The drive up to the lodge gate at Hartwell House is impressive. No less because Dave, the lodge-keeper, pops his head up seemingly from nowhere. “You must be Mr Mossack. Welcome to Hartwell House. Please drive around to your right where Martin, our porter, will meet you.”
Dave’s ability to materialise at will is something of a rarity as is the polite notice I spot as the gate raises warning off any potential coach parties from entering. A clear sign to me this hotel has all the right type of form; a desired destination but discreetly protective of its guests’ privacy.
I follow Dave’s directions around a bend and as Hartwell House comes into view I realise I’ve stopped breathing. A quite beautiful Jacobean mansion surrounded by 90 acres of sumptuous National Trust gardens and forest once designed by Richard Woods a contemporary of legendary landscaper Capability Brown. I circle the imposing statue of a mounted Frederick Prince of Wales to find Martin patiently waiting.
As first impressions go, it doesn’t get much better.
From check-in until I’m deposited up in my Royal room, Martin takes me on a journey of discovery of Hartwell’s previous cast of characters; from William Peveral, the son of William the Conqueror, to Louis XV11 the exiled king of France and his entire Court post-French Revolution. As we pass through one impossibly grand room after another Martin passes on another nugget about the Lee family. “Ancestors of Confederate president Robert E Lee and related to actor Christopher Lee.” Even millionaire recluse Ernest Cook grandson to Victorian travel tycoon Thomas Cook gets a mention.
My Royal room is one of seven in the main house; a vast space furnished with antiques and period features dominated by an equally grand king bed. Storage opportunities are everywhere; a walk-in closet here, a chest of drawers there and comfy window seats under each impressive window offering views across the gardens. In my head I visualise a French Court maid sitting here gazing at the view and perhaps dreaming of one day returning to France. The en-suite bathroom is perfect; a proper size bath that actually lets you lie back, a powerful shower and luxury toiletries.
But it’s not all antiquity. There’s a flat screen TV and DVD, free speedy wifi and bottles of filtered water and homemade biscuits.
I go back down and armed with a map and a directory of the trees in the estate, I set out to explore as many of the 90 acres as I can, all of it now under the watchful care of Head Gardener Richard Jones. It’s all here; a ruined church, a gorgeous lake filled with geese, ducks and swans, a wood or two, and plenty of statues and columns that simply ooze history and thousands and thousands of flowers. I pause by a once handsome pavilion and spot 1884 scratched on a wall. I walk under a Giant Sequoia one of ten different species of trees. A gothic tower is an indulgent folly as is a statue of Hercules nearby. The bridge spanning the lake is taken from the centre arch of Kew Bridge. And to cap it all, small herds of local cows idly graze the verdant meadows. It is quite possibly the most perfect picture of serenity you could wish for so close to a major town.
My stroll eventually takes me around to the spa; a place of peace and tranquillity within a converted orangery where therapist Anna awaits for my scheduled treatment. A 55-minute hero aromatherapy massage. Apparently, she used Swedish and neuromuscular techniques to reduce my muscular tension and stress. All I can say is I woke up an hour later without a care in the world. I couldn’t even summon the energy to take a dip in the pool or take a steam.
Back inside, as evening draws in, the fireplaces are lit and the bar beckons before dinner. An impressive selection of single malts and gins are hard to resist, but I enjoy a glass of smooth Rioja instead. The dining room is surprisingly contemporary although the waiters’ jackets and tails pay homage to the history of this house. There’s nothing old-fashioned about the food, however. Chefs Daniel Richardson and Martin Lee provide outstanding fare sourced from local farmers.
An exceptional cauliflower soup is up first with added spicy cauliflower and flavours of apples. I’m torn between pan seared fillet of halibut on a bed of pickled mouli and charred Chinese cabbage with a prawn dumpling or the Aylesbury Duck, after all, I am in the Vale of Aylesbury. I spot both on a nearby table and they look very edible indeed. In the end, I decline both in favour of a fillet steak with homemade chips, vine tomato, roasted turnip and seasonal vegetables. A perfect peppercorn sauce is the tipping point for me. In my opinion, this dish cannot be any better.
There’s nothing like going out in a blaze of glory and the treacle dessert was exactly that. A slice of lemon treacle with blackcurrant curd, poached pears and clotted cream ice cream was the perfect finale to a very memorable dinner.
There is something very special about retiring to a grand lounge, sitting in front of a crackling fire and sipping fresh coffee and at Hartwell House I sense the previous occupants agreeing with me as they peer down at me from their wall portraits.
As I walk back up the gothic staircase to my room I feel King Louis is with me all the way.
A new day dawns and I’m back in the same room for breakfast. Frankly, any hotel that offers sourdough with smashed avocado and poached egg as a breakfast menu option gets a gold star from me. The same for the smoked cheddar at the buffet. What a way to start a day.
Hartwell House Hotel is a National Trust property managed by Historic House Hotels who also manages two other National Trust properties; Middlethorpe Hall in York and Bodysgallen Hall in Llandudno, North Wales. Each property is like a time machine; a luxurious glimpse of times past.
As I wave farewell to Dave who pops back up at the lodge on my way out, I feel my stay is far too short. Rest assured, it won’t be long until we meet again my friend.
Tell me more about Hartwell House Hotel
Hartwell House Hotel, Oxford Road, Near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP17 8NL
T: 01296 746500 E:firstname.lastname@example.org
Room rates from £220 including breakfast.
Hartwell offers an a la carte dinner menu and a seasonal dinner menu. Three courses £64 or two courses £53.
The spa is open from 7.30am to 9.30pm (7.30pm on weekends) The Ultimate Aromatherapy Experience Andy had is £75 for 55 minutes.