It goes without saying that anyone doing battle with the traffic on either the M25, A2 or A20 routes is probably in need of some serious relaxation, but they might be surprised to learn that there is an oasis of calm just moments away. Thankfully due to its location in 15 acres of beautiful bluebell woods and manicured lawns, no traffic noise penetrates the calm of Rowhill Grange hotel and spa – its outdoor garden of tranquility would be rather ineffective if it did – and just minutes in coming off the M25 I was taking pictures of the bluebells and signs saying ‘Ducks crossing’ and feeling as I were deep in the Kent countryside.
Four-star luxury hotel Rowhill Grange is owned by Alexander Hotels, which also owns the Alexander hotel and spa in West Sussex, Barnett Hill in Surrey and Langshott Manor, also in Surrey – and which I can highly recommend, it being a unique 16th-century manor house just minutes from Gatwick Airport (thankfully not underneath the flight path).
Rowhill Grange in’t quite as historic as Langshott Manor but is no spring chicken either: it was built in 1868 and later owned by Sir George Cole, Lord Mayor of London and breeder of Shetland ponies. Having survived the Blitz, the house was converted into a country house hotel and restaurant in 1987 and acquired by its current owners in 1994. The original coaching house is still intact, next to the main building, and used for weddings and private parties.
I really hope that Meghan Markle gets another chance to spend the night at Cliveden, the historic country house hotel where she is spending the night before her wedding. While the luxury five-star Berkshire hotel with its 376 acres of stunning countryside will be a great haven of calm for her before the madness of the big day itself, as a nervous bride-to-be I’m not sure how much she’ll be able to take in of the hotel itself: its sumptuous rooms, its luxury spa, its fine-dining restaurant and most of all, the atmosphere of history and celebrity which is soaked into the very walls.
Throughout my own stay at the rather fabulous Cliveden House Hotel, there was one question which I found almost impossible to answer. Would Cliveden still be as fabulous if it wasn’t, well, Cliveden? Would it seem as special if it were just a very nice 17th century country house in which Winston Churchill and Noel Coward hadn’t stayed, for example? Would its gardens still be as pretty if you weren’t thinking that Lady Astor had strolled these very grounds with George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin?
And would the beautiful outdoor swimming pool in the walled garden still be quite as marvellous to swim in if – well, you get the idea.
The thing about Cliveden is that it is almost impossible to judge it on its own merits by separating it from its quite incredible past. The Great Hall with its portraits and grand fireplace is stunning, but it feels even more so because you know that some of the most accomplished people in recent history have discussed art and politics over cocktails exactly where you are sitting.
The swimming pool would be a talking point in its own right, but it is particularly amazing to swim in because you know it is where John Profumo met Christine Keeler and precipitated a whole chain of events which scandalised the nation and eventually led to the fall of the Government.
If you were to try and describe a classically British pub, then you’d probably come up with something like The Bull Inn, Sonning, in Berkshire. It’s got roaring fires and low beams, it is more than 600 years old, does great food and drink and is at the heart of the village.
Writer Jerome K Jerome wrote of the pub in his book Three Men in a Boat, saying: ‘If you stop at Sonning, put up at the Bull behind the church. It is a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.’
It has barely changed in the hundred or so years since those words were written, although the green, square courtyard in front is now more concrete than green. However there are still tables outside giving a nice view of the church next door (which owns the pub and leases it to Fullers brewery). There’s also a handy hatch to the bar from outside through which you can order drinks, and nice touches such as blankets in case the weather is also classically British.
The Bull even has the approval of Hollywood superstar George Clooney, who presumably can drink anywhere he likes but chooses to pop into The Bull whenever he’s back at his English home, which is just across the river. His very own brand of tequila, Casamigos, which George set up with his chum Randy Gerber (aka Mr Cindy Crawford) before selling for $1 billion (nice work if you can get it) is sold here and Mr Clooney has not only brought chums such as Bill Murray and Matt Damon here but has praised The Bull on various US talkshows, calling it ‘a great pub.’ Continue reading The Bull at Sonning: a perfect example of a great British pub→
‘Clutter makes you reach for a biscuit,’ says Anna, as she looks around my bedroom. I can think of no better way to convince me to embrace the popular decluttering trend which takes in everything from Marie Kondo to the tradition spring clean via newspaper articles on how to declutter your wardrobe. Clutter is distracting, clutter is stressful and clutter stops you from achieving your goals, so the theory goes, and I can’t be the only one who’s ever sat at my desk to work and found that the piles of paper/clothes/washing-up/to-do-lists have totally put me off what it what I was supposed to be doing.
Adds Anna, rather alarmingly: ‘Your house is a mirror of your mental and emotional state’, which makes me wonder what impression my bedroom is making on her. It isn’t messy, but because I share my flat and often work from home there are certainly a lot of things packed into a rather small space – a bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers jostle for space alongside piles of books, files, a desk and a printer. However after an intense couple of hours with Anna, not only am I feeling rather proud of myself for filling up not one but two black bin bags (one full of rubbish, one for the charity shop) but I’m also I’m feeling strangely liberated.
