If there is a commodious Victorian country house which sums up gentry living in Ulster it would be Ardtara House. Tucked away in the countryside on the outskirts of the village of Upperlands, this two storey stone house is all that is good about late 19th century domestic architecture. Timewise, the original 1896 house was extended in matching style 17 years later so contrary to appearances it strictly speaking isn’t all Victorian. No architect is recorded but it’s very similar to Ardara House in Comber, County Down, which was probably designed by the popular architect Thomas Jackson. Ardara dates from the 1870s with a 1900 matching extension and is also a two storey house of roughly rectangular plan with plenty of canted bay windows. It was built by the Andrews family who were flour and flax millowners.
Ardtara was built by linen millowner Harry Clark. In 1699 the English Parliament had enforced the Wool Act to protect the English wool industry by preventing the Irish from exporting it. To offset the economic damage, Parliament encouraged the development of linen production in Ireland. Linen is a strong natural fabric made from flax plant which grows on wet fertile soil – so suited to the Irish climate. Harry’s ancestor John Clarke of Maghera considered building a mill on the River Clady on a site he referred to as his “Upper Lands”. His son brought the idea to fruition by building the mill. In 1740 the first beetling engine began turning. William Clark and Sons Linen is one of the oldest continually running businesses in the world.
Ampertaine House was the Clark family seat on the edge of Upperlands village. It is a five bay two storey late Georgian house with a large wing. Harry decided he wanted to build his own home for himself, his wife Alice and their six children. He died in 1955, a year after his wife’s death. One of the children, Wallace, would later say, “People from all over the world came to stay in our house. There were visits from cousins and friends from Australia, New Zealand and North America. There were also agents from the 40 or so countries where linen from Upperlands was exported.” The house (and 33 hectare estate) fell into disrepair until it was saved in 1990 by Maebeth Fenton Martin, entrepreneur and Director of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for North America. She opened it as a hotel four years later. Maebeth had impeccable taste and restored the fenestration, plasterwork, panelling, chimneypieces, garden, lake and so on.
In 2014 restaurateurs Marcus Roulston and Ian Orr purchased Ardtara. It is a rural hotel addition to their urban restaurants portfolio of Eighteen Ninety Four in Portstewart and Browns Bonds Hill and Browns in Town both in Derry City. They have retained the period splendour and comfort. The top lit billiard room is now the restaurant; the pair of drawing rooms remains just that with the insertion of a bar; the conservatory has been reinstated as a function room; and nine bedroom suites are on the first floor. The terrace outside the drawing rooms has been put back and the Victorian garden restored. The garden is a dreamlike sequence of outdoor green spaces around a lake.
Marcus explains, “We have lovingly restored the house, combining romantic Victorian architecture with all the modern comforts you would expect in top class hospitality. Our idea for Ardtara was always for it to be a gourmet destination.” He and Ian have revived Ardtara’s early 20th tradition of self sufficiency of food supply supplemented by products from trusted sources within an hour’s travel. And now, to echo Wallace Clark’s words, “People from all over the world come to stay in the house.” Musician Phil Coulter, actor Bill Murray and singer Ronan Keating have all stayed at Ardtara House (although not at the same time).