Peter Ormerod discovers the joy of going away without going far
Taking a break close to home sounds self-defeating. We tell ourselves that escaping the chill clutches of winter entails voyages to far-off lands, that we need to cover great distances to feel sufficiently remote from our daily lives. But there are many places on our doorstep that can bring us some extra warmth, colour, comfort and relaxation in these dreary months, with none of the hassle of long-distance travel.
Mallory Court in Leamington is one such place. It's a country house hotel offering all the pleasures that phrase suggests, while being just ten minutes away from the town centre. It's in ten acres of grounds, with a croquet lawn, a herb garden and some of the finest views in Warwickshire, across the gentle hills, Chesterton Windmill standing daintily on the horizon. Even at this time of year, before the flowers are in bloom, they are delightful for a light saunter, and are an effective buffer from everyday mundanity.
The ivy-clad hotel itself was built as a house in 1916, but appears much older, with some Tudor stylings and fine finishes. It is decorated warmly but not cloyingly; wood panels are light and furnishings delicate. The mood of the staff is personable and friendly without ever being obsequious; the place feels special but not exclusive. It is unshowy, unintimidating, quietly confident. You'd be hard-pressed to feel anything but entirely comfortable there.
Separate from the main building is the Knights Suite, a 21st-century construction complete with fresh, crisp, contemporary decor, contrasting with and complementing its more traditional neighbour pleasingly. This is where most of the double rooms can be found, and it's where weddings and receptions aplenty are held: Mallory Court hosts 60 a year. The building also houses a smart brasserie, all glass doors and natural light.
Indeed, for many, food is arguably Mallory Court's star attraction. Its Dining Room restaurant in the old house has been garlanded with awards and titles down the years, including three AA rosettes, and it's easy to taste why. The team composed our three-course dinner with evident care, craft and art. There was nothing pretentious going on, nothing too faddish: celeriac soup was delicately rich and given sharpness by accompanying apple; a mackerel fillet was served at perfect temperature, beetroots of varying varieties adding sweet earthiness; cod of exquisite moistness and flakiness was given a smoky tang by bacon and a red wine sauce; one chocolate delice had its creaminess and cocoa-fuelled potency leavened by the zing of passion fruit, another chocolate delice was made even more fun by adding flavours of popcorn, peanut butter and banana. A word also for the gluten-free rolls, declared by my wife, a connoisseur of such things, as the best she had eaten. The subtle New Zealand white filled in what few gaps of flavour remained.
Our room, one of the Master range in the main hotel, was in keeping with the general mood. It had been tended with care, delightful touches abounding: dainty jars of dried fruit, fine cordials, fruit juices in the fridge, sweet treats left for us on our return from dinner. The bathroom alone was bigger than some flats I've lived in, but again not overly opulent, rather calm and understated. And yet the most exquisite joy came not from any creature comfort, but from nature: the view of the red sun rising over frosty fields the next morning was a sight to savour.
There were still the manifold pleasures of breakfast to enjoy, and we had no problem doing so. No-one expects elegance from a full English, and yet here was a fry-up somehow presented with delicateness, although the flavours were as full as one could wish for. There was plenty available too for those seeking healthier, more refreshing starts to the day; all was catered for with thought and care.
The overall feeling from the visit was one of peace. In fact, the quiet and calm was such that it felt wrong to check your phone, or even to switch on the TV. It's a place to switch off, to read, to rest, to retreat. The 24 hours we spent there were enough to put the rest of life into focus.
We were home in 15 minutes. The whole experience had felt like a sort of dream, a bit unreal, genuinely other-worldly. What a treat. It turns out you don't have to travel far to feel like you're in a different world.
* Peter Ormerod was hosted by Mallory Court, part of the Eden Hotel Collection - a privately-owned portfolio of nine beautiful properties in the UK. A new luxury Elan Spa is set