As someone who moves house every few years and who therefore tries not to acquire too much ‘stuff’, I’m surprised at how much I’ve still managed to acquire. But Anna’s approach isn’t just about getting rid of unnecessary items (and I’ve always viewed the ‘oh no, I’ve got way too many things’ crisis as a bit of a First World problem) but about better organising the things you have, so that they are more efficiently placed and easier to find and will thus reduce the stress and tension which builds up when you are constantly losing things or simply feeling overwhelmed in your own house.
‘I’m interested in the psychological effect of our surroundings’, says Anna. ‘It’s an extension of you and your emotional state. It needs to have a calming effect and not for you to get more stressed about it.’ If your possessions are badly organised or buried underneath other items then you can become demotivated and uninspired, she adds: ‘You will start to procrastinate and your time management will be poor and it competes for your attention.’ Continue reading How to declutter your wardrobe and give yourself (and your stuff) a chance to breathe→
‘We just fell in love with the Isle of Wight,’ said owner David Barrett as he showed me around Haven Hall, one of the newest B&Bs on the Isle of Wight. ‘It’s exactly like England was, 40 or 50 years ago.’
Now this could be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view, but there’s no question that the Isle of Wight has a unique charm which has made it a popular place in which to live or visit – especially during the summer months when the beaches really come into their own. I went mid-week at the end of March and while it was pretty cold it was beautifully sunny and showed off the coastal walks and the rolling hills inland to their best.
From the Easter holidays onwards the pace really picks up, but with Easter a few weeks away it felt as if I had the island almost all to myself. This meant that popular places such as gastro-pub The Taverners in Godshill, which consistently features on Best Pubs in Britain lists and consequently is hard to book, was practically empty when I turned up on spec and so was able to enjoy an excellent meal without the crowds.
I also had the run of two charming B&Bs during my stay as both were gearing up for the summer season. Both were in the town of Shanklin, on the east coast, which has pleasant beaches, gardens, a town which has possibly seen better days and an quirky Old Town where the pubs are thatched, the streets winding and which is probably packed with tourists in summertime.
My first night’s stay was at Haven Hall, a grand establishment on the clifftop with spectacular views along the coast. The coastal path is just yards away making it an ideal place for walkers and with seven self-catering apartments as well as six bedrooms in the main building, you can arrive back from a bracing walk without disturbing anyone.
I stayed in the immaculate Seagulls Suite which had great views, including through its porthole window and a large bedroom which led through to a fully kitted-out kitchen. There was a microwave, Nespresso coffee-maker, hob oven and all the utensils you could wish for (as well as restaurant recommendations if you didn’t want to do the work yourself) and the whole place was very quiet and relaxing, a little bolt-hole of calm.
David and his wife Arielle bought Haven Hall some years ago and re-opened last year after a multi-million pound refit, buying the property next door, individually styling each of the rooms and apartments and landscaping the gardens which contain an open-air swimming pool, grass tennis court and a pagoda, licensed for weddings. (The gardens were named Isle of Wight’s Best Commercial Garden by Alan Titchmarsh last year).
As well as a luxury B&B, Haven Hall plays host to all sorts of events including yoga weekends and lunches (as I left the following morning the house was filling up with attendees of a gardening lunch) and has already attracted a celebrity fan base with previous guests including Colin Firth and Abby and Peter Clancy.
To not disrupt the lunch guests David dropped off two vast baskets of breakfast goodies the night before, including bacon, eggs, sausages, cereal, fruit, bread and even chocolate eggs so I made use of the kitchen and emerged replete to explore the coast including the charming and quirky beach at Steephill Cove.
My second night on the Isle of Wight was at Foxhills of Shanklin, just a few minutes’ drive away. Run by Ray and Ann Snook, who formerly ran restaurants in California before returning to the UK, Foxhills is a classically-decorated eight-bedroom B&B with a lounge, breakfast room and even a jacuzzi hot tub on the ground floor, which is very popular with guests returning after a long day’s walking round the island.
The rooms are all light and airy, with all the necessary amenities such as kettles, hairdryers, toiletries and wifi, and even though it’s on a main road there is no hint of traffic noise. I was also pleased to see not just information about the hotel in each room (which are all named after local towns) but there were also useful hand-drawn maps of the local area and local walks with recommendations of places to visit.
There are gardens at the side and rear of the property for al fresco drinks and dining in the summer months, and over breakfast you might even be lucky and catch a glimpse of Cyril, the friendly local red squirrel.
As a chef himself, Ray is justifiably proud of his breakfasts which cater to vegetarians and vegans as well as meat-eaters and fans of a Full English: I had an excellent avocado on toast with a poached egg and liked the little individual carafes of orange juice served to each person. Ray is currently considering opening the restaurant in the evenings to guests and locals but is waiting to gauge interest before taking the plunge: with his cooking and hospitality I think it would be a great idea.
There was just time for a quick visit to excellent The Garlic Farm in the middle of the island before my ferry back to the mainland but I made the most of it by stocking up on my current obsession – Isle of Wight Blue cheese – and taking a leap of faith with garlic beer. Can this be a good thing?
However places like The Garlic Farm and The Taverners certainly show that there is a lot more to the Isle of Wight than just the seaside – and there’s the 50th anniversary of The Isle of Wight Festival this year, a great excuse to return!
Haven Hall, 5 Howard Road, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6HD email@example.com Tel: 07914 796 494