Neil Sowerby enjoys a spot of fine dining and spa pampering but chickens out of equine pursuits at Lucknam Park, AA Hotel of the Year 2010/11...
“I’M living the dream”. I love that expression beloved of newcomers to the spotlight, usually those whose thimbleful of talent is elevated by telly exposure. Then there’s the whole Brideshead to Downton Abbey thing we’ve got going... Britain’s Got Stately Homes, let’s call it, or The Chintz Factor.
Yet to stay in a country house hotel that ticks all the boxes is my own – less febrile –living the dream. Hence how could I say no to Lucknam Park, one of the jewels in the Relais & Chateaux portfolio and AA Hotel of the Year 2010/11?
As it turned out it ticked all the horse boxes as well as those marked Michelin-starred cuisine, spa treatments and generally imagining yourself in another age, without sacrificing 2011’s more sybaritic comforts.
I’ve never ridden tall in the saddle, so it was left to my wife (tick under accomplished rider) to mount the 16.2 hands Irish hunter and go cantering around the Park’s 500 acres.
Lucknam is situated 10 miles from Bath in a rolling hinterland offering chocolate box, film location villages such as Castle Combe and Lacock, as well as snatches of industrial heritage – quarries and mills – around the Kennet and Avon Canal. I was particularly keen to renew acquaintance with Bradford on Avon, which combines elements of both. Such was the allure of Lucknam we barely ventured out.
The sense of excitement begins with the approach to the house, a straight mile-long avenue lined three-deep with lime and beech trees. We yearned for our aging Honda to morph into a vintage Bentley or even, really getting into the spirit, a coach and pair. Aware of the valet parking that awaited us we had spruced up the interior, but we felt more like “always the bridesmaid” than Brideshead.
In our sights lay Lucknam’s grey Stuart pile with additions ranging from 18th century wings to subtly blended 20th century hotel amenity blocks. It is not one of Britain’s more forbidding mansions. From the lobby, through to the graceful Georgian public rooms, it has the feel of a rather grand home.
And that was what our welcome felt like. Not a bit stuffy. No flunkeying.
Lucknam, built on the proceeds of the 17h century cloth and tobacco trade and a hotel since 1988, has 29 rooms and 13 suites. The courtyard rooms behind the main house were converted from stables. They look out on a honeyed stone quadrangle reminiscent of an Oxford College. We were lucky enough to stay in one of the suites, The Orchard, with a direct view down the avenue. Heavy curtains, vases of flowers, a lovely limestone bathroom, four poster bed and a plush separate living room, it had the lot.
The hotel’s Michelin-starred food lived up to the surroundings, too. Hywel Jones has been head chef at Lucknam’s Park restaurant since 2004 and is a past holder of Hotel Chef of the Year. The main dining room, where we breakfasted – exquisitely – is a thing of beauty.
For dinner we were confined to the less inspiring subsidiary room. We were comforted by champagne and a spritely bottle of 2009 Beaujolais, accompanying a series of finely-judged dishes. Lots of organic and well-sourced stuff with the Burford Brown egg contributing to both breakfast and dinner
The next night we dined more casually in The Brasserie in the spa/pool complex, overlooking the walled garden. Spa/pools are, of course, de rigueur in country house hotels, but rarely do indoor pools come the size of Lucknam’s 20 metre monster, while the spa facilities (including a Japanese salt room) well deserve the accolade of the UK’s Most Delicious Spa, given by The Good Spa Guide 2010, judging by my De-Stress Botanical Oil and Herbal Back Therapy. I decided not to risk disappointment with the Eternal Youth Facial.
On-site top-level equestrian facilities are much rarer than spas. Here 35 beautifully-managed horses cater for everyone, from beginners in the learning pen to advanced riders willing to tackle the cross-country course designed by Badminton experts.
The weather during our stay was fickle, to put it kindly, but Lucknam is so welcoming we were happy to batten down the hatches with book and a beer. I was glad to see that beyond the wine and whisky lists, which could take an imbiber into the stratosphere, the hotel also carried three beers from the local microbrewery down the road, the Box Steam Brewery near Colerne. Dark and Handsome, an old ale with hints of licorice, was the pick.
We sampled other south-west brewed ales such as Moles and Butcombe during a sortie out for a more rustic lunch at the Quarryman’s Arm, Box Hill. This 300-year-old former miners’ pub is beyond off the beaten track, but the trip was worth it for the views and a reminder of the harsher aspects of this area’s past. It was round here that the stone was hewn to create the magnificence of Georgian Bath. Men sweated here, so their betters could swan around that fabulous town down the road.
After checking out at Lucknam we drove over to Bath for lunch in the epitome of all things Georgian Bath, John Wood’s Royal Crescent – at the hotel named after it, which occupies three of the houses in the gleaming scimitar-shaped terrace on the hill.
What surprises is the hotel’s large and beautiful garden which leads to the Dower House (right), where chef Luke Richards is cooking up a storm, judging by the exemplary three-course lunch – a bargain t £27.50 a head – we had overlooking the suddenly sunlit lawns. Foams (or espuma if you must) are often an affectation, but in such capable hands they worked (all of them!).
The licorice foam was a key sensory influence on my starter of roast crown of squab pigeon, apple puree, honey-glazed fig and braised lentils.
Similarly it’s frothy cumin-flavoured cousin added subtle spicing to my Asian-influenced main of tenderloin of pork, glazed belly pork, cumin-scented carrot puree and sesame pak choi.
A sommelier from deepest France came up with a creamy Languedoc white made by a Burgundian master and puddings were of the chocolate fondant, apple strudel and autumn berries pudding persuasion. No Michelin here but consummate stuff.
We walked it off in Bath, always a pleasure. Not quite as heaving as in summer. So much gustatory pleasure, time for some culture. The Literature Festival was just kicking of, so we took in a talk on the King James Bible in sedate chapel surroundings near the Pulteney Bridge. I dozed off. Later in the week, there was going to be a marathon reading of the entire work. Hallelujah.
Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa Relais & Châteaux in Colerne near Bath, is a magnificent country retreat set within 500 acres of mature gardens and parkland. There are 29 rooms and 13 suites, and facilities include a fine equestrian centre, Spa, swimming pool and tennis courts. The Country Escape package is from £415 per room per night (2 sharing for 2 nights) and includes hand-made chocolates in the room on arrival, breakfast each day, a 3–course meal in The Park (one Michelin star) and an a la carte dinner for 2 in the contemporary Brasserie. A one-hour hack is £95 for an experienced rider (£105 for novice); spa treatments are from £90 for a one-hour treatment; 3-course a la carte in The Park is from £70pp and a set menu in The Brasserie is £27pp. Rates quoted include VAT and based on 2 sharing and valid to March 30, 2011.
The Royal Crescent Hotel Relais & Châteaux in Bath, is an elegant urban residence of fine architectural note, created by John Wood, that dates to the 18th century. Situated on Bath’s famous Royal Crescent, the hotel is enhanced by beautifully manicured gardens a fine spa, an excellent restaurant and quick access to the centre of town. There are 31 rooms and 14 suites. A one-night spa break is from £345 per room per night (2 sharing) and includes full English breakfast, 2-course lunch and one 45 minute treatment. Rates quoted include VAT are based on 2 sharing and valid Sunday to Thursday.
For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com/lucknam or www.relaischateaux.com/crescent. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans.
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