Room Service

Another country

Fiona Duncan’s post-Covid-19 hotel wish list

As a travel writer used to spinning around the world and shuttling between homes in London and the country, my modus vivendi has abruptly changed.

Do I care? Of course I want to stop the tragic deaths, to see my children and grandchild, to hug friends. But do I ever want to get on a plane again? To live in two places and settle in neither? No. It has been cathartic to remain still, to realise the enormous privilege of a garden, to tend it, listen to music, read, cook unhurriedly, relax.

I had work trips to Thailand, India and the Caribbean planned; perhaps they will still go ahead, but I’ve cancelled them anyway. Suddenly, I don’t want the hassle; I want to stay home and when I venture out, to do so in places where I can appreciate our country. When I want a treat, Britain, and its fine crop of hotels, will do very well for me.

It’s instructive, after 30 years of writing about British and Irish hotels, to close my eyes and see which ones float temptingly to mind to visit when free once again. In strict order, here are the four that floated first.

At Ballymaloe House, County Cork, you can take a residential course at the Cookery School, stay in the hotel and do no cooking at all or combine the two by attending a cookery class just for an afternoon. That way, you benefit from both facets of Ballymaloe, an enterprise that’s all about good food, sustainability, family life, enterprising women and Irish charm. It was begun by life force Myrtle Allen, 57 years ago, and is still presided over by her extended family.

Myrtle’s husband Ivan Allen bought the Georgian country house, grafted on to the remains of a Norman castle, in 1947 and Myrtle began cooking for guests with its farm’s produce in the 1960s. Slowly but surely, the restaurant she established in her family home morphed into a 30-bedroom hotel, plus self-catering cottages, while her daughter-in-law, Darina, made the cookery school famous. A hotel that has grown organically, with a raft of devoted staff, where home cooked food from home grown produce is at its heart: there can be few places more engaging in which to relax and do nothing, except tuck in each night into the hotel’s delicious five-course dinner, including one trolley of puds and another of Irish cheeses. I find I long for Ballymaloe.

And I long for Olga Polizzi’s divine slice of 18th century life at Hotel Endsleigh, Devon. This delightful Regency cottage orné is set down a mile-long drive in its own secret valley. Built for the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, its gardens were laid out by Humphry Repton, whose plans included siting hidden chimneys in the woods so they could see smoke curling prettily above the trees. Today, you can gaze on the same unchanged view: Repton’s Yew Walk, the River Tamar and the tumbling woods beyond. With its wooden floors and solid doors, Endsleigh brings to mind an endearingly old-fashioned Scottish shooting lodge, but one artfully blended with contemporary luxury and Mrs Polizzi’s stunning eye for design. The 19 bedrooms are stylish and unfussy and include three suites in the stable block and a quirky, delightful conversion of the former hayloft. As for the grounds, they’re a fantasy of dells and grottos, cascades and crags.

A windmill would be nice … Cley Windmill, Norfolk is one of the most enchanting places to stay in Britain. In late afternoon, when the wind whips across from the sea, there are few greater pleasures than stowing away hats, coats and binoculars (it’s bird-watching country) as you come home to this restored mill, complete with sails. Echoes of children’s adventure stories flood back as you climb higher and higher, finally mounting the ladder to the Wheel Room.

Downstairs, there’s a beamed, lived-in circular dining room with a blazing fire and antiques, while the cosy sitting room, complete with bar, is part of the original 1713 warehouse. Candlelit dinners are just right: convivial affairs with proper country cooking. There are ten rooms, two of which, Dovecote and the new Old Cart Shed, are self-catering cottages in the old stables. The three circular bedrooms in the tower itself have bathrooms ingeniously fitted into challenging nooks and crannies. All are charming and full of character, with views over the waving reed beds to the sea.

And a beautiful garden, now that I have become obsessed with gardening, would be lovely too. Bodysgallen Hall, Conwy, a dignified, gentle-paced oasis of calm only a short distance from Llandudno’s famous promenade, is the fourth hotel to bubble to the surface of my unusually relaxed mind. I shall climb its tower — the medieval core of the fine 17th-century mansion — for a panorama that includes the mountains of Snowdonia and, below, award-winning gardens: follies, cascade, rare 17th-century parterre and walled rose garden. Heaven. Bring it on!

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