Let me tell you something about appropriate footwear. I’ve never owned a pair. At least, I’ve never had them within reach at a time that allows their appropriateness to matter. So it was with no surprise that I found myself on top of a Northamptonshire hill, up to my shins in mud, my pale grey plimsolls perfectly ruined. As a flock of disgruntled sheep moved in to inspect their interlopers, I scanned the hill for the least perilous route back to the road, where the dry, mud-free rooms of Fawsley Hall waited.
We had come for a weekend of good food, spa spoiling and ill-prepared country walks. Arriving in Daventry, our cab had careened along the country roads at a speed usually reserved for Formula 1 drivers (perhaps the influence of the nearby Silverstone Circuit, or the fact that Lewis Hamilton was said to be a Fawsley guest the week before). Once we pulled into the estate’s gates we felt completely and satisfactorily in the middle of nowhere.
Surrounded by immaculate lawns, elderflower-fringed lanes and a knot garden so neat it looked as if it had been manicured with nail clippers, Fawsley estate was a vision of English charm – hey, the perennial grey sky only completed the picture.
A luxury hotel connoisseur by trade, my stand-in Mr Smith was eager to view our room and see how it stacked up. I assured him that if the helicopter coordinates in the hotel brochure were anything to go by, this was going to be a very grand weekend. Any concerns about Fawsley’s ability to live up to Mr Smith’s astronomical standards were immediately dashed – our room was a slice of Georgian elegance. A rather large serving at that – as we giddily performed the prerequisite room inventory, we virtually had to shout to hear each other. In fact, everything from the windows to the monstrous chandelier appeared to cater for Goliath-sized guests. Only the TV seemed to have missed its dose of growth hormones (although one assumes TV watching is not the preferred activity among Fawsley’s distinguished guests).
As Mr Smith inspected the bathroom (cavernous), I test-rode the room’s main feature: the gargantuan bed. It was so soft that I sank into its depths like you would a mountainous marshmallow. Thankfully, Mr Smith roused me before I was lulled to sleep – we had a dinner reservation, and he was hungry.
Arriving in Bess’ Brasserie was like transcending architectural time, as we stepped from the Georgian wing into the Tudor era. Less twee than you would expect of a country manor (‘Thank the Lord it’s not chintzy’ is how Mr Smith put it), the restaurant had a contemporary vibe with elegant vestiges of history. Clean olive walls offset ancient centuries-old oak beams; 16th-century portraits gazed out from modern silver frames. Even the grown-up piano music turned out to be a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. It was as though we had slipped into a realm betwixt Tudor and today.
Our shared starter of baked Camembert with Italian charcuterie proved argument inducing, as we both struggled for the last of the delicious gloop. We moved on to separate mains: peppered hake with turnips, parmentier and red wine sauce for me, prestige line-caught fish of the day from Cornwall for him.
After dinner, sated and sauvignon blanc’d, we nightcapped – because it felt the sort of place one should – in the Great Hall. Any chintz-masters were clearly kept at bay when Fawsley Hall’s pièce de résistance was decorated – the hall is splendidly grand, equipped with bottom-swallowing armchairs, seven-foot candelabras and a dozen portraits of Queen Elizabeth I sporting variations of the same solemn smile. (Queen Bess was a Fawsley guest herself one night in 1575.)
Such impossible bed softness lends itself to lying in, and so it was with much regret that we peeled ourselves from its embrace the next morning. But – city folk that we are – we had a schedule to keep: a morning’s appointment at the hotel’s Grayshott Studio Spa.
Pampered, pummelled, body-wrapped and rose-infused, Mr Smith hit the gym while I zoned out in the garden’s hydro pool, mentally planning the afternoon’s activities. I had spied croquet hoops on the front lawn and was keen to attempt the quintessentially English sport. The game that ensued could be compared to a frenzied round of dodge ball with sticks – our inability to hit the balls at the appropriate velocity threatened both the sanctity of the guests’ cars and the nearby bride’s wedding-shot smile.
The reception staff (perhaps wanting to preserve their windows) suggested a walk to the Windmill Pub in nearby Badby. We embarked on ‘Knightly Way’ amble, following a series of country-style directions (‘head to the brow of the hill’, ‘follow the avenue of trees’), and so we found ourselves stuck in a field on the hill, my perfectly ruined plimsolls squelching mockingly in the mud.
‘Think how smooth your skin will be,’ Mr Smith offered as I berated my selection of footwear. Clearly the morning’s spa experience had opened his eyes to the beautification of mud. I wondered if any helicopter-owning guests might propeller out and pluck us from the field. No such luck.
As we squelched towards our waiting cab, the hotel manager appeared to wish us a pleasant journey and invite us to return. Of course we’d love to, we assured him. Except next time, I’ll pack some wellies.