Karen Pasquali Jones dis­cov­ers the best of Bri­tish places to call home on hol­i­day

Friday - - Leisure -

Run­ning my fin­gers over the silk bro­cade canopy, I wanted to sink into the four-poster bed. From here I could take in the free-stand­ing Vic­to­rian roll-top bath with its claw feet as well as the sump­tu­ous view over the green English coun­try­side. All that was needed was a jew­ellery box big enough to hold a crown and a place by the fire­place for a corgi or two and this would be a room fit for a queen. Which is ex­actly what it was – for I was in the Eliz­a­beth suite in Luton Hoo, the 18th-cen­tury, grade-1-listed man­sion where Queen Eliz­a­beth and Prince Philip, Duke of Ed­in­burgh, spent their hon­ey­moon in 1947. They clearly loved it be­cause they came back to cel­e­brate sub­se­quent wed­ding an­niver­saries at the RobertA­dam de­signed manor house, which is now a five-star Elite ho­tel – andmy home for the next 24 hours.

As rich in his­tory as it is in looks, I was smit­ten at first sight by the lux­u­ri­ous coun­try pile in Bed­ford­shire, less than an hour’s drive from Lon­don’s Heathrow air­port. Per­haps it was the beech­lined drive or the neo-clas­si­cal fa­cade of the 35-bed­roomed house that im­pressed me. Or it could have been the 1,065-acres of pris­tine gar­dens and park­land re­designed by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown, or pos­si­bly stand­ing on the steps where former Bri­tish prime min­ster Sir Win­ston Churchill gave his fa­mous speech to thank the 110,000-strong crowd gath­ered for their sup­port dur­ing the Se­condWorldWar.

“Not bad,” I whis­pered, mar­vel­ling at the view. Hav­ing grown up watch­ing Brideshead Re­vis­ited and more re­cently Down­ton Abbey, I couldn’t fail to be im­pressed by the ex­te­rior of this grand­est of coun­try homes. But in­side what is con­sid­ered to be one of Bri­tain’s most ar­chi­tec­turally im­por­tant build­ings, I was pos­i­tively swoon­ing. Sweep­ing oval stair­case? Check. Corinthian col­umns? Check. A Grand Hall com­plete with a Ber­gonzoni sculp­ture? Check.

Hav­ing been lav­ishly re­designed by the same ar­chi­tects who did the Ritz, Luton Hoo, which orig­i­nates from 1601, has been in­trin­si­cally linked to roy­alty since the late 18th cen­tury when the es­tate was owned by the third Earl of Bute, who was prime min­is­ter to Ge­orge III.

Wan­der­ing around, I oohed over the mag­nif­i­cent din­ing room, aa­hed over the ob­jets d’art and couldn’t wait to ring the bell in my deca­dent room – a smaller but no less im­pres­sive ver­sion of the Eliz­a­beth suite – to see if a maid would come rush­ing up to curt­sey and serve me tea like I’d seen in re­runs of Up­stairs Down­stairs. Of course, no one dipped at the hip, but a china cup of tea with a bis­cuit was brought to my room on a tray.

“Din­ner will be at 7.30pm, Ma’am,” an im­pec­ca­bly dressed mem­ber of staff in­formed me, and so I had time to sip my tea while try­ing out the Molton Brown bath prod­ucts.

Then it was time to head down the sweep­ing stair­case com­plete with red car­pet – what else? – for din­ner at the Beaux-Arts-styleWern­her restau­rant, named af­ter former owner, di­a­mond dealer Sir JuliusWern­her.

The food was ev­ery bit as tasty as the Ver­sailles-style chan­de­liers, and Belle Epoch sur­round­ings. But even though it was an over­whelm­ingly stately home-cum-ho­tel, it felt strangely fa­mil­iar – and then I dis­cov­ered why: Luton Hoo is a much sought-af­ter film lo­ca­tion. The Lady But­ter suite is where Hugh Grant hid in FourWed­dings And A Fu­neral, and the man­sion was used in Eyes Wide Shut, The Life and Ad­ven­tures of Ni­cholas Nick­leby, Van­ity Fair and Bleak House. Know­ing that Hol­ly­wood’s finest as well as roy­alty and politi­cians had eaten here, I sat up a lit­tle straighter,

made sure I used the right cut­lery and vowed to cock my lit­tle fin­ger when­ever I sipped tea, like the landed gen­try do in movies.

Keep­ing up with the roy­als

My chance came over a de­li­cious break­fast of mush­rooms, scram­bled eggs and baked beans served with hot toast and English Break­fast tea served through a strainer.

