If I’m being completely honest, spas are not the main attraction for me. Anywhere. Ever. Relaxation is something I do alone with a book or with a pair of trainers and a long stretch of pavement. Skincare is something I do when I mainline water and avocados. So, when I head to the newly revamped Rudding Park Spa in Harrogate, it’s less the £9.5 million refurb I’m chomping at the bit for, and more the hotel’s brand new Horto restaurant.
Horto is a cosy space so provenance-traceable that you can practically have one foot in the exact pea patch in which your entree’s relatives still live (the delightful kitchen garden is a mere stroll away from the restaurant), as you chomp down gleefully on its tender green sweetness.
We were given the option of ‘eating blind’ or of tucking in with a fully-informed head and pre-conceived palate. Never ones to ignore a recumbent gauntlet, our menus were turned resolutely face down as we ventured enthusiastically with deliberate ignorance into the seven-course menu.
It was an extraordinary experience - not only because every glorious mouthful was sublime, but because it’s quite something to gauge the extent to which our palates are shaped by expectation, from whichever source that expectation has arisen. A silky blob of mozzarella - I recognised it to be so - was topped by a sundried tomato. A clear, cold broth was then ladled over the top and I was stumped. The taste was welcomingly familiar - sweet, earthy, sharp - and yet I had no idea what on earth it was. It was tomato.
In the absence of the expected colour, removed from the centrifugal process that has transformed the very fruit I sampled in the kitchen garden earlier into this transparent, intense liquid, I had nothing but my palate to rely on, and it seemed that my palate wasn't all that clever. It was a delightfully jarring sensation, the clash of singing tastebuds, whirring, wondering brain, slightly aggrieved ego (“I thought I knew about food?!”) and a curiosity about what was to come, which whetted an already acute appetite.
Step out to enjoy the fresh country air and work up an appetite for some sensational cuisine
This appetite of mine wasn’t born of mere greed, nor of genuine hunger - although both of these were primary players. In keeping with my professed lack of interest in things of a treatment-related nature, I eschewed an earlier session in the spa in favour of a run through Rudding Park’s grounds and out into the village beyond.
It’s a sun-dappled route characterised by leaping rabbits, distant golfers, a tumbledown churchyard and the odd stile - and although I’m reliably told by hotel staff that doubling the path will give me my desired 5 miles, my running tech even more reliably told me I completed 6 miles - so it was without a moment's hesitation that I smacked my lips and rolled my eyes over all seven courses.
The Kitchen Garden
Run or no run, you’d have to be a tiny bit dead inside to not bliss out over the food, especially after a tour of the kitchen garden, where more varieties of rhubarb, apple and oregano than I ever knew existed are planted in tidy yet enticingly wild beds. There’s my heart’s favourite too - fig - as well as fennel, rhubarb, gooseberries and lavender, which I’m certain needs to be incorporated into one of the hotel’s afternoon teas (you can enjoy these in the garden’s Breeze House, as well as in the ‘main’ hotel).
Back in my room - spacious and comfortable, although with a decor that's slightly more masculine and corporate than some of the public spaces have led me to expect - my soak in the freestanding bath was shorter than planned as sleep grabbed me, hauled me out and over to an enormous bed and hung on to me well after the sun streamed through the glass doors and past the heavy drapes I’d thrown back open after the turn-down service had visited.
Good coffee and avocado toast placed me back in the land of the living and then it was on to the spa, where I drifted up to the rooftop to relax before my noon appointment. Here, the same integrity of design as I had admired in our previous day’s wanderings was beautifully apparent. Award-winning designer Matthew Wilson has cast his magic both in the pre-renovation gardens, working around existing flora to create spaces as perfect for childish games of hide-and-seek as for clandestine kisses. Taking in views of these gardens from my deck chair, I was impressed and soothed by the talent that’ created such a calming haven.
Away from the rooftop, encased in my thick toweling robe, I glided breezily between pools and relaxation spaces before my appointment. As a lover of ‘outside’, I tend to find spas (why are they so often subterranean?!) a bit claustrophobic but here there is a seamless flow of indoor and outdoor space, enhanced by floor-to-ceiling views of those dreamy gardens.
I’d deliberately opted for the most hippy-dippy sounding of the treatments - a crystal facial, so that my scepticism towards everything of a spa-related nature would be pushed to its limits, and even though my therapist, Amy, instantly won me over with her lovely smile and demeanour, I was still as Grinch-ish on the inside about facials as my complexion probably indicated.
