Joyce Brownless is mistress of all she surveys in Scarva’s stunning Blackwell House.
"I never remember not being able to bake a cake or make pastry” says Joyce Brownless, the owner of Blackwell House, and the force behind what has quickly become Northern Ireland’s leading luxury guesthouse, a hidden escape in the backwater of the rolling drumlin hills near the village of Scarva in South County Down.
The cultural cornerstone of this Ulster experience has got to be Joyce’s intuitive understanding of Ulster’s famous breads. Between breakfast and dinner and, of course, afternoon tea, she will probably have made wheaten loaves, scones, triangles of white soda, griddle pancakes and potato farls. Feel sorry for anyone who orders a croissant or a Danish pastry, but she offers those too.
Being able to bake perfectly is meritable, but this is not all Joyce is capable of. Everything she cooks at dinner is a benchmark example of how the dish should be: benchmark confit duck; benchmark accompanying salsa; benchmark leek and potato soup; absolutely benchmark slow cooked medallions of limousin beef. What’s for dessert? Joyce has just knocked together a few chocolate profiteroles, or some Baileys cheesecake. Benchmark.
Blackwell House itself is like a stage set. Those scones were griddled on Great Aunt Maggie’s 100 year old griddle; the limousin beef slow cooked for four hours in the Aga. The large dining room reminds me of a French farmhouse, with a minstrels gallery from which the bedrooms sit. Our fellow guests had stumbled across Blackwell whilst looking for one of only three accommodation providers in the North who offer a Super King Size Bed, and be assured that in your room, your bathtops will roll, your towels will be fluffy, there will be fresh flowers, homemade shortbread with the tea tray, your bedtime pillow will hold a bedtime treat macaroon, and the thread on your Egyptian cotton sheet will have been counted.
Some places are beautiful, but you don’t see the work that goes into them. Not so Blackwell. The meticulous design, the memorabilia from Africa, the house plants, and sofa coverings, the polished leather artefacts and fresh flowers, all remind you that this has been crafted for you, the guest, for your absolute comfort. Nothing has been overlooked. You’ll have home-made jam at breakfast, and you’ll be able to see the eggs being collected from the chickens who will lay them for your meal in the back garden. The teak sideboards will have been waxed, the fireplace laid, the candles lit. What else can you do but surrender to its luxury.
The only out of place character in this set piece, is their very vocal dog, Murphy, who insists you throw the ball, and woofs to you all the time, because he loves visitors. “He’s been promoted from greeter to Entertainment Director” laughs Joyce. He wins us all over, and we are entertained.
Joyce and her husband Steve have only been open a couple of years, but we can expect many things from Blackwell House and its meticulous and talented owners.