“En­joy, madam,” the waiter smiled as my pinky shot out. Break­fast over, I jumped into a Lon­don black cab – one of the gen­uine taxis they have here for guests to tour the es­tate, only un­like the real thing, these are free.

I took in the re­stored Vic­to­rian ten­nis lawn, the im­pres­sive 18-hole golf course and the gor­geous spa.

I could have spentmy en­tire trip to Great Bri­tain there, but alas, I’d come to fol­low in more royal foot­steps and get to see to see howthe lat­est, and very pop­u­lar, royal cou­ple Prince Wil­liam and Kate, Duchess of Corn­wall, live. The royal baby is bump­ing up the Bri­tish econ­omy as tourists flock to visit Lon­don, hop­ing to catch a glimpse of the bloom­ing Duchess or, pos­si­bly, a new­born royal baby.

Sales of mem­o­ra­bilia to com­mem­o­rate the royal birth are huge – but I es­chewed buy­ing cups, aprons and fridge mag­nets to get an early night.

Up with the lark the next morn­ing, I reluc­tantly bade good­bye to Luton

Hoo and hopped on a Vir­gin train to travel – first class, nat­u­rally – to Chester, which is on the bor­der of Eng­land andWales. From Chester it was just a quick hop to the Hawar­den Es­tate farm shop in Flintshire, Wales, where royal brides­maid ex­traor­di­naire Pippa Mid­dle­ton is a fre­quent vis­i­tor. Sell­ing 250 lo­cal va­ri­eties of meats and cheeses – along with the most de­li­cious cheese and pickle sand­wiches, a favourite of the al­mostroyal pa­tron ap­par­ently – it was no won­der the store-cum-café was packed on a week­day lunchtime.

“Mwyn­hewch eich bwyd! (pro­nounced Mun-hewc eyck boyd),” Paul, ourWelsh guide, smiled. It means “en­joy your meal” in­Welsh, and we did, tuck­ing into “sarnies” made with hunks of bread and pick­led onions. Then we jumped back into our sight­see­ing van – com­plete with red dragon, the na­tional sym­bol ofWales, to head to our next home­from-home – Bodys­gallen Hall and Spa in Llan­dudno, NorthWales.

A jum­ble of ar­chi­tec­tural styles, the Hall is be­lieved to date back to the 13th cen­tury, and over­looks Snow­do­nia and Conwy Cas­tle. Now a Na­tional Trust ho­tel it’s one of those rare places that does look and feel like a real home. All gi­ant fire­places, low ceil­ings and nooks and cran­nies, it is Welsh shabby chic at its finest, and boasts 200 acres of park­land and an award-win­ning spa.

Never hav­ing been an out­doorsy type – de­spite be­ing raised on a farm – I turned down the of­fer of a hike through the coun­try­side on a driz­zly af­ter­noon in favour of an in­dul­gent De­cleor Time Pre­cious Fa­cial.

“Bendi­gedig,” (Welsh for fan­tas­tic) was all I could mut­ter af­ter my face was cleansed, mas­saged, mois­turised and soothed into look­ing its ra­di­ant best – just in time for din­ner at 1620

Bistro in the former coach house. More fill­ingWelsh food fol­lowed, along with plenty of talk of the royal par­ents, who used to live just min­utes away in An­gle­sey. It was the per­fect coun­try base for RAF pi­lot Prince Wil­liam, although he and Kate are now based at Kens­ing­ton Palace, where the royal baby will be raised.

The Hall also boasts an­other royal con­nec­tion though. Dur­ing the FirstWorldWar Colonel Henry Mostyn, the son of the then-owner Lady Au­gusta, com­manded the 17th Bat­tal­ion of the Roy­alWelsh Fusiliers, which he pa­raded in front of the Hall. There’s an oak tree in the park to com­mem­o­rate it ap­par­ently, which other guests donned wellies to go and see, but I was more con­tent read­ing a book in front of a roar­ing fire in one of the draw­ing rooms.

I re­tired early to bed – sadly not a four poster – as I was ea­ger to ex­plore theWelsh coun­try­side the next day.

From Bodys­gallen, it was a mere daw­dle down the wind­ing lanes to the world-fa­mous Bod­nant Gar­dens, noted for its botan­i­cal col­lec­tions, and the me­dieval glory of Conwy Cas­tle, built for Ed­ward 1, and one of the most im­pres­sive re­mains still stand­ing in Bri­tain. Paul, our guide, gave such a con­vinc­ing per­for­mance of daily life there that I had goose­bumps look­ing at the well, the dun­geon and the chapel – and it wasn’t be­cause it was rain­ing and nearly in the mi­nus de­grees out­side.

