Feature The country's finest country house hotels offer a lesson in history as well as stately accommodation, beautiful locations and fine dining.
England's great escapes
One of the quintessential pleasures of a visit to England is the opportunity to stay in a classic country house hotel. With their stately buildings, rolling parkland, walled gardens and cherished traditions, such historic residences do not just offer the chance to relax in splendid surroundings - they are also a fast track to understanding the national character. How do you play croquet? What is a ha-ha? Why eat kippers for breakfast? Such mysteries are explained when you check into these rural sanctuaries, which provide an impressive, almost theatrical, display of what the English consider the very best things in life. Above all, a stay at a good country house hotel reveals their inherent love for decorum and a talent for creating magnificent gardens and landscapes - not to mention an astonishing devotion to dogs, horses and silly games.
Here are three five-star escapes where guests can get a true feel of England and its longstanding pleasures, from riverside picnics and afternoon cream teas to whole rooms dedicated to the drying of wellies. All are convenient for travellers flying into London Heathrow with transfers available by helicopter, road or on rail services from Paddington station.
Cliveden is one of the most famous country houses in Britain - and the only stately home that is also a five-star hotel. The most remarkable thing about it has nothing to do with the multitude of illustrious guests to have stayed here - from Queen Victoria to Michael Jackson. It is the fact that, as you sit on the terrace with a cool drink, listening to birdsong and admiring the charming views over the parterre to a leafy bend in the River Thames, it seems impossible that London Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, is just a 20-minute drive away. Wrapped in 152 hectares of parkland owned and managed by the National Trust, the country's leading conservation organisation, Cliveden is the perfect introduction to the joys of the English summer. The main house is an elegant Italianate villa with grand rooms filled with fine art and antiques, plus there is a snug restaurant, Waldo's, where the executive head chef Chris Horridge recently introduced a startlingly impressive "With and Without" menu that allows diners with nutritional needs or intolerances to enjoy a sensational gourmet experience. Another star feature is the Boathouse, where a flotilla of vintage cruisers can be hired - including Belmont, a sleek 1930s slipper launch that will whisk four guests off for a bespoke picnic on an idyllic river bank - from US$602 (Dh2,211) for two hours, including afternoon tea with scones, jam and clotted cream.
Cliveden was once home to the superwealthy Astor family - the world's richest man, the American William Waldorf Astor, bought the property in 1893. A famous portrait of his glamorous daughter-in-law, Nancy Astor - the first woman to become a Member of the British Parliament - now presides over the Great Hall. Gifted to the nation in 1942, the grounds of the estate are open to the public until 6pm, after which this palatial property becomes the sole preserve of those guests privileged enough to stay. It has 38 double rooms, starting form $366 (Dh1,344) with breakfast, with suites from $947 (Dh3,477).
Today Cliveden is the flagship of Von Essen, a private collection of upmarket hotels sprinkled across Britain that includes a fleet of helicopters and private jets. Not surprisingly, a stay here can be as grand as you wish with a Rolls Royce Phantom a finger-click away, from $3,136 (Dh11,517) per day. At heart though, Cliveden has always been about getting back to nature. Since its inception in 1666 as a hunting lodge, where the second Duke of Buckingham entertained his mistress, this has always been a favoured place where royalty, celebrities and powerbrokers could get away from the hurly burly of London, adding fresh air to the foie gras. Cliveden, Taplow (www.clivedenhouse.co.uk; 0044 1628 668561)
Close to Bristol and the endearingly pretty hills and villages of the Cotswolds, Thornbury Castle is an exceptionally friendly, 27 room hotel with a formidable pedigree. Granted a royal licence in 1501, this Tudor castle once played host to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn - and it still has the mighty battlements and towers to prove it. While other historic hotels can seem overbearingly "ye olde", Thornbury remains commendably restful and has two spectacular walled gardens, filled with English flowers and exclusively for the use of guests, that make an idyllic place to sit and read. The grounds also include a small vineyard, while close by is the venerable parish church of St Mary which has a picturesque cemetery and walls decorated with plaques and memorials recalling the many worthies who lived and worshipped in this choice corner of Gloucestershire.
