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Homely charm of 400-year-old Ashbrook House

19 May 2015

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 Derry~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 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.
Melanie, who is one of the Beresford-Ash’s three daughters, worked as a fundraiser for a charity before redundancy led to her devoting her energies to promoting Ashbrook.

Married to Tipperary man Charles Cunningham and mum to four young children, she has strong views on the need for greater support for women trying to run cottage-style businesses from their own homes.
“So many kitchen enterprises are run by women and there should be a lot more support for women to get from the kitchen to a viable business set-up. These cottage businesses don’t require huge set-up costs but for whatever reason, the necessary support doesn’t seem to be available,” she said.

“There’s a great food community here and that, I think, is key to economic regeneration. People have got to work together and pull together, and there is plenty of business to go around.

“People in Ireland are waking up to the fact that we produce fabulous milk, fantastic meat, and we’re surrounded by the best fishing. The fact our fish and lamb goes to France, speaks volumes. We’ve got fantastic produce and now we have local, small artisan businesses like Tamnagh Foods and Broighter Gold.”

As well as organising pre-booked tours, Melanie and Agnes make elderflower cordial which is bottled and sold in the neighbouring Ashbrook Garden Centre. They are also keen devotees of bread making and home-grown produce for use in cooking, baking and preserves.

The annual Foraging Day in June attracts hundreds of visitors as stall-holders take up residence in the grounds of Ashbrook and professional chefs assist with cooking demonstrations using berries, leaves and other wild produce foraged during the day.
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 last weekend 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. 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 country estate foraging day in June which attracts 600-700 people, and the European Heritage Open Days in September.”

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

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