The facial was lovely. The products felt and smelled divine, and the sensation of having a warmed crystal, with all of its professed vibrations, gliding over my skin, in a warm, nurturing space was relaxing. Best of all? Amy wasn't averse to conversing with me when I ask her questions (relaxing is one thing; falling asleep on your back when you might snore in the face of the lovely person ministering to your skin’s needs is another) and I loved how she talked enthusiastically and adoringly about her employees and her job. I left with a glow that was much from the inside as the out.
Unsurprisingly, I wanted to eke out every last minute at Rudding Park, so I cut it fine to make the train back to London, but as I hurriedly throw things into my case, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and, I really did look kind of radiant - so much so that I, rather cringe-inducingly, told our taxi driver this when he commented on the outstanding reputation of the hotel and asked how our stay had been.
After I hauled my bag out of the boot, he commented in his rolling Yorkshire brogue, “You know, I have no idea what you looked like before, but I must say, you really do look younger!”
A one-night stay at Rudding Park starts from £172 per room per night. A one-night spa break starts from £177 per person including half board, a 50-minute treatment and access to the spa. Access to the Roof Top Spa and Garden is £35 for two hours.
Rudding Park Hotel
North Yorkshire HG3 1JH
*During my visit I was hosted by the lovely team at Rudding Park Hotel. All views and opinions are my own. Images courtesy of Rudding Park Hotel.
Countryside Luxury with period charm
Now I love a pub with rooms with character. And The Vicarage with its exposed beams, walls adorned with mirrors, clocks, polo mallets and helmets has plenty of that. Despite this 17th century Grade II listed building being given a major overhaul, it's great to see that the old period charm exists in abundance. As I walked through the pub and dining area en route to the reception area to check in for the night, I noticed the dining room with exposed beams, a huge fireplace full of logs, an assortment of furniture, and a welcoming bar.
Situated off the main road on the edge of Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, this boutique hotel is the first property from the family-owned Flat Cap Hotels. This historic building has had a modern extension built to the back, which houses 20 standard fuss-free bedrooms. As nice as those bedrooms are for the professional-on-the-go or families alike, the wow factor has been saved for the suites. Each one is individually designed, some with exposed beams, many with antique furniture, yet featuring mod cons such as the luxuriously thick curtains and indulgent carpet.
I think my guest Nita and I bagged the best of them - suite number 24. The bathroom alone, with its stand alone bath tub overlooking a huge window and a separate rain shower, was almost as big as the room itself. And I could have easily slept on the huge bed with its thick comfy mattress the whole weekend - only getting up to make myself a coffee from the Nespresso machine in the room and indulging in the chocolate chip homemade cookies left for us, which was a nice touch.
But the lure of dinner had me in the restaurant as quick as a flash. But first, a crisp cold glass of Prosseco propped up on a stool at the bar, which I was told by the staff was made from an old French altar. With it being a Friday, the place was abuzz with drinkers and diners alike.
Dinner is served in the same cosy atmospheric room on huge tables and comfy high back chairs. After learning that the grub is cooked under the watchful eye of adept chef, Steven Tuke (who previously worked at Chester Grosvenor), I expected the food to be on point, and it certainly didn't disappoint.
The menu, although not flashy with extraordinary ingredients put together as often can be the case at such places, is modest and safe. Food like the steak and chips, pan seared sea-bass and pork belly is well executed. The lamb rump arrived in good sized meaty chucks complete with vegetables and potatoes and suitably covered in a mint and red current jus. How I managed to demolish it after an equally hearty Cornish crab meat starter, I'm not sure. I did, however, have to by-pass the dessert despite the appealing options on offer.
It's funny how after a hearty meal you vow you swear you couldn't eat a morsel for a week. But as soon as breakfast time arrived, my thoughts turned to food again. Well rested from one of the comfiest beds I have slept in for ages, followed by a very long soak in the aforementioned bath tub, I bounced back downstairs for breakfast.
Served in a light and airy conservatory overlooking lush greenery, the food offerings from the buffet cart (think yogurt, pastries, cereals, bread rolls) are welcoming. Half a dozen cooked options are also available on offer, which include a full English with a vegetarian option as well as porridge.
If you want to explore this part of the world and eat well in a cosy place with historic charm, then The Vicarage is for you. The reception has plenty of leaflets on sightseeing and things to do.
Nita and I went for a stroll around Tatton Park, just a short car ride away, which was recommended highly by the knowledgeable staff. Well all that good food had to be burned off somehow. As we walked I reminisced on what a great couple of days we had - made all the more special thanks to our lovely suite.
