At the end of the winding mountainous road leading down from the Gortin Lakes into the village is a single storey white rendered slate roofed building. Provincial Ulster architecture at its best. It overlooks St Patrick’s Church of Ireland. The pillar box red painted doors at either end of the façade are a drive-by giveaway: it’s The Old School (gender segregated entrances for schoolchildren). Upon closer inspection a plaque over each door reads: “Beltrim National School 1899”. Beltrim Castle is the estate on the edge of the village. The eight bay Old School – or should that be Auld School? – is now a smartly kitted out holiday cottage to let. A combined reception room and kitchen is open to the beamed ceiling and there are two guest bedrooms.
The most idiosyncratically located picnic table in the area is next to the roof of Rylagh Limekiln. Down a narrow road leading nowhere in particular, this square stone stower built into the roadside slope encases an egg shaped chamber made of brick. A hole in its base opening to the road facing front allowed in air to assist combustion, and at a later stage in the process, the removal of the end product. Limestone from a neighbouring quarry was burnt with peat for a week inside the limekiln to produce a white powdered form – lime – suitable for agricultural and building use. Erected in 1800, the limekiln was restored 215 years later by a local group of volunteers ‘Friends of the Glens’. The lime may have gone, but the stone structure stands as a reminder of Auld Times.
It’s the most architecturally satisfying aesthetically appetising crossroads in County Tyrone. To the northeast, a coffeeshop. To the southeast, a church. To the southwest, a school, To the northwest, a country house. All oozing rural charm. Welcome to Gortin. The ‘t’ is pronounced “ch”. The main approach to the crossroads could hardly be more dramatic. An inland corniche snakes through the purple heather topped Sperrin Mountains in a downward spiral (Gortin Lakes on one side, Gortin Forest on the other) before plummeting into the valley of the Owenkillew River to arrive at the crossroads. Time to go for a wee dander. If the crossroads is considered the western end and St Patrick’s Catholic Church accessed off Chapel Lane the eastern end, that means Gortin High Street is the princely length of 585 metres long.
The Auld Bank Coffeeshop is a single storey dropping to two storeys to the rear three bay building facing the high street. “Auld” meaning “old” is pronounced “owl”. Its rough cut stone and brick quoined exterior is more associated with east of the River Bann villages such as Hillsborough and Moira. Ulster Bank closed its branch in 2015 and the building owner, Blakiston Houston Estates Company, converted it into a coffeeshop. A very popular one at that, serving the best panini west of the Bann. The bank was built in 1845 with a gabled porch added in 1980. In true late 20th century style, the fanlight and sidelights surrounding the entrance door have a post modern feel to them. The interior has been opened up; simple ceiling mouldings provide an unpretentious backdrop to the café.
Beltrim National School is a long single storey white rendered with slate roof building looking across the road to the cemetery. A juxtaposed case of early life meets everlasting life. To either extremity of the façade is an entrance (one for boys, one for girls) separated by six tall windows. Both entrance doors are painted farm shed red with a school name plus date plaque (1899). Completely symmetrical, the former school turned youth club portrays provincial architectural perfection. So contained, so uncontrived.
There’s nothing castellated about Beltrim Castle. Alright, remnants of an early 17th century bawn are integrated in the garden wall. Tyrone people call country houses “castles”. Locals refer to nearby Baronscourt (firmly in the country house category) as “the castle”. Alastair Rowan believes the current appearance of Beltrim Castle dates from the 1820s and notes its overhanging eaves. The house is incredibly attractive in an understated Ulster way. The five bay entrance front has a fanlight over its entrance door as big and grand as one on any Dublin townhouse. To the rear, Beltrim Castle’s return wing is nearly as long as Gortin High Street or at least a terrace lining it. The estate is privately owned by the Blakiston Houstons but the gardens are occasionally open to the public.
Anglicisation from Gaelic is to blame in some instances (The Argory is a case in point) but quite a few Irish country houses have intriguing names. Jockey Hall and Shandy Hall (the latter in Dripsey) sound fun. Whiskey Hall sounds like too much fun. Bachelors Lodge and Hymenstown are presumably miles apart. Mount Anne or Mount Stewart anyone? The mildly unnerving Flood Hall, Fort Etna, Spiddal Hall and The Reeks. Is Sherlockstown worth investigating? Zoomorphic zaniness: Fox Hall, Lizard Manor, Lyons, Mount Panther and Roebuck Hall. Elphin – Castle? Place names too. Bungalo begs the question: is it full of single storey residences?
Lots of houses without so much as a battlement are called castles: Beltrim Castle, Castle Coole,Castle Grove, Castle Leslie. Castle ffrench joins this list although there are ruins of a tower house on the estate. The double consonant lower case doesn’t disguise the fact the name originated somewhat unsurprisingly in France. The ffrench family were part of a Norman landing in County Wexford in 1169. In time, they became one of the 14 Tribes of Galway. Their single consonant upper class case cousins owned French Park in County Roscommon.
Castle ffrench is a star of Maurice Craig’s seminal work Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. He notes its plan is virtually identical to Bonnettstown’s in County Kilkenny, despite the 90 mile 40 year gap. A notable feature of both pretty Big Houses is the pair of staircases side by side, like slightly asymmetric Siamese twins. A thin wall between the pair once segregated the classes’ ascent and descent (for richer, for poorer). One is dressed in plasterwork; the other bare. Landings pressed against the four bay rear elevation provide interesting mid storey variations in window positions. Both stairwells are lit by tall fanlight topped windows identical on the outside – only the family one has internal panelling.
The front elevation is more conventional, the grouped middle three bays of a five bay composition gently projecting. Urns and finials sprouting from a solid parapet dot the horizon. A three storey over basement (hidden to the front | semi exposed to the sides | for all to see to the rear) limestone block, this house is the epitome of Irish Georgian style. It even has an archetypal fanlight set in the entablatured triglyphed pilastered fluted rosetted doorcase. Conservation architect John O’Connell calls the building “very accomplished” and recognises the influence of the architect Richard Castle. A niche in the entrance hall is marginally unaligned with the ceiling plasterwork above. A signal that the house is the work of a builder with a pattern book or two at his disposal? Or simply plastered on a Friday afternoon?
Castle ffrench rises above an unruffled patchwork quilt, a landscape of interlocking greens, quieter than Pimlico Tube Station on a Friday evening (are Pimlocals like Peter York too posh to push onto public transport?). So silent. Rural aural aura. Within the vale beyond The Pale. A mile long drive and 40 acres keep the populace at bay. Augustine days of yore aren’t so distant… Indoors, there’s a hooley! The plasterwork, at any rate. The stuccodores’ genius charges towards zenithsphere in the entrance hall and landing (of the family staircase). Neoclassicism and rococo blend and blur in mesmerising jigs and reels of fables and foliage ribboned round Irish harps and ffrench French horns. Wreathes and sheaves and sickles, the whole shebang.
Lady Fifi ffrench (stutteringly fitting phonetics or what?) and her husband John were the last of the original family to reside at Castle ffrench. Sheila and Bill Bagliani, the current owners, have sensitively restored this knockout property, subtly preserving its patina of age. Bertie the Labrador and Sally the Westie run amok through the grounds. Sheila, a talented artist, has a top floor studio to kill for. No really. All stairs lead to a second floor central corridor spanning the full width of the house. This corridor might not have the ornate plasterwork of the spaces below but it’s very much defined by a series of blind and open arches like abstract vaulting. A forerunner to Sir John Soane’s streamlined style. At one end, a door opens into a softly lit corner room with views to die for. There are flowers and canvases and a ghost – a previous owner refuses to leave and who could blame her? – in the attic.