Vis­it­ing the cas­tle, and the town of Conwy, I could see why Wil­liam Wordsworth was in­spired to write poetry here. Even in the rain, it was beau­ti­ful. Me­an­der­ing the cob­bled streets, I peered into the shops, sell­ing love spoons and tastyWelsh cakes (which taste like a flat scone, but bet­ter!) and stared at the walls of the cas­tle in the dis­tance. It was awein­spir­ing, like liv­ing in­side the pages of a his­tory book, where one mag­i­cally gets trans­ported back in time. That feel­ing be­came even greater when we caught the Ta­lyl­lyn Rail­way. It’s a his­toric nar­row-gauge steam rail­way that runs from Aberg­y­nol­wyn to Ty­wyn (luck­ily we didn’t have to say which des­ti­na­tion we wanted to get off at, oth­er­wise I would still be there, try­ing to get my tongue around the tricky words!) and was used to trans­port coal. As well as be­ing al­lowed up front to let off the en­gine’s steam with a loud shrill, we dis­cov­ered the rail­way was the in­spi­ra­tion for Skar­loey Rail­way in the Thomas the Tank En­gine books as the au­thor, the Rev­erendWAwdry, had vol­un­teered there in 1952.

Sit­ting in a tiny car­riage, among a cloud of steam, was the per­fect way to see the rollingWelsh coun­try­side, and I was sad to clam­ber back into our van to drive the rest of the jour­ney to our next home at Bre­con, in the Wye Val­ley – the stun­ning Llan­goed Hall.

Nes­tled in the shadow of the snow-topped Black Moun­tains and down a sweep­ing drive, this Ja­cobean coun­try house is the epit­ome of se­cluded style. For­merly known as Llan­goed Cas­tle, it dates back to 1632, and is set in 17 acres just west of Hay on Wye. The site is said to have had a house on it since 560AD and was where the firstWelsh Par­lia­ment was held. It’s had a che­quered his­tory since then and was in dan­ger of be­ing de­mol­ished in the 1970s un­til Sir Bernard Ash­ley – hus­band of late de­signer Laura Ash­ley – bought it.

I stepped in­side, and gasped. Along­side the orig­i­nal Laura Ash­ley wall­pa­pers and fab­rics, the £3.3-mil­lion gold and black Stein­way pi­ano and carved tim­ber stair­case, is a fire­place big enough to sleep in and enough orig­i­nalWhis tler sketches to make you, well, whis­tle.

Since open­ing as a lux­ury coun­try house ho­tel, no ex­pense has been spared and it shows. Art worth a to­tal of £22-mil­lion dec­o­rates the walls. My room was a haven of tran­quil yel­low, while ev­ery piece of fur­ni­ture looked as if it had sur­vived through the cen­turies.

Din­ner, which was hosted by the charm­ing and witty manag­ing di­rec­tor, Calum Milne, in the Whistler Room was a culi­nary de­light. Tuck­ing into five cour­ses of lo­cally sourced and beau­ti­fully cooked dishes – rang­ing from pheas­ant eggs to beef fil­let and ap­pro­pri­ately named Dandy ribs – we soaked up the deca­dent at­mos­phere of the £6.6-mil­lionWhistler col­lec­tion, which has been on loan to the royal gal­leries of Queen Eliz­a­beth.

And then fi­nally, it was up the wooden stair­case to my suite where I col­lapsed, stuffed, on to my bed. It was one of the most com­fort­able beds I’ve ever slept in, and I drifted off to dream about be­ing the lady of the manor, and re­turn­ing to Bri­tain for an­other lux­u­ri­ous visit.

Sur­rounded by vin­tage glam­our and his­tor­i­cal houses steeped in tra­di­tion, I’d had a roy­ally good time.

Bodys­gallen Hall and Spa in Wales is thought to date back to the 13th cen­tury, yet man­ages to feel like a

com­fort­able home

Luton Hoo in Bed­ford­shire, Eng­land, orig­i­nates from 1601 but has been lav­ishly

re­designed by the ar­chi­tects re­spon­si­ble

for the Ritz

With its sweep­ing stair­case and lav­ish din­ing room , Luton Hoo is fit for roy­alty In fact it was the hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tion of Queen Eliz­a­beth

and Prince Philip

A stay at the grand Llan­goed Hall in Wales could leave you feel­ing you were to the manor born

Bodys­gallen Hall and Spa is thought to date back to the 13th cen­tury yet has ev­ery crea­ture com­fort you could wish for

Ta­lyl­lyn steam en­gine of­fers the most ro­man­tic way to see the rolling Welsh coun­try­side

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