Sometimes you go on holiday for razzmatazz: to throw your hands in the air in the Balearics, perhaps, or to drip with cool in some nameless new Berlin restaurant. Sometimes, however, you might have a desire for peace, for an infusion of unrestrained luxury and bucolic calm. Sitting at a table in the garden at Lucknam Park with a plate of Clarence Court eggs, watching a portly chef sniffing the lavender he has just plucked from the border, and a uniformed butler cycling past, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect piece of England in which to unwind.
A short drive out of Bath, entering the Lucknam estate is to be transported to the wealthier end of a Jane Austen novel. The long drive is lined with a double avenue of great beech and lime trees. These frame the house, a Palladian mansion with a colonnaded porch and an air of contented aristocratic welcome. Despite its all-out grandiosity, the hotel manages to convey the rare sense that it is your own space: if you want to curl up in the library and read Fifty Shades, how delightful (someone was). If you prefer to amble to the brasserie for breakfast in your dressing gown, not a problem.
My mother and I made it to the table fully clothed, with a plan to spend the day exploring the surrounding countryside. However, by the time we’d finished the almond croissants and idled over the papers, it seemed a shame to leave. Instead we ambled as far as the spa, lured by its indoor and outdoor pools, an array of tubs and jets and heated cabins: a Japanese salt room, to clear the lungs, and an amethyst steam room to promote spiritual healing.
I spent a happy hour having Anne Semonin oils massaged into my surrendering limbs. As I lay back on white towels in the relaxation room afterwards eating fresh pineapple, two doughty ladies settled on the neighbouring beds. ‘He’s in The Lister,’ said one. ‘He had a nasty fall from his wife’s horse. While he was there he had his septum rebuilt. Too much cocaine.’ Hmm. Jane Austen and a touch of Jilly Cooper.
We did stir ourselves to go riding. Like everything else, the stables are immaculate. Lucknam keeps 35 horses, running free in the fields. There are boots to borrow, from adorably tiny children’s ones to manly size 12s in a polished row. I mounted Colin, a conker-coloured, former racehorse. A sign warned to beware of hazards: trees, holes in the ground, helicopters. Just the two of us were led by Marion, and we rode out of the grounds. Either side of us stretched meadows studded with dandelions. Blackbirds sang in the trees.
Pleasingly, there was none of the usual faff. We explained our previous riding experience (I am not very good, a detail that doesn’t diminish my taste for speed). On our fresh horses on this shining day, Marion took us first for a trot, then a canter. We veered into a gallop — delicious, why not? — and she even dared me over some jumps. I suspect it was there that things started to go wrong. By now Colin had me down as a pretender and careered off with me into the distance. It went well(ish) until we started heading towards thick woodland. I steered abruptly left. We parted company, and I was left winded in a heap. At least the grass is fragrant. Of course it is.
All was well again later that evening, as the maître d’, Eric, poured us a glass of pink champagne. As the sun shafted through the floor-to-ceiling French windows, we ate smoked almonds and admired the menu. Chef Hywel Jones has won a Michelin star for The Park restaurant; it was a devilish call to choose between the seared pigeon salad and the poached langoustines with Osetra caviar.
In a singular touch, I had admitted the night before that I was allergic to an ingredient in the chocolate pudding. Without my asking, the following night they created me a special one. It was fabulous. As we left, an immaculate blonde was stroking the damask tablecloth and remarking in a polished, Upper East Side accent: ‘You have to love the décor, but really it is how well we’ve been looked after. Everybody has just been so nice.’ ES
Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, Bath. Special summer offer, four nights for the price of three. Room rates start from £330 and suites from £725 per room including breakfast and use of the spa. (01225 742 777; lucknampark.co.uk)
Original article published in Evening Standard, in October, 2013