A bath butler, hey? We consider enlisting his services but fear that the presence of a jolly fellow in tails, spats and whiskers might kill our renewed sense of romance. Mr Smith steps in, popping peeled grapes into my mouth and fanning the knee-deep fragranced water he has prepared in the sunken marble bathtub. My honorary Jeeves always provides excellent service – however I question whether it is frightfully familiar for my bath butler to disrobe and get into the tub too.
Only a couple of hours earlier we turned down a thoroughfare in the pitch-black hinterland of the M25 and spotted, across the yawning 350-acre terrain, the gleaming white mansion and fairylit trees of Stoke Park Club. Passing through the porticoed entryway top the estate and we marvelled at the majestic drop of the a mighty chandelier. Suspended from the iconic dome above the sweeping staircase, the crystalled light casts a hallowed glow over the grand piano, Doric columns, towering portraits and princely antiques of the stupendous anteroom.
Me, I’m a sucker for a king-size bed, endless cotton counts and those kind people who invisibly bring you things, pretending not to notice one’s state of undress. Mr Smith is considerably less brattish. A gigantic, ornately plastered fireplace effortlessly sustains the glory sparked by the aforementioned chandelier. Floor-to-double height-ceiling drapes stand sentinel-like before bespoke wooden shutters and French windows leading out to the roomy terrace, which presides over the Capability Brown landscaped grounds and Harry Shapland Colt-designed golf course, immortalised in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Mr Smith is instantly converted.
You are in good company at Stoke Park Club – the site was recorded in the Doomsday Book, Queen Elizabeth I owned the Manor House and John Penn, scion of the family that founded Pennsylvania, invested a considerable proportion of the sum he received for their US land to create the wonder you see today. And, to throw another literary reference into the mix, Thomas Gray famously conceived his poetic masterpiece ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ in the cemetery on the grounds of Stoke Park. (This seems ironic as our relationship has been approaching its own day of reckoning for a while, although our spell here seems to be working as a temporary quick-fix.)
Over breakfast in the Orangery, overlooking the epic landscape (undisturbed except for the occasional caddie and strutting bird), we obsess over the spa menu. I make my selection from classic signature treatments alongside more alternative rituals, and a golf buggy whisks me past the four-by-fours and sports cars between the main building and the Pavilion, where the 13-court racquet club and multi-accolade winning spa await.
Mr Smith takes a leisurely dip in the pool, where floor-to-ceiling windows give onto the grounds. I am, meanwhile, cocooned away behind the five-metre tropical aquarium of the private atrium for my therapeutic massage. After my pampering treatment combining lymphatic drainage with Swedish strokes, I languorously sink into a semi-comatose state in the massage chair of the womblike Deep Relaxation Room.
Fortunately for me, as I am slopping about in a zombie-like state, Mr Smith is enthusiastically taking it upon himself to study the history of our retreat. As we explore the grounds, he reveals that we are in good company – ‘Did you know that William and Mary stayed here, and that King Charles I was incarcerated in the Manor House?’ We lose ourselves in the labyrinthine enclaves of the Memorial Gardens, finding a bench in one of the topiary-lined secret alcoves among the rose gardens and trickling streams.
We eventually leave our sweet nothings in the Japanese Garden, venturing past the Manor House and into the churchyard, recorded in the Doomsday Book. Gazing in idle wonder at the curious Saxon remnants, aged beams and impossibly low doorways of this still church, we pass through the threshold of the lychgate, past hopping bunnies to the obelisk bearing Gray’s words, and drink in the magic reclaimed.
That evening we dine at Stoke Park Club’s phenomenal restaurant, drowning in sensational wines and one another. Like the hotel (purpose-built in the Eighties – who knew?) and its setting, dishes come brim-filled with surprises. There’s a mini shepherd’s pie accompanying my oh-so-succulent loin of local lamb; Mr Smith’s multiple-layered Dorset crab, king prawn and avocado tian that is so artfully presented that it seems a shame to eat it. The service approach is less ‘hotel employee’ and more akin to personal staff.
Characters are the signature stalwarts of any fine country club hotel, and there are some outstandingly eccentric examples here, including the theatrical maitre d’, who recites dishes from the multi-faceted fine British menu and the kitchen’s recommendations at such breakneck speed ‘assietteofchocolatewhitechocolateandcaramelicecreammilkchocolateand-andmacadamiadelicemaltedchocolatesoupbittercocoachocolatetart’ that one is left wondering quite how long it takes him to rehearse.
Daybreak grants us a parting wish – frost has painted an ethereal white coat over the sweeping grounds, receding as the sun casts a honeyed glow over the land. Surveying this splendour, we share an unforgettable breakfast. We can’t put it better than Thomas Gray: ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight. And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ We leave Stoke Park Club reluctantly, but reborn.