Away with the fairies

BILL BAIN AND FAM­ILY – IN­CLUD­ING A LIT­TLE PRINCESS – EN­JOY THE MAG­I­CAL SPLEN­DOUR OF KNOCK CAS­TLE, CRI­EFF

Sunday Herald Life - - TRAVEL FEATURE - Bill Bain and fam­ily were guests of Knock Cas­tle Ho­tel & Spa, Drum­mond Ter­race, Cri­eff, Perthshire, PH7 4AN. Tel: 01764 650088 email: info@knock­cas­tle.com visit: www.knock­cas­tle.com

AS­TORM tears through the town of Cri­eff, near Bib­li­cal in its un­re­lent­ing ferocity. The sub­merged streets are aban­doned, ex­cept for one strik­ing ab­sur­dity – a soli­tary clown hold­ing bal­loons, the up­turned scar­let slash on his painted face in de­fi­ance of the over­cast gloom.

So I did what any par­ent would do – I marched my three-year-old to­wards him in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a free­bie. I haven’t seen the lat­est big-screen in­car­na­tion of Stephen King’s coul­ro­pho­bia clas­sic, It, but I have read the book – so I’m aware that shape-shift­ing mon­sters can only be seen by chil­dren. This was clearly just a guy with an un­en­vi­able job.

Robyn clung tightly to my leg as the clown’s shak­ing, freez­ing hands formed a bal­loon an­i­mal he al­leged was a dog, but it cer­tainly wasn’t a pedi­gree breed. I don’t know if Cri­eff is a hot­bed of sur­re­al­ism, but this was clearly a wellen­dowed gi­raffe with an Elvis quiff.

Gi­raffe-dog Elvis in hand, we sought refuge in the cosy con­fines of the town’s Rhubarb Cafe, and learned from the friendly staff that the clown’s omi­nous pres­ence was ac­tu­ally part of a “fun day” long in the plan­ning.

We weren’t here for the myr­iad at­trac­tions of this pretty mar­ket town, known mainly for its whisky and cat­tle drov­ing his­tory. We were here be­cause I’d made a prom­ise to my daugh­ter: that she could be a princess. With her own cas­tle. So, un­able to af­ford Dis­ney­land, the tur­reted, gothic splen­dour of Knock Cas­tle – just an hour’s drive from Glas­gow – would have to suf­fice.

Un­like the gar­ish tack­i­ness of the Mag­i­cal King­dom, Knock Cas­tle and Spa is taste­fully tucked away within a well-todo sub­ur­ban street a few min­utes’ drive from Cri­eff town cen­tre. It was a pleas­ant sur­prise that this 30-bed­room grand house also boasts three acres of rolling coun­try­side with mag­nif­i­cent views over the Trossachs.

Orig­i­nally built in 1885, the house was sym­pa­thet­i­cally re­stored a decade ago by new own­ers the Hen­der­son fam­ily, and to­day it of­fers all the lat­est mod cons while re­tain­ing its in­dul­gent air of Vic­to­rian deca­dence. We ap­pre­ci­ated the sky-high ceil­ings, in­tri­cate cor­nic­ing and ec­cen­tric wee gothic touches speck­led all over, which will de­light and sur­prise guests who keep their eyes open for them. The grand piano and or­nate chan­de­liers in the en­trance hall­way would cer­tainly have met Lib­er­ace’s ap­proval – and I mean that as a com­pli­ment.

Ex­pec­ta­tions of a sim­i­larly lux­u­ri­ant room were not only met but far ex­ceeded by the Lady MacBrayne suite, named af­ter the ship­ping mag­nate who built Knock as her fam­ily home. I’m sure the good lady her­self would have been well-ac­quainted with the com­forts of the queen-size four-poster bed – and I can cer­tainly pic­ture her gazing con­tent­edly out from the room’s grand bay win­dow, sur­vey­ing her slice of the king­dom and con­tem­plat­ing her good for­tune – in both senses.

