This review of Hotel Endsleigh in Devon is taken from our latest guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith: Hotel Collection – UK/Ireland Volume 2.
You don't know what people-watching is until you've taken pre-dinner drinks in the bar of a smart weekenders' hotel. Forget catwalk shows, forget singles' nights – nowhere do guests check each other out with quite the same fervour witnessed over gin and tonics and olives around 8pm every Friday at stylish boutique boltholes all over the country. There is a very good reason for this, of course. Your choice of venue for an indulgent weekend reveals a great deal about you. Not only your budget, but your taste, not just your interests, but your aspirations. In theory, at least, you have a great deal in common with your fellow weekenders. These, my friends, are your people.
Guests at the Hotel Endsleigh are, while style-conscious, more Boden than Balenciaga, as you would expect of a clientele who choose to weekend in this remote and beautiful valley between Devon's Dartmoor and Cornwall's Bodmin Moor. They are moneyed, but of the old-school that prefers rolltop baths to Jacuzzis. (I distinctly heard the gentleman savouring a brandy digestif in the library describe it as ‘scrumptious’.) And they have one further thing in common: they look extremely happy to be where they are. And so they should, for Hotel Endsleigh is a class act. The house, a Grade-I listed fishing lodge, is insanely pretty, and the setting magical: it is easy to see why the Bedford family, who at the time owned a third of Devon, decided in 1812 that this was the prettiest spot in the county on which to build their house.
From the lawned terrace outside the drawing room, the view sweeps down to the rapid waters of the River Tamar, which divides Devon from Cornwall, and up densely wooded banks on the other side. Arriving on a dark, snowy November night, we hurried from car to hotel in search of hot baths and long drinks. Our room, no 7, was one of the less grand rooms, with one small window in the bedroom and none in the bathroom; nonetheless, it combined the assets of a chic private house (interesting art, a good selection of bedside reading) with those of a good hotel (huge, comfortable bed, plasma-screen TV), and boasted walls of a delicious duck-egg blue that has had me poring over Farrow & Ball charts since our return.
Hunger and curiosity soon coaxed us downstairs for drinks, snacks and, of course, people-watching. The ground floor of the hotel is a jigsaw of cosy, characterful rooms: a drawing room with a huge log fire; a pretty sitting room with hand-painted Thirties wallpaper; an impressively well-stocked library boasting everything from Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking to the Koran, and from The Jewel in the Crown to The Shadow of the Wind. Making a wrong turn while searching for a loo, I chanced upon a corridor stocked with Hunter wellies in every size, for ill-prepared townie guests. Dinner, served in the wood-panelled dining room, ranged from perfectly nice (a main course of roast monkfish, a fruit pancake dessert) to excellent (a starter of sea bream in watercress soup, a main of sliced seared beef).
The only low point of the weekend came the following morning. On the long drive down, we had compiled a wish-list for the perfect hotel weekend. Having parked our two-year-old son with Grandma for the weekend, top of the list was, of course, the chance to lie in. This was closely followed by being able to walk more than half a mile without the promise of a playground, and being able to browse the papers in a country pub instead of reading Thomas the Tank Engine stories out loud. (Naturally, there were a couple more elements, not suitable for publication.) And one more wish: breakfast in bed.
So imagine our disappointment on Saturday morning when, looking for the room-service menu, we found instead a note informing us that the Endsleigh ‘discourages’ in-room breakfasting, ‘because our layout is not ideal.’ In the light of this schoolmarmish diktat, we were a bit worried that Alex, the hotel's impressive but rather formidable owner, was about to burst into the room, throw open the shutters and chide us for wasting such a glorious day, so we hurriedly dressed and made our way down for breakfast. (Good strong coffee, creamy scrambled eggs and crunchy brown toast with delicious marmalade: perfect, although it would have tasted even better in bed.)
But any grumpiness just could not last. From the moment we pulled on our wellies and stepped outside the hotel, resistance was futile: we were in love with Endsleigh. By the time we had explored the garden and grounds – a satisfying two-hour walk – we were decided that it was one the most beautiful places we had ever seen. A freak snowfall had transformed this very English scene into Narnia. A ping-pong table looked fabulously eccentric under a five-inch covering of snow; croquet hoops were half buried under the white-out, while the forest of evergreens on the far side of the river bowed under a frosting of snow, gently melting in the morning sun.
We made our way down to the icy, tumbling waters of the Tamar and back, discovering waterfalls and a picturesque shell grotto along the way. As we climbed back to the hotel, Alex's pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, a handsome little thing with black spots on a sugar-pink coat (very Agent Provocateur) trotted through the snow to greet us. Truly, we thought, we have stumbled into another world, four and a half hours from London.
Having thus rediscovered our love of the countryside, we boldly ventured further afield for lunch at a local pub recommended by the hotel. This turned out to be a mistake: the food was good, but the service surly to the point of obnoxious, so after another quick walk (Kit Hill, nearby: good views, but nothing like as pretty as the hotel garden), we retreated to Endsleigh.
Picture the scene that greeted us in the library: a proper cream tea laid out for guests, complete with fruit scones and Devon cream and home-made jam; cake stands piled with tempting slices. All around, happy guests sat contentedly in armchairs, working their way through the weekend papers with pots of Earl Grey at their elbows. There was a delicious sensuousness to Endsleigh in this incarnation as a winter wonderland.
The sound of our boots crunching on virgin snow as we stepped out to explore the garden, the fragrant crackle of log fires in the lobby, drawing room and library, and the glow of candlelight on a dark afternoon. But then, summer must be magical too: the sloping terrace is perfect for an early evening Pimm’s; the river full of salmon (the hotel has a gamekeeper, and fishing expeditions are encouraged); the long croquet lawn marvellously Gatsby-esque. With a swimming pool planned for next year, we will be back long before the next snowfall.