish gentry house is surrounded by its 130-hectare (320-acre) wooded riverside estate.

The former home of the MacGeough Bond family, a tour of this Neo-classical masterpiece reveals it is unchanged since 1900.

Outside there are sweeping vistas, superb spring bulbs, scenic walks and fascinating courtyard displays.

144 Derrycaw Road, Moy, Dungannon, Co Armagh, BT71 6NA. Tel: 028 8778 4753

Springhill

Experience the beguiling spirit of this inimitable 17th-century plantation home, with its walled gardens and parkland, full of tempting waymarked paths.

There are 10 generations of Lenox-Conyngham family tales to enthrall you, as well as numerous portraits and much furniture to admire and not forgetting Ireland’s best-documented ghost: Olivia.

The old laundry houses the celebrated Costume Collection, which features some fine 18th to 20th-century pieces that highlight its great charm and enthralling past.

20 Springhill Road, Moneymore, Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, BT45 7NQ. Tel: 028 8674 8210

Castle Ward

See the gothic and classical collide at Castle Ward, an eccentric 18th-century mansion resting on a rolling hillside and looking out over the tranquil waters of Strangford Lough in Co Down.

Step into a fantasy world of castles and dragons as you explore the Georgian farmyard and the Lough shore, film locations for the smash hit television series Game of Thrones.

Watch the resident crafters create hand-made pottery and jewellery before your eyes, while children draw and drive toy tractors in the barn.

Strangford, Downpatrick, Co Down, BT30 7LS. Tel: 028 4488 1204

Mount Stewart

The house has now re-opened after a three- year long restoration project, bringing back the elegance and charm of the house when it was home of the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry and her family in the early 20th century .

An 18th-century house and garden, it is situated on the east shore of Strangford Lough, a few miles outside the town of Newtownards and near Greyabbey.

The house and its contents reflect the history of the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family, who played a leading role in British and Irish social and political life.

Portaferry Road, Newtownards. Tel: 028 4278 8387.

And even more houses to discover and enjoy

Ranfurly House Arts & Visitor Centre

Learn about the history of the O’Neill’s, the Flight of the Earls and the Plantation of Ulster through an interactive exhibition on permanent display in Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre. Gateway to the historic Hill of The O’Neill, Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre is the perfect starting point for an exploration of the Dungannon and Tyrone area.

l26 Market Square, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, BT70 1AB. Tel: (028) 87728600

Blessingbourne Estate

Blessingbourne Estate is a historic 550 acre country estate, nestled in the heart of woodlands and wildlife on the edge of the Clogher Valley and Fermanagh’s Lakelands – one of Ireland’s most tranquil and magical locations. A working farm, Blessingbourne Estate is a paradise for adults and children alike with its ever growing range of including mountain bike trails to fishing and a carriage and costume museum, yet there remains an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.

lFivemiletown, Co. Tyrone, BT75 0QS. Tel: 028 89521188

Lissan House

Lissan House is an enchanting country residence set within a 260 acre demesne of ancient woodland and forestry. The estate was created in the 17th century and remained the home of the Staples family for nearly 400 years. Following extensive redevelopment, the house opened its doors to reveal modern interactive exhibits and original family furnishings which take you on a unique journey through the history of the estate and the family characters that have shaped it. Children will be kept entertained in the house with the teddy bear treasure hunt. The demesne also features a challenging adventure playground for children, a wooded picnic area, walled garden and secluded walks to explore, with points of interest including the Lissan River, Ice House and Turbine House.

lDrumgrass Road, Cookstown, Co Tyrone, BT80 9SW. Tel: 028 86763312

Prehen House

Prehen House has one of the finest early Georgian interiors in Ireland. Situated next to the famous woods, it commands stunning views of Derry~Londonderry, the river Foyle and beyond. Home to the legend of half-hanged McNaughten, it is a likely inspiration to one layer of Wuthering Heights. Take one of the new guided tours of the house to learn more about this fascinating property.

lPrehen Rd, Londonderry BT47 2PB. Tel: 028 71342829

Beech Hill Country House hotel and restaurant

Built in 1739, Beech Hill Country House was given its name due to the large number of surrounding trees. Beech Hill is just two miles from the bustling City of Derry. Its stunning grandeur and Georgian elegance has attracted some very important VIPs such as former American President, Bill Clinton.

l32 Ardmore Rd, Londonderry, BT47 3QP. Tel: 028 7134 9279

Derrymore House

Derrymore House is an elegant thatched cottage that stands amid a picturesque landscape estate less than two miles from Newry. The property makes a perfect stopping point between Belfast and Dublin, with stunning scenic walks. This is where the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland was drafted. The Treaty Room is open for tours on selected dates.

lBessbrook, Newry, Co Armagh, BT35 7EF. Tel: 028 8778 4753

Benvarden House and Gardens

Benvarden House is set within a two acre garden protected by 10ft brick walls, espaliered fruit trees, herbaceous borders, roses, a lavender parterre and kitchen garden. You can take a woodland walk around lake and enjoy a stroll across the fine Victorian iron bridge which crosses the River Bush. This historic estate was built in the 1630s and owned by the Montgomery family since 1798. Most of the landscaping and planting of the mature trees was carried out by them in the years 1800-1820.

lBallybogey, Ballymoney, Co Antrim, BT53 6NN. Tel: 028 20741331

Sentry Hill

Sentry Hill is a 19th century Victorian farmhouse in the Parish of Carnmoney, Co Antrim. The contents of this historic house provide a rare insight into life in rural Ulster during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sentry Hill was the home of the McKinney family, who came to Ireland from Scotland in the early 1700s. Remarkably the contents of the house have survived almost intact. Family furniture, books, paintings, personal diaries, letters, photographs and souvenirs from trips abroad all help to tell the story of the McKinney’s, recording life at Sentry Hill and its surrounding areas.

l40 Ballycraigy Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 4SX. Tel: 028 9083 2363

Malone House

Malone House, located in Barnett Demesne in south Belfast, is a late Georgian mansion which dates from the 1820s. Close to Shaw’s Bridge and the Lagan Valley Regional Park, the elegant late Georgian mansion enjoys sweeping pastoral views across equally elegant grounds.

lBarnett Demesne, Belfast, BT9 5PB. Tel: 028 9068 1246