I sail boats, and I live by the sea in Brighton. In fact, when I’m reborn, I’d like (karma willing) to come back as a pirate. With that in mind, you’ll understand that when I’m not living and breathing the buccaneer’s life, I’m probably dreaming about it. So imagine my bewilderment as, roused from my seafaring slumber, I find myself being bundled into a car – and not a boat. No cutlasses or pieces of eight here. Just three large weekend bags, two Ms Smiths, and one very bleary-eyed, hung-over would-be pirate. While I’m fighting off the waves of nausea from a stag do the night before, Mrs Smith gently reminds me of our mission: to review the luxury hotel Barnsley House in the Cotswolds, with our four-month-old daughter Delilah. Now, if I can only stop my stomach churning like I’m about to walk the plank, we might make it there in one piece.
Although many manor houses have an unfortunate tendency to be inland, they have always seriously impressed me, and, pulling up at this 17th-century Gloucestershire skyline-loomer, I’m not disappointed. By the time we’ve disembarked at the ivy-hugged, hilltop mansion, I’ve completely recovered my land legs. There’s something about the aged Cotswold stone and manicured setting that sends me back to childhood summers at my grandmother’s Ireland home, and it takes the sultry French tones of a Barnsley House staff member to pull me out of my nostalgic reverie. Dispensing with the formality of check-in, she guides us straight to our room. We’re in the new Stable Yard, with a split-level suite. The ground floor consists of a marshmallow-comfy double bed and a sleek, spacious lounge area with windows overlooking the courtyard.
Now is the moment of truth. Mrs Smith is a fashion stylist and has a laser-guided eye for the tiniest design flaws. As she conducts her silent survey, I await the inevitable ‘tsk’ that greets even the most invisible aesthetic faux pas. But, miraculously, none comes. I sigh with relief, and a smiling Mrs Smith disappears up the wrought-iron staircase into the crow’s nest of our suite – a bathroom on a floor all of its own. Running up to join her, I find a glass wall that gives a perfect view of our bedroom below. A claw-foot roll-top bath presides over the space, partnered by a freestanding shower with a frying-pan-sized head, a TV set into the wall and a soapstone basin almost a metre in length.
The courtyard below boasts a waterfall surrounded by a medley of meadow flowers: pansies, foxgloves and heather – but it’s the beautiful main gardens that have caught our eye. So, having transferred Delilah from armchair to pushchair, we set off for the formal lawns.
A beguiling collision of the landscaped and the wild, the grounds of Barnsley House are the stuff of period-drama fantasy. Shaded paths weave around hidden statues, curvaceous topiary and bountiful berry bushes. We find ourselves resting in an ivy-draped gazebo, looking out onto a lily-capped carp pond. We can see why horticulturalites from around the world head to this garden of delights (although presumably they don’t get presented with delicious apple martinis by a passing barman while they’re inspecting the cabbages).
Arriving at seven o’clock on the dot, the hotel’s babysitter enables us to enjoy an aperitif before dinner. Sinking into red tulip chairs beside a marble-topped bar, I order monkfish tempura with Barnsley House-grown vegetables. Mrs Smith announces she is not hungry – a claim belied a few minutes later when most of my monkfish has fallen victim to her scavenging fork. I order another, then top it with a delectable helping of fresh strawberries, rich cream and crumbly shortbread. Happy, we saunter to our enormous bed (post-nightcap, of course), tuck the snoozing little one between us, and sleep the sleep of the fabulously stuffed.
After waking to a leisurely 11 o’clock breakfast in bed (muesli, yoghurt, jams and croissants), we’re tempted to linger longer in the linens, but also determined to squeeze every last drop of grade II-listed glamour from this hotel. We take the path to the new spa building – all glass and Cotswold stone – under the shadow of the neighbouring farm. There’s a steam room and sauna (as well as bowls of crushed ice on hand for the necessary post-steaming facial cool-down) and a massage menu that’s relaxing just to read, but it’s the heated outdoor hydrotherapy pool that really gets me excited. Then I realise I’ve forgotten my swimming shorts (why would I need them this far inland?). Not to worry; the staff seem only mildly alarmed at the sight of a man in his boxers bottle-feeding a baby.
Alternately wallowing and being pummelled by the giant overhead jets of water, I feel a million miles away from the hung-over pirate of yesterday. Shuffling into the relaxation room, we find ourselves reclining on black leather loungers and sipping ginger tea, against a backdrop of inimitable Cotswolds countryside spied through floor-to-ceiling glass walls; it’s a drop-dead delicious denouement to our already perfect day.
It’s tempting to skip dinner, but the Village Pub (Barnsley House owners Tim and Rupert’s other baby) has a reputation not to be resisted. Rupert himself provides a spot-on wine recommendation to suit our gourmet pub supper, and Richard, the head gardener, regales us with a lesson in veg-growing that reminds me that sometimes the land does have its advantages over the ocean – after all, you can’t grow cauliflower on a catamaran.
We’re scheduled to leave Barnsley House tomorrow morning, and normally I’m straining at the moorings to get back to my beloved marina, but – shiver me oak-beamed timbers – I never thought I’d be this reluctant to return to the sea.…