As any Francophile worth their salt will tell you, 2014 marks two hundred years since exiled King Louis XVIII departed the United Kingdom and headed back to France for a life full of cake at Versailles.
Louis (as he was known to his friends) had spent twenty three years in exile during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars (well you’d be quick to scarper if your dad had just had his head chopped off), so you can bet your last baguette he was happy to be heading home at last. But, and we have this on good authority, he was right royally gutted to be leaving him home for the previous five years – Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, and after a weekend’s stay there this Spring, we can understand why.
National Trust owned Hartwell House is an 18th Century stately home set in 90 acres of sprawling gardens, adorned with historic statues and lush parkland. An afternoon stroll through the grounds will take you on a winding walk across lawns and through woodland, and wander lonely as a cloud into a beautiful bridleway swimming in daffodils. You can also cross the original Kew Bridge, brought brick by brick from the Thames and reassembled on a corner of the Hartwell lake.
The house is a member of Pride of Britain Hotels, a consortium of 49 privately owned independent hotels, and is surely the jewel in a glistening crown. Located just outside the market town of Aylesbury, Hartwell House is just an hour’s journey from central London, but from the moment you pass through the gates you may as well be in a different world.
From the roaring fire in the Great Hall to the busts and oil paintings adorning the walls of the rooms, the feel of a royal residence is always with you. We were lucky enough to be staying in the very room occupied by Louis himself. Boasting a four-poster bed and panoramic views of the grounds, you can see why many visitors may find it hard to leave the comfort of their suite. But leave you must – if only to try the tempting tastes on offer at the hotel’s Two AA Rosette restaurant.
Head chef Daniel Richardson has presided at Hartwell since 1994 and put his stamp firmly on the place. A member of the Academy of Culinary Arts, Daniel’s passion is for producing innovative yet hearty dishes using only locally sourced products with a great emphasis on reliably reared meat and a low-carbon footprint.
Having perused all three menus on offer – a Spring dinner, the Hartwell dinner and an anniversary special – we plumped for a mix and match from all three, a request the restaurant was more than happy to accommodate. My pan-fried goats cheese terrine with butternut squash puree and my husband’s sea scallops with caramelised cauliflower were impressive. Both delicately cooked with a precise and perfect level of flavour. And my main courses of aubergine and smoked tomato couscous roulade with aubergine caviar was second to none on taste and amount. And my husband’s choice of locally reared beef fillet with fondant potatoes, spinach and bacon with red wine sauce was the most tender and tasty piece of meat he claims to ever have eaten – high praise indeed!
Hartwell House is an elegant and grandiose accommodation favoured by the rich and famous. Visitors over the past few years have included Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kylie Minogue and Jay-Z. And while he was president of the United States, Bill Clinton bedded down for the night in one of the 32 rooms before addressing his nation on TV live from the library (the one and only time cameras have been allowed in the Great House). But despite its exclusive nature, there’s nothing haughty about Hartwell. Staff are friendly and warm, from the porter who gives you a history of your room on the way in, to the barman proffering an array of vintage wines and spirits. There’s a calm, serene feel across the whole hotel which instantly relaxes you as a guest. And if you weren’t relaxed enough, it’s just a short walk from the main building to the on-site spa – built in the style of an orangery and housing a good size pool, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, a gym, sauna and steam rooms, and several therapy rooms offering everything from a manicure to an hour long aromatherapy massage.
Having arrived at Hartwell House on a Saturday afternoon, by the time we checked out at a very reasonable 11.30am the next day I felt like a new woman. Fresh, revived and very well fed. You can still make use of the spa facilities on the day of departure, or treat yourself to a traditional cream tea.
Be it a birthday gift or a much-needed mini break, a day or two at Hartwell House can leave you feeling a million dollars. Like royalty, in fact. Well, French royalty anyway – without the head chopping off bit. Mon dieu!
A night’s stay in a double room at Hartwell House costs from £135 per person (based on two sharing) including breakfast and use of the Hartwell Spa. Contact Pride of Britain Hotels to book (0800 089 3929, www.prideofbritainhotels.com).