Meet John and Louise Mathers, who offer a warm welcome with fabulous food
Armagh’s Newforge House is a gourmand’s delight with local, seasonal produce on the menu, plenty of period charm and lots to do nearby
Newforge House owners John and Louise Mathers first opened their family home to visitors 15 years ago.
There’s a revealing note in the guest book at Newforge House. It’s from the last resident to leave before the lockdown in March. It says; “So glad we were able to stay here on the weekend the world changed. PS, if only we could isolate here.”
It perfectly sums up the oasis-like quality of this beautiful Georgian country house, which is set in the countryside of Co Armagh.
But it doesn’t take a pandemic for visitors to appreciate its charms. The house has been working its restorative magic on guests since owners John and Louise Mathers first opened their family home to visitors 15 years ago.
For John, one of the best bits of the job is seeing guests relax even before they check in. “You can see their shoulders drop as they turn into the drive, it’s lovely to see,” he says.
Newforge House dates from the late 1700s. It has been home to six generations of the Mathers family, who have lived there since the 1850s. John spent his earliest years in a house across the road while his grandparents lived in the Big House. When he was nine, his parents moved in.
It was “an amazing” place to grow up, says John, who went on to train as a chef and work in hotels and restaurants abroad before returning home to open Newforge House’s doors. As fans of TV’s Downton Abbey will know, maintaining a period property is an ongoing, and expensive, labour of love.
“I still have to pinch myself that I’m here because it’s a beautiful house, but I couldn’t afford to live in it, so we had to make that choice,” he explains of the couple’s decision to welcome guests.
John and Louise, who have two young children, lived in a basement room for two years while they renovated the property, including completely rewiring it and adding en suite bathrooms.
They opened the doors for bookings in 2005 and have been welcoming guests continually ever since, many of them repeat visitors, the surest sign of success in hospitality.
It’s not just the beautiful surrounds that bring people back, it’s the food. Being a chef is not just John’s profession, it’s in his blood. “I think it’s in my DNA, my mother is an excellent cook - simple, home cooking but very, very good,” he says.
He and his team cook everything from scratch for both breakfast and dinner. They don’t do lunch, which makes sense - the kind of breakfast they serve here will keep even a gourmand going all day. Louise looks after all the baking, from sourdough to cheese biscuits. The only exception is the wholemeal bread, a speciality of John’s.
It’s the little details that make the difference
Part of the reason people flock here may be that, while the rest of Ireland is blessed with many luxury country house accommodation options, Northern Ireland has surprisingly few, reveals John. It is, he believes, a legacy of the Troubles.
“Historically, Northern Ireland wasn’t a travel destination but when Lou and I were starting out we knew there was a market for country house properties because we could see, from the success of the Blue Book, just how popular they are down south,” he explains.
It helps too that Newforge House is terrifically located, just half an hour’s drive from Belfast and on the edge of the village of Magherlin, so it’s quiet and peaceful – but with lots to see and do.
One of the couple’s favourite visitor sites is Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, just 15 minutes’ drive away, which has recently been renovated and made much more accessible to the public. Hillsborough Village is beautiful too, with Georgian architecture and lots of coffee shops and restaurants.
Guests can choose to be as active or relaxed as they like, with outdoor activities such as kayaking on Strangford Lough or taking a ‘blossom to bottle’ tour at Armagh Cider Company, to find out more about one of Ireland’s best known orchards. The Armagh Bramley Apple has European PGI (protected geographic indication) status.
Lough Neagh is a short drive away and the Mountains of Mourne, 40 minutes away, offer wonderful hiking. For indoor exploration National Trust properties such as Mount Stewart and Castle Ward are within easy reach, the latter familiar from Game of Thrones. Indeed a new Game of Thrones studio tour is scheduled to open near Banbridge later this year.
Or you can stay close to your home from home and savour the cuisine. Everyone staying at Newforge House gets the benefit of John’s cookery skills, his focus on classic techniques and his use of top notch ingredients, all as locally and freshly sourced as possible. That includes beef from Hannan’s, which is cured in its own salt chambers, and Abernethy hand-churned butter.
“It’s the little details that make the difference,” he explains. “When someone comes to dinner and you put out the homemade bread and fresh butter it can blow their mind it’s so fantastic.” It also sets the bar rightly high for the culinary treats in store.
The opportunity for rest and relaxation that Newforge House offers however has never been more needed, given how the world has changed since it reopened post-lockdown in late July.
We’re doing things differently to ensure everything is as safe as possible for our guests
The property has only six guest bedrooms but they have closed off one of them to facilitate social distancing downstairs. Newforge has changed its opening schedule, offering two-day breaks only. It opens to guests on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a deep clean on Thursday, before reopening for two night stays on Friday and Saturday.
“We’re doing things differently to ensure everything is as safe as possible for our guests, our staff and our family. It’s not a time to be making money, but to be working hard to ensure you keep your business going,” John explains.
The restaurant is now closed to outside diners too, to allow him to focus only on residents, his priority. Indeed, looking after guests is not just his (freshly made) bread and butter, it’s what drives him. “I enjoy the hospitality side, looking after people. We want to make sure everything is as welcoming, relaxing and safe as possible.”
Book your stay at Newforge House at Irelands-blue-book.ie