It’s where James Bond beat Goldfinger in possibly the most famous golf match in cinema history, where Bridget Jones ditched singleton life for a weekend away with boss Daniel Cleaver and where Teri Hatcher and Pierce Brosnan (as another Bond) danced the night away in Tomorrow Never Dies, so a stay at Stoke Park luxury hotel and country club certainly comes with high expectations.
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’re going to spend the night in a castle, then it’s appropriate to look the part, which is why it felt very fitting arriving at the luxury hotel Bovey Castle in the heart of Dartmoor in a £150,000 Aston Martin DB11.
A trio of valets clad in tweed plus-fours sprang into action to help us unload our luggage and admire the car (and point out that we seemed to have acquired a fair amount of the Devonshire countryside on the DB11, thanks to the incredibly narrow lanes we took to get there). However there wasn’t long to spend drooling over the car. Quentin, our archery instructor, had arrived for our lesson. See what living in a castle does to you?
Five minutes later we had walked through some of Bovey Castle’s rolling acres and swapped our very modern motor for a rather more traditional bow and arrow. The patient and friendly Quentin took us through the basics of how to shoot safely and accurately, and now it was up to us to put it into practice.
I managed to hit the target more often than not and even fluked a shot to the gold centre of the target. Flushed with success, I moved onto rifle shooting. This was much harder, with the tin cans and hanging yellow bath ducks proving much more elusive targets, until my friend Lisa suddenly ‘got it’ and was firing away like a modern Annie Oakley.
I left her to it while I made my way to our room, and when she returned half an hour later she was so pumped from her pinpoint accuracy with a lethal weapon that she barely noticed what a sumptuous suite we’d been given for the night: number 50, which was so vast we could probably have continued our target practice indoors.
There was a huge lounge with a walk-in closet, a vast bedroom, an equally large bath with freestanding tub and the whole suite was imbued with the air of luxury that only plush furnishings, epic views, a decanter of sloe gin and an ice bucket of Champagne can give. I could have happily spent the whole stay in our room.
I’ve been lucky to stay in some of the best hotel rooms in the country but for sheer romance it’s hard to beat a Beach Suite at the delightful Cary Arms and Spa on Babbacombe Bay, Devon – in the heart of the ‘English Riviera’. With a private terrace suspended over the beach, the views across the sweeping bay are your very own to enjoy, as is a lounge with flickering virtual fire and cosy sofa, an immaculate bathroom and a very smart bedroom, all decked out in a classic New England-style.
There are lovely touches, such as a coffee table handmade from stones and driftwood from the east coast of Scotland, a decanter of Plymouth sloe gin to tuck into, a bite-sized portion of seaside rock on your pillow instead of the usual chocolate and thick rugs for you to wrap yourself up in on the loungers outside for when the weather isn’t quite as clement as you’d hoped.
Some seaside hotels have great views but are far from the beach itself: the Cary Arms is right on the beach and has views to match from every room. The Beach Suites allow you to really embed yourself in the landscape, as both the lounge and bedroom have glass walls which fold back so you can roll out of bed onto the decking and simply spend the day soaking up the sun (or, if the weather is being very ‘British’ then enjoying the sight of the waves crashing onto Babbacombe beach).
There’s fast wifi, a fridge stocked with fresh milk and wine and the bathroom has all the fluffy towels and toiletries you could wish for (and a super-strong hairdryer). It’s the kind of place in which I’d love to live for a few months in glorious isolation, writing a novel while gazing at the waves, or enjoying a lengthy honeymoon with no-one to distract you except from the seagulls (seals – especially local favourite Sammy the seal – and even dolphins have also been spotted in the bay). Cary Arms can also be accessed directly from the beach and there are several mooring points for overnight stays in case the hotel is full (a likely prospect in the summer months).
It isn’t often you plan on spending the night at a rather grand country house hotel and find yourself sleeping in a treehouse on stilts in the middle of a forest. But the treehouses at Chewton Glen, the five-star hotel and spa located deep in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire, are about as far removed from the rickety wooden contraptions of one’s childhood (or Bart Simpson’s) as you could get.
In fact, they probably shouldn’t really be called treehouses at all, but maybe ‘luxury forest lodges’ probably didn’t sound, well, as much fun. The hotel’s own blurb describes them as secluded and romantic with the ‘exterior architecture in perfect harmony with the surrounding treescape’ and ‘on stilts, delicately balanced between the valley and tree canopy.’
I would probably describe them as ‘a really posh and gorgeous set of rooms which for some reason are plonked in the middle of a forest.’
They might be on stilts but thankfully they didn’t feel at all delicately balanced and indeed once you were inside, it was easy to forget that you were hovering several metres above the forest floor.
There is always a worry when it comes to revisiting a hotel which you totally adored on the first visit – what if it’s not going to be as good as you remembered it? I know people who won’t go to the same place twice for that very reason, and others who, having found the perfect place, refuse to go anywhere else.
Thankfully Cotwolds luxury hotel Whatley Manor was every bit as good as I remembered it to be from my first visit. Whatley Manor is certainly not a budget option, but there are few hotels who can offer a luxury spa, private cinema, Michelin-starred restaurant and acres of beautiful gardens, which means a stay here is more than worth it.
The drive into the courtyard at Whatley Manor sets the scene for a memorable stay; the large wooden gates sweep open for you as you approach, as if welcoming you in to a secret world. This time I even looked the part, as Vauxhall had kindly lent me a brand new Astra for my jaunt (more details below) which looked much smarter than my bright yellow Fiat.
Staff miraculously appeared out of nowhere to welcome us, take our bags and valet-park our car, and a very indulgent stay had begun. General manager Sue Williams has now been at Whatley Manor for just over a year, having previously run the equally grand Cliveden House hotel, and has thankfully resisted any drastic obvious changes (although much work has been going on behind the scenes).
There is still a lovely country house feel to the hotel, with its stone floors, mullioned windows, sprawling grounds and little touches here and there, from chess boards set up ready to play, wellies to borrow and cosy sofas dotted all around.
If your idea of a perfect summer’s day is afternoon tea (or a gin and tonic) on a beautiful lawn in the sunshine, The Manor House luxury hotel in the pretty Cotswolds village of Castle Combe, Wiltshire, is the place to be.
There you can immerse yourself in the Sunday papers (or even a game of lawn chess) with nothing to disturb you but the gentle chirp of birdsong, the occasional splash from the herons fishing in the stream running through the grounds and occasionally someone coming to ask if you’d like something more to eat or drink.
A circle of little hills wraps around The Manor House’s 365 acres, making the hotel feel cosy and protected from the outside world. Little seems to have changed here for centuries. The same can be said of the village of Castle Combe itself, a vision in pale Cotswold stone. From the stone bridge over the babbling brook at the bottom of the village to the 14th century market cross at the top, Castle Combe looks as if it has come straight out of a Cotswold calendar or the lid of a box of chocolates.
If it seems familiar, that’s because it is: Castle Combe has been the setting for a host of films and TV series, from Doctor Dolittle and War Horse to Doctor Thorne and most recently the hugely popular Japanese anime series Kiniro Mosaic, also known as Kinmoza.
The grounds of The Manor House itself circle the village like a warm embrace, with its driveway sweeping from its gates at the southerly end of Castle Combe village to the lawns in front of the hotel, past an ornate Italian garden and a row of workers’ cottages (now converted into bedrooms) before emerging at the top of the village. Continue reading A picture-perfect Cotswolds stay at The Manor House, Castle Combe→
News, reviews and opinions on everything to do with leisure, from hotels and holidays to food and fitness, by national newspaper journalist and author Sarah Bridge