Be­fore our cases had hit the floor, Robyn had changed into her Dis­ney Princess dress and was whack­ing my be­hind with a sparkly plas­tic wand. A char­ac­ter ac­tor of the method school, she had fully em­braced the role, de­mand­ing in an Amer­i­can ac­cent that I serve her one of the home-made choco­lates that had been left for us. That was fine, be­cause I had my eyes on the bot­tle of Prosecco chill­ing in the ice bucket. Great par­ent­ing demands com­pro­mise.

As we traipsed down the cas­tle’s spa­cious spi­ralling stair­case, a jovial Robyn raced ahead then dou­bled back to in­form my part­ner Lynsey and I that a chicken had laid a gi­ant egg in the cor­ri­dor ahead. Chil­dren tend to ex­ag­ger­ate, but Robyn’s story did con­tain el­e­ments of truth – there was in­deed a 15ft egg in the cor­ri­dor just be­yond re­cep­tion, but it cer­tainly wasn’t or­ganic. It turns out to be an Egg Re­lax­ation Cap­sule, one of only a few in Europe. This is a fu­tur­is­tic-look­ing au­to­mated pod that pro­vides a full body mas­sage in 15 min­utes – with­out the need to re­move your clothes.

En­thus­ing about the won­ders of the Egg while ful­fill­ing du­ties of both ho­tel co-owner and head chef was Ja­son Hen­der­son – a busy man, but one whose en­ergy lev­els never dis­si­pated dur­ing our stay. He took time to ex­plain how his fam­ily’s ini­tial re­vamp of the fourstar premises was aimed at of­fer­ing “af­ford­able lux­ury and hon­est hos­pi­tal­ity for ev­ery­one”. Well, there’s ev­ery­one and then there are clients such as Jean-Christophe Novelli, the TV chef who was in town for the Perthshire On A Plate food fes­ti­val and was stay­ing in the suite next to us.

Hen­der­son told me how Novelli had been im­pressed by the va­ri­ety of din­ing op­tions avail­able at Knock, where guests can choose be­tween the bar lounge for lighter, pub-style fare and more re­fined, in­tri­cate dishes at the pic­turesque Rooftop Res­tau­rant – Knock’s unique sell­ing point, which of­fers the chance to ab­sorb a panoramic view of the Perthshire coun­try­side while savour­ing Hen­der­son’s kitchen cre­ations.

“I was a lit­tle bit ner­vous cook­ing for Jean – he’s one of my idols!” Hen­der­son grinned once his fa­mous guest had left. His con­cern was un­founded as Novelli praised his culi­nary skills, com­ment­ing that Hen­der­son was ei­ther “crazy or a ge­nius” for us­ing white choco­late in his risotto. I per­son­ally plant my flag in the lat­ter camp, thanks to de­light­fully am­bi­tious and suc­cess­ful lo­cally-sourced cre­ations such as monk­fish with smoked cauliflower puree, sam­phire, king prawn and caper beurre noisette. And if you’re feel­ing ad­ven­tur­ous, the res­tau­rant’s de­gus­ta­tion menu is a seven-course treat for all the senses, vis­ually and gas­tro­nom­i­cally in­dul­gent with of­fer­ings such as smoked pi­geon breast on puy lentil ragout reawak­en­ing long-co­matose ar­eas of the palate.

All good things must come to an end, but three-year-olds can find this dif­fi­cult to ac­cept. There were trau­matic scenes upon leav­ing Knock; Robyn was un­able to grasp why she couldn’t stay a princess. Or maybe she thought she’d left the more chal­leng­ing sur­rounds of Coat­bridge be­hind for­ever. She had lived out her wee royal fan­tasy not in a land far far away, but one within touch­ing dis­tance and just as mag­i­cal as any­thing Dis­ney has to of­fer.

Un­til the day she mar­ries Prince Ge­orge, Robyn will al­ways have the mem­o­ries of her brief reign – a cher­ished rec­ol­lec­tion tak­ing the edge off deep emo­tional scar­ring from her clown en­counter.

It’s not just three-year-olds who are treated like roy­alty at Knock Cas­tle.

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