Christmas and New Year at Middlethorpe Hall - Photo copyright:
Surrey’s Premier Lifestyle Magazine

Classy upgrades

Kevin Pilley investigates the increasing desire for people to visit and stay in large country estates that are increasingly open to all.
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Lucknam Park - Photo copyright:
More of us are pining for wings. As well as extensive grounds, a level croquet lawn, complimentary Wellington boots, twice-mullioned windows, a four-poster bed, 14 tog duvets, Borghese balustrades and silver tiered tea-stands supporting crustless sandwiches, plain and fruit scones and highly calorific cakes, and sugar tongs. In other words, a class upgrade and some off-peak luxury. It’s called the Downton Abbey Effect. More and more country house homes are opening their doors and boot rooms to commoners.
In the last thirty years, 2,000 country homes across England, Wales and Scotland have been demolished. Many of the survivors are now hotels. Although Highclere Castle, Berkshire (used for Downton Abbey) and Montacute House, Somerset (the backdrop for Wolf Hall) remain closed for sleepovers.

But there are plenty of halls, places, courts, granges and noble piles where we can act ‘to the manor born’. Cliveden House, the former home of Nancy Astor on the Thames at Taplow, is perhaps the most palatial. Built in 1666 by the second Duke of Buckinghamshire as a gift for his mistress, it became a five-star hotel in 1985. The Duchess of Sussex stayed there the night before her wedding. Sussex’s 1598 Gravetye Manor is famous for its William Robinson garden. The Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, wrote of the guests at Gidleigh Park, Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor: “O lucky, O how wise you people are.”

It’s possible to choose an era and architectural style. For those after something highly aggrandized, turreted and castellated with private moorland, try Swinton Park in Yorkshire. Fancy a lochside baronial Scottish shooting lodge? The Torridon by Achnasheen might do. For a beech and lime avenue approach, it has to be Lucknam Park in Wiltshire.

The boutique Paschoe House near Crediton in deepest Devonshire offers outdoor lawn chess (our game was abandoned due to a waterlogged board), insulated Burfords, warnings about low door thresholds, goosedown pillows, double-sink bathrooms with underfloor heating, butterfly wallpaper, a spectacular antler chandelier and miscellaneous stuffed fauna, including a taxidermised half an ostrich called Cyril above the library fireplace. It also provides popcorn for its pay-for film channel. Not far from Exeter, it’s on the Two Moors Path which connects the county’s north and south coasts. Explore thatched villages, Sir Francis Drake’s birthplace and the seaside towns of Exmouth and Sidmouth as well as Dartmoor. Owner Tabitha Fern grew up in the house built by the man responsible for Blundell’s School, Tiverton and Pembroke College Oxford’s chapel. In Sammy she has found one of the best country house chefs. His £80 tasting menu features Creedy Carver duck with blackberries, foie gras, macadamia and shiitake mushroom and sweet potato ravioli, stone bass and Baerii caviar. Aperitifs consist of local artisanal gins with bespoke garnishes such as Thunderflower from Teignmouth and Papillon from Moretonhampstead.

PG Wodehouse eulogised: “the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured cosiness,” offered by Britain’s grand houses. So often such genteel retreats are mausoleums for the living, but Paschoe House gets the atmosphere right. It doesn’t intimidate. The only time anyone rushes is to get the window seat for breakfast and the freshest and most picturesque kippers.

Monocles are not obligatory and cummerbunds no longer de rigeur.
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Hartwell House - Photo copyright: Nigel Harper
The National Trust, which celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2020, has three hotels. Rescued from an uncertain future, they were restored and converted to hotels by Historic Hotels who donated them to the Trust in 2008. The former home of a master cutler and pioneer of smallpox inoculation, 1699 William and Mary Hampton Court clone Middlethorpe Hall, overlooking York racecourse, boasts rococo ceilings and a Jacobean staircase. Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire was where Louis XVIII lived in exile for five years.

Bodysgallen Hall and Spa, between Llandudno and Conwy in north Wales, epitomises the best grand house accommodation. It is the ideal destination for perfectly poached eggs, complimentary shortbread and petit fours, a seventeenth century, box-edged, herb-filled parterre and the place to go when a feeling comes over you “to be embosomed in woods of noble growth, which are suffered to luxuriate their own way, without any fear of the axe.” At Bodysgallen (‘the home among the thistles’ on the edge of Pydew mountain in Snowdonia), the winter mink is conspicuous by its absence. So are the deep side partings, stiff bras, taupe, elbow length gloves and studiously chic cloche hats. Very largely, Snowdonia is still very much a Marcel wave free zone.

There are not many beads or bobs. No Lady Sybil or Rosamund. Or Bates and Mrs Patmore. Nor sight nor sound of any Dowager Countess. Or any late Edwardians. But you expect to be summoned to dinner by gong. Instead, Nicolette, who has worked at the hotel since its opening on the same day as the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, calls you to your table and is on hand to ensure napkin and cutlery are correctly situated and to introduce you to strangers. Like the local Llanrwst smoked cheddar cheese. There is the distinct impression that a gong would be vulgar and not quite the thing, being associated with boxing bouts. And rather table d’hote. The sound of a grandfather clock, a working fire and people quizzing the 12.5% service charge on top of the £26 afternoon tea are the only disturbing sounds in this stubbornly British place with its atmosphere of old-fashioned endurance and genteel hospitality.

You expect Jeeves to appear any moment to inform you he is only too glad to give satisfaction and remind you that your pleasure is his sole purpose and that there is no time at all at which ties do not matter.

Instead you get Gary. As your manservant, servitor and general factotum. His job is to keep the occasional tables rosiated, the billiard balls dusted (metamorphically) and the gentlemen full of port and the ladies full of self-importance. We all need to be ‘ma'am-ed’ and ‘sir-ed’ and addressed formally on occasion.

Gary also provides advice on scone etiquette (jam or conserve first and whipped cream on top). He advises on the best places to visit – the hotel’s obelisk and Silver Anniversary and Iceberg rose garden, the thirteenth century Caernarfon Castle, Bodnant Garden, Conwy, Snowdon and, over the 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge, the Isle of Anglesey with the longest place name in Britain Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

As Matthew at Paschoe House, Gary is on hand to iron The Times and press Country Life magazine.

Both do a marvellous job, conveying restoratives on salvers and helping you keep up your aristocratic hauteur and creating the impression that your dog and family friendly ancestral home is a huge Grade 1 listed affair. Aiding you to further give off the air of having numerous sumptuously-appointed bedrooms with electric curtains, interiors famed for the excellence of their joinery, a pedimented porch, a well-filled moat and well-stocked trout lake, a helipad and electric car charging amenities, a covey of constantly curtseying chambermaids, your family motto over a very wide, deep working wood fireplace with stubbornly British chimney breasts and a determinedly oak panelled and high-ceilinged dining area.

And owning not only several grandfather clocks, but also your own clocktower. As well as, of course, easy access to seasonal saunters and red squirrel walks.

From their framed portraits, the periwigged nabobs on the walls perhaps no longer look disdainfully down on you. They seem to envy your spa treatments. Members of the nineteenth century nobility always look like they would have benefited greatly from a bio-slimming, paraben-free, fat-burning body wrap and nails by Jessica. And become less stuffy and uptight after an acrylic infill or 5-D gommage facial. And felt a different person entirely after an in-room chin or advanced bikini wax.

Although they would frown when you announce your helicopter co-ordinates in a loud voice.
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essence info - B&B at Bodysgallen Hall priced from £190 per room per night.