Rooms from £165 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast, complimentary WFii and parking.
The Vicarage Freehouse & Rooms
*During my stay I was hosted by The Vicarage Free House & Rooms. All words and opinions are my own.
Sometimes, living in London, you just need to take time to step back and get out of the city for a night. As much as I love my town, sometimes life gets a bit hectic and an escape to the country is needed. With the last heady days of autumn gone and winter stretched ahead of us, there’s no better time to find yourself a countryside bolt-hole for a weekend away.
A traditional country inn with charm in spades
Pack a bag, hit the road and head south west to the green of Hampshire, where you’ll find the gem that is The Anchor Inn. A proper, traditional country inn (complete with Tudor beams a-plenty - mind your head), this is a cosy weekend getaway personified. Part of The Epicurean Collection, it’s just one of a selection of fine British pubs and inns handpicked by luxury lifestyle magazine, The Epicurean, as representing the best of British food, style and service. Suffice to say if they’re all as good as this one, I think I may be paying the rest of the collection a visit at some point!
With a fully stocked bar of great local ales and a menu resplendent with fresh British ingredients, The Anchor Inn is worth leaving London for. Situated on a country road in the village of Lower Froyle, it’s a 15-minute taxi from Farnham station, for those without wheels. The five bedrooms - all named after literary greats of the past - are filled with antique furnishings, walls covered in fascinating paintings, photographs and bookshelves begging to be delved through.
We arrived on a sunny Friday evening and instantly fell in love with the beautiful Rupert Brooke suite, with its French windows and private balcony overlooking a garden full of very happy looking diners.
The Anchor Inn has won a host of awards, including four stars for accommodation and one Rosette for the restaurant from the AA Guide. It’s easy to see why; the rooms were beautifully cosy and welcoming (the mattress giving me one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time), and little extras like the Bramley toiletries and coffee making machine make it feel more welcoming that your average room.
Activities to enjoy near the Anchor Inn - if you can pry yourself away…
The staff were all wonderfully friendly and accommodating, giving us tips on the best walks in the area and the food spectacular (more on that in a moment…). With regular offers such as ‘Spoil Yourself Sundays’, whereby spending £60 or more on your Sunday dinner equals a room for £40, it’s one to get on your weekend radar, especially as it’s less than an hour and a half from London. The Inn can even help to arrange fishing, shooting and hunting trips for discerning guests that want to really embrace the country way of life, or you can just embrace the fields surrounding the Inn and take off on a long country walk, safe in the knowledge you’ll be working up an appetite for what’s about to be an amazing meal.
The restaurant at The Anchor Inn
Dinner at The Anchor Inn was certainly something special and undoubtedly on a par with many a fine London restaurant I’ve dined in. From the number of guests enjoying a Friday night supper, it was clear to see it’s a popular spot.
The cuisine at The Anchor Inn
The octopus carpaccio with crispy pigs ears, pickled grapes and spiced tomato, an intriguingly delicious combination and a chicken and ham hock terrine was the perfect accompaniment to a freshly-baked bread basket. The lemon and thyme chicken breast and confit leg with chorizo, butterbean and peanut puree and red pepper was, quite simply, melt in the mouth fantastic, while the pork belly opposite me was apparently some of the best my guest had ever tasted. Pudding was something else; who could say no to a flapjack with honeycomb ice cream and salted caramel or a chocolate tart with brown sugar creme fraiche and raspberry sorbet?!
Unwind with a tipple or two
A sofa situated next to the bar was the perfect stop for a post prandial bottle of wine. The inn’s homely vibe just beckons you to settle in for the evening, nestled in a corner under a beam with a bottle of red, listening to the gentle hum of conversation - a far cry from the shouty bustle of a London pub on a Friday night!
Wake up to a hearty spread
Breakfast was a treat to wake up to; a table laid out with ‘help-yourself’ juices, cereal, fruit, yoghurt and pastries and a hearty cooked offering. What better way to start a Saturday that eating on a sun-soaked terrace with the weekend papers, a fresh pot of coffee and a breakfast fit for kings?
Alas, while I could have happily lounged in the garden all day, we had a train to catch. Deciding to forgo the taxi back to Farnham, we instead decided to walk off our indulgent feast by heading to Bentley, the next village, to catch our train back to London, which was around an hour’s walk but on a glorious sunny morning, an entirely pleasant one. This charming corner of England is certainly a beautiful one and The Anchor Inn is a gem of a getaway; once the seasons change and the fires are lit, you won’t be able to tear yourself away.
Doubles from £99 per night.
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