I had always thought that elegant country retreats were to be avoided with children at all costs. Lofty halls and stuffy afternoon teas don’t sit well with rowdy two-year-olds...
That was until I visited Hotel Endsleigh. Quite possibly one of the UK’s prettiest hotels, it had always been on my must-stay list and I didn’t see why I, or my two daughters, should miss out. In 1812 the Duke of Bedford wanted to build a country house. Owning a third of Devon, one of England’s most picturesque counties, he had plenty of options – that he chose the spot where Hotel Endsleigh stands is a testament to its charm. A four-hour drive from London and just an hour from the stunning coastline of north Cornwall and south Devon, Hotel Endsleigh is nestled in a valley overlooking the glittering Tamar River and rolling woodland. The approach is down a long, winding drive lined with rhododendrons, azaleas and the occasional pheasant. Having spent a week in Cornwall we were already in holiday mode, but a sense of supreme serenity sweeps over you as soon as you arrive. Completely refurbished by renowned hotelier and interior designer Olga Polizzi when she bought it in 2004, Hotel Endsleigh has just 13 bedrooms – all of them individually designed – and five suites.
As soon as we walked into our two-bedroom suite I knew this was the perfect family escape. The girls had their own room (topped off by Little Miss books and a hedgehog teddy to cuddle up to) while ours had a bed big enough to get lost in and a walk-in-wardrobe that turned out to be the ideal place for hide and seek. The palatial bathroom included a huge shower and roll-top bath, where the girls could bury themselves beneath a mountain of bubbles after an exciting hunt for fairies in the hidden follies.
Hotel Endsleigh is set in 108 acres, and as well as formal gardens close to the house, there are cascading waterfalls and delightful glades in the surrounding woodland, all designed by Humphry Repton – one of the greatest landscape designers – two centuries ago. Originally a hunting and fishing lodge, the boys can still try and catch salmon or trout on eight miles of the Tamar (there’s even a gillie to give you a few tips and equipment is readily available) while otters, kingfishers and deer abound. While I couldn’t wait to explore the gardens, it doesn’t even matter if you’ve forgotten your wellies – Hunters in every size are available in what is best described as a cloakroom-cum-corridor, as well as waterproof jackets for the famously unpredictable English weather. Cecilia and Ursula loved exploring and looking for those elusive fairies – and the setting is so magical we almost believed they would find them.
Back at the house, the girls were entertained by the giant Jenga set on the formal terrace and even turned their hand to croquet, before dashing off to the Grade I listed Shell House, a grotto that, like the woods, seemed certain to house nymphs, sprites and the occasional pixie. Afternoon tea is something of an institution at Hotel Endsleigh and worth exercising for – you can eat as much (or as little) as you want, sumptuous sandwiches and mouth-watering cakes and scones are laid out in the drawing room and are perfect for little hands who can either eat inside or wander al fresco, as you soak up the views over the Tamar, the peace only broken by contented chatter or the cry of an occasional hawk circling overhead. The food is brilliant for children – our girls dined like princesses on fresh fish and handcut chips followed by ice cream sundaes.
After putting the girls to bed, (the hotel offers babysitting and a listening service) we headed to the restaurant, overseen by head chef Jose Graziosi, who has combined an Italian’s love of food with some of the finest produce the south west of England has to offer. I had seared scallops with pickled cucumber, chorizo and squid-ink mayonnaise to start followed by Sea Bream, parmesan gnocchi, cavolo nero and crab bisque, while Iain opted for pig cheeks with parsnip purée and roasted parsnip and a main course of 50-day aged sirloin of beef, creamy mash, salsify and rainbow chard. With its original wood-paneling and cosy corners, the restaurant is intimate rather than imposing and the food – as well as the extensive wine list – was amazing. The only downside was the weather and as Sunday brought rain to the end of our weekend, we all piled beneath the covers of our palatial bed to watch a movie. It was a wonderful experience made all the more special by the fact I got to see it through my daughters’ eyes.