As a result, Thornbury still feels very much like a small, loveable estate where the local aristocracy has resided for five centuries. Like many such once-glorious buildings it fell to ruin in the 17th century, and was then enthusiastically rescued by the Victorians in a restoration that now adds a further layer of history. Today the hotel's wood-panelled halls and lounges are adorned with portraits, tapestries and some fine oriel windows, along with the obligatory suits of armour. Dinner is served in a hexagonal, candle-lit tower complete with slits in the walls - just in case you feel the need to get up and fire an arrow before the basil crème brûlée arrives. To get right into the spirit of things, book a "Henry VIII Regal Castle Experience" which has proved a popular gift for fathers. Costing $1,551 (Dh5,696) for two for two nights, this includes the chance to dress up in period robes for a gala dinner featuring such intriguing Tudor dishes as "Sergeant of the King's Fat Side of Deer Wellington". In keeping with this theme, guests at Thornbury don't stay in mere rooms. Here you spend the night in a "bedchamber", from $343 (Dh1,260) including breakfast. Some have four-poster beds and open fireplaces, others strike a more contemporary note. For something unforgettable, climb the spiral stairs to the lofty Tower Room (from $1,061 (Dh3,896) including breakfast) which has views to the River Severn and an extraordinary, three metre-wide bed that seems big enough to have slept Henry VIII along with all his six wives. Thornbury Castle, Thornbury (www.thornburycastle.co.uk; 0044 1454 281182)
Tucked deep inside the high-hedged lanes of south Devon, Gidleigh Park is so hidden from the world that guests driving here are warned not to try and find it using sat-nav - you might never arrive. With its classic English country gardens and a long frontage of black-and-white timbering, this is a rural hideaway that has been deftly filled with 21st century treats - yet it still feels like something out of a children's story book.
Originally built in 1928 as a private house for an Australian shipping magnate, Gidleigh recently received a no-expense-spared makeover that is now reaping dividends - in April it was declared Hotel of the Year 2009 by the national tourism authority, Enjoy England. While such accolades are thoroughly deserved, this is a hotel blissfully free of razamatazz. In that very English way, its charms are subtle and understated, full of the little touches that make a stay in this hotel so exceptional. At Gidleigh, your early morning tea tray comes with warmed cups, the fruit in the fruit bowl is perfectly ripe and the pantry is stocked with flasks, rucksacks and complimentary snacks for walkers .
There are 24 bedrooms that start at $506 (Dh1,858) for two with breakfast, rising to a lordly spa suite for $1,886 (Dh6,926) that has valley views and a huge marble bath and steam room. These are backed up with homely, book-filled lounges, a croquet lawn, tennis court, fishing and extensive grounds offering woodland and riverside walks. All this, though, is secondary to Gidleigh's greatest asset - a perfect location within the Dartmoor National Park. This is one of England's scenic treasures, an austere and romantic wilderness of tors (granite outcrops), stone circles and gorse-covered moorland that is home to more than 2,000 wild ponies. Ask the hotel staff for a map and some boots, and you can step outside the door to follow a two- or five-hour circular walk that brings home both the beauty and moodiness of this bewitching countryside. It is also an excellent way to work up an appetite for the leisurely, five-course dinners served in the hotel's two Michelin-star restaurant. Overseen by the executive chef Michael Caines MBE, Gidleigh's oak-panelled dining room is just the place to tuck into some Brixham scallops, Dartmoor lamb and West Country cheeses while planning excursions to nearby attractions, including historical sites, such as Buckfast Abbey and Drogo Castle. Gidleigh Park, Chagford (www.gidleigh.com; 0044 1647 432367)
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