TRAVEL: DEVONISH DELIGHTS
Although settled in to Irish country life, our writer returned to the English holiday memories of her youth and found a foodie heaven – and a vineyard in motion
Having lived in London for 15 years, once I made the move to the west of Ireland, I had no desire to revisit the bustling metropolis. Sure I sometimes missed the variety of bars, restaurants, shops and theatres, but since setting up home in the countryside, I have come to love the peace, tranquillity and greenery of the area.
So apart from occasional visits to friends and family, I rarely return to Britain at all. I realised what a shame this was the moment I set foot in Devon.
Dubbed the English Riviera, this beautiful part of the country was where we often holidayed and I have wonderful memories of glorious scenery, quaint towns and friendly people.
That, coupled with the reputation of old world elegance and sumptuous food created by the Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, brought me to Lympstone Manor.
Located less than half an hour’s drive from Exeter airport, the 21-bedroom boutique hotel is set in lush rolling grounds overlooking the Exe River and estuary – a factor which has influenced both the décor of the interior and the names of the rooms, which are all called after local birds of the estuary.
It has only been open for just over a year but within the first six months, owner Caines had already been awarded his first Michelin star. The Flybe flight is only 55 minutes long and no sooner had we taken off and been served with refreshments, than the captain was instructing us to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing.
Regaled with stories for the 10km journey to the hotel, our chauffeur was a font of knowledge and his support for both the hotel and its celebrity chef was apparent – he informed us we ‘were in for a lovely treat’. He wasn’t wrong. I often find that there is a fine line between high-end, five-star service and relaxed friendliness and there aren’t many establishments which can manage to offer both superb service and make visitors feel totally at ease as if they were visiting friends or family – albeit ones who live in the height of luxury.
But from the moment we stepped out of the car, we were greeted with such warmth by the front of house manager that I momentarily forgot that we didn’t know each other.
Our room wasn’t ready on arrival, but we were plied with tea and home-made biscuits in the plush lounge while we waited for the clouds to clear so we could explore the grounds. Once the sun began peep out, we were offered a pair of Hunter wellies and a brolly. Feeling like an extra from Last of the Summer Wine in my neat floral frock with purple boots chosen to match, it added to the easy relaxed feel of the place as we waved goodbye and took a walk along the coastal path into Exmouth.
The little town is only about 2km from the hotel and as we ambled along, the weather warmed up considerably. After a bit of exploration, we were soon ready to check out our room, so headed back to the manor.
Our room was ready – and well worth the wait. We were guided outside the building and along a gravel path to a series of garden suites, one of which would be our home for the next 24 hours. It had a little gate leading on to a terrace, which came complete with an outdoor tub and table-top fire pit. Inside was even more fancy with a huge king-sized bed, state of the art lighting and décor, and a sumptuous bathroom complete with the biggest shower head I think I have ever seen – bliss. And because ‘Michael believes everyone should relax with a G&T after travelling’, we were welcomed with two mini bottles and all the accompaniments, including ice and a slice.
As our bags had already been deposited in the room, there was nothing for it but to relax, unwind and enjoy the facilities, while sipping an afternoon tipple overlooking the beautifully manicured gardens and newly-planted vineyard.
Luxury aside, the main reason anyone visits a hotel run by Michael Caines is, of course, the food. We had a table booked for 8pm and couldn’t wait to sample his legendary cooking.
So coiffed and made up in our gladrags, we
made the short journey across to the bar at the appointed hour and were greeted with an aperitif – champagne, of course – and canapes on the terrace while we perused the evening menu.
We both opted for the signature menu with wine pairing as we wanted to sample as many different dishes as possible.
We were not disappointed. Although small, there were no less than eight courses to get through and these included delights such as Exmouth crab ravioli, Loch Duart salmon, Cornish duckling, local rack of lamb and then a selection of English cheese followed by not one but two desserts, then coffee and petit fours on the veranda.
Each dish was accompanied by half glasses of different wines and the whole meal was served at a wonderfully leisurely pace. Four hours after we left our room, we were only good for a short moonlight stroll before heading back to our palatial quarters for a well-earned rest.
We had asked to be given a tour of the vineyard in the morning, so were awakened by a phone call to tell us that a tea tray was on the way and after a quick shower we had tea on the terrace before heading to the breakfast room for yet more food.
Despite having a wonderful dinner menu, many hotels are let down by an unremarkable breakfast offering, but this was not the case at Lympstone – fresh fruit, a variety of juices, smoothies and yoghurts as well as cereal, granolas, cheeses and a selection of breads and local preserves were laid out for guests to help themselves, while the breakfast menu offered all manner of delicious cooked options.
Still full from the evening before, we ate a modest, yet still substantial, breakfast before heading out to meet James Matyear, the man in charge of the vineyard. Only planted last year, it is hoped that the first of Caines’s sparkling wines will be available in three years.
Listening to James it was hard not to be affected by his enthusiasm and knowledge when imagining how the grounds will look once the vines have grown to maturity. As the location provides excellent conditions for the growing grapes, the resulting wine should be something to look forward to.
The grounds around the hotel are perfect for anyone who wants to get away from it all – secluded, peaceful and lush, there are lots of lovely walks, bicycles to ride and lawns on which to play croquet.
We also decided to do a little further exploration outside the hotel in order to sample some of the local hospitality, so heading the opposite direction to where we went the day before, we set off to Lympstone, a tiny village about half an hour away on foot.
There were lots of little nooks and crannies to investigate as well as a little harbour and lovely beach walk.
As no visit to an English village would be complete without heading to the local pub, we soon found ourselves sitting under an umbrella in a lovely garden terrace with a couple of glasses of locally brewed ale. It was heavenly.
The rest of our short stay in Devon was spent enjoying (more) food at a late lunch and generally lounging about, soaking up the sun, the sounds, the tranquillity and the wonderful atmosphere.
Before my trip last month, it had probably been nearly two decades since I was in Devon and I cannot think of a better way to reacquaint myself with this beautiful corner of England. I definitely won’t be leaving it so long to make a return visit.
Lympstone Manor in Devon and, inset right, Arlene with Michael Caines