When I first started staying at Ardmore Guest Farm 16 or 17 years ago, ceramics from the studio that bear the same name were regularly used at meal times. Then, during the course of one calamitous morning, two teapots were accidentally smashed.
And that was the end of that.
Understandably so, considering that these days an Ardmore teapot costs around R3 800. After all, these ceramics have a global following. Christie’s auction house calls them “modern-day collectibles”. And they’ve been presented as state gifts to the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, former US president Bill Clinton and former French president Jacques Chirac.
But I’m not here to tell you about Ardmore ceramics. I’m just clearing up some confusion – while the studio was once adjacent to Ardmore Guest Farm and housed in an old block of stables, the two aren’t linked, and the ceramics operation has since moved elsewhere, to the KZN Midlands.
That stable block, however, is being refurbished and turned into more accommodation, with seven new units scheduled. But Ardmore isn’t about rapacious expansion or commercialism. Instead it aims for – and achieves – a happy balance between being too rustic and too chintzy in a Beatrix Potter idiom.
South Africans seem to love the place. And so do foreigners – many of them well-heeled individuals who could doubtless afford to stay somewhere far splashier and flashier. It regularly hosts a positive United Nations of overseas guests, as well as the occasional celebrity.
The art of making guests feel at home
Over the years I’ve become friends with owner Paul Ross and his British wife Sue, the two being a couple instinctively instructed in the art of making guests feel like they’re not so much in a hostelry, as visiting a private home.
“You know that some people want to just be left alone, and so they are,” Paul told me a while ago over an Ardmore “picture breakfast”. Or least that’s what I call it, as you select your hot breakfast by ticking the appropriate illustration of one or two eggs, boiled or fried, one or two sausages, and so on, on a laminated menu.
“A lot of people love the quiet,” he added. Exactly. Much of my first book – Dystopia, an addiction-memoir launched last year – was written at Ardmore, with large chunks of that writing taking place under the liquid amber tree that dominates the front garden.
A garden that has as a backdrop the three highest peaks in all of South Africa, in all their Wagnerian majesty. And whether those peaks are snow-capped in winter or mossy-green in full and glorious summer, they’re just magnificent. Then there’s the fact that it’s pet friendly. Over the years I’ve visited with my dearly departed Stafford, Gatsby, and more recently Milo and Daisy, my two little charity mongrels.
Since Paul bought Ardmore in the mid-90s it has expanded from being just a simple farmhouse on a working farm to include five rondavels, two family units and a quartet of double storey cottages with beautiful views, whirlpool baths and three bedrooms each. Fireplaces, of course, are obligatory all round.
But – and here’s the part I like – Paul, who has always vaguely reminded me of Tom Hanks, is adamant that Ardmore won’t grow too big or too commercial. As it is, there are no TVs in the accommodation. Just one in the snug bar.
Another thing that draws me back time and again to Ardmore is the food. While many places trumpet that their cuisine is “home-cooked” or “farm-style” or some other euphemistic rubbish, the Ardmore food really is that, and dinners are wonderful four-course affairs – with complimentary wine – in the Yellowwood dining room.
After dinner, guests gather in the lounge around the fireplace. The atmosphere is invariably convivial, while on every single visit to the place I’ve met interesting individuals, from South Africa and abroad.
Serenity – that most ‘elusive of abstracts’
Activities at Ardmore abound, from taking in the on-site African loom weaving outfit where you can buy hand-woven bags and cushions, made from home-dyed cotton, to bass fishing and bird watching at the farm dam. There’s also a swimming pool and hiking to be had.
Just as fascinating is the Ardmore Ceramic Art Museum, displaying a cross section of this world-famous art. And then there are activities aplenty to be had in the surrounding Champagne Valley, in the central Drakensberg, in which Ardmore is set.
But perhaps what truly draws me back to Ardmore time and again are the views and the fact that the serenity – that most elusive of abstracts – hangs heavy in the air.
Rates are extraordinarily competitive, bordering on cheap, starting at but R495 per person out of season, including dinner, bed and breakfast. Sometimes I secretly think that Paul could substantially hike tariffs without a murmur of dissent from guests.
Just don’t expect the Ardmore ceramics to be hauled out for daily use any time soon.
If your interest is piqued, visit www.ardmore.co.za or call Ardmore Guest Farm on 036 4681314.