Most people who know me know I love the great outdoors and expansive coastlines and I have a penchant for country manor houses - especially those with a relaxing spa and an abundance of oversized sofas that invite you to curl up with a good book and glass of red, post outdoor adventure, of course.
After my recent visit to the breathtaking Isle of Anglesey in North Wales for the Zest Life retreat, a trip East to the northern coastline of Devon seemed like the perfect next step in my exploration of the wonderful UK isle.
The vibe and location
Located in North Devon, Highbullen Hotel is the ideal base for exploring Exmoor and beyond. Dating back to 1879, this contemporary manor house set within a sprawling 127-acre estate boasts magnificent views across the Mole Valley and Exmoor National Park. Exceptionally inviting, this classic country manor offers sumptuous living quarters and a relaxed atmosphere combined with modern luxuries, making it the ideal place for a much needed respite, and when ready, the perfect spot to explore North Devon.
The country house lobby offers classically decorated drawing rooms off the main hall and invites you to drop your bags at the front desk and sprint to find your best viewing spot.
The main building, a Victorian Arts and Craft manor house, is home to 12 beautiful bedrooms, all individually decorated with their own charm. The spectacular award-winning Loft Suite comes complete with its own steam room and infrared sauna, while a further 30 bedrooms can be found throughout the Estate in The Courtyard, Gardener’s Row, Golf View and Stable Cottage. Highbullen also offers four luxurious self-catering cottages.
It’s the little touches that make each room welcoming; the classic William Morris style fabrics, beautiful floral and old English styled rooms, very super comfy beds, with a higher than normal level, definitely made me feel like a princess in a castle; a room with a view. Each room has tea and coffee making facilities and bright airy bathrooms with ample space to indulge in those well needed self-spa moments; a lovely hot bubble bath while enjoying cosmetic minis from The White Company. There was even a spot to carefully rest my iPad and catch up on Netflix - bliss.
The spa and leisure centre at Highbullen Hotel is a dream, especially in the warmer months, which provide plenty of possibilities to enjoy the outdoors. A short walk from the main house, facilities include seven all-weather tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool and an 18-hole golf course set in a wooded parkland. Indoors, guests can make use of a 20-metre indoor swimming pool with a sauna, steam-room and Jacuzzi.
Highbullen Hotel has partnered with leading skincare brand, ELEMIS to offer a wide range of wonderful spa treatments. I indulged in the pool, steam and sauna before enjoying a great ELEMIS collagen facial, hoping to erase some of the years! It was a very calming, enjoyable treatment, so much so I almost fell asleep and needless to say, my skin felt exceptional for a few days afterwards. I will definitely be diving into one of those treatments again very soon.
Food and Drink
There are plenty of dining options at Highbullen. Formal dining takes place in the 2 AA Rosette Devon View Restaurant, under the careful watch of head chef Stephen Walker. The elegant dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows, granting spectacular panoramic views. The menu showcases seasonal and local produce with a modern British theme across all dishes. An extensive wine list offers wines from the old and new worlds and staff can suggest wine pairings. We enjoyed a night in the restaurant and dined on the a la carte menu and enjoyed a delicious selection of courses. The chef served up an amuse-bouche of tomato soup, with snippets of coriander, a burst of flavours and rich tomato flavour and creativity point of view. We followed this with a choice of steak, and local Hake with spring green risotto, served with care and consideration; an impressive bouquet of flavours
Highbullen recently opened Laura Ashley The Tea Room. Designed in the distinctive Laura Ashley style, the room accommodates 74 covers, providing guests with unrivalled views bringing together the quintessence of England: the timelessness of afternoon tea, elegant country living and one of the most iconic English brands. This space is converted into The Supper Room between 6pm and 10pm daily. The casual dining menu here includes a wide style of dining options that will entice everyone including; ‘small plates and sharing platters’ priced from £4.50, ‘big eats’ priced from £12.50, ‘pizza and pasta’ priced from £11.00, ‘salads’ and ‘desserts’ priced from £6.50.
We enjoyed the Champagne Afternoon Tea, I requested a gluten free option and it was exceptionally a like for like with my dining partners non-gluten free option and the staff were very accommodating.
The Local Area
Highbullen Hotel’s location in North Devon is the ideal base for exploring Exmoor and beyond. The walks in this area are particularly spectacular in the warmer months when the sun sets later in the day, allowing more time to discover this magical part of Devon.
Travelling further afield
With the coastal resort of Ilfracombe only a short drive away, we recommend a trip to see the old Victorian bathing tunnels and beaches, the Damien Hirst Verity statue or indulge in some real Devon ice cream from Hockings; a local family run business, of course after a classic paper-wrapped portion of fish and chips. And if you are in the car, take the coastal road on to Croyde, a route that's not be missed for some of the best views of the coastline.
There is an intimate green charm to walks around Exmoor. The Moors also provide plenty of myth and legend to explore. But walking here is a joy and walkers will encounter subtle blends of prehistoric past and wilderness present. Highbullen can provide written and mapped walk details for 6 walks local to the hotel.
With its exceptional location, this hotel may be suited for the traveller with a penchant for classic country comfort teamed with adventure for the outdoors.
Bed and Breakfast is priced from £110 per room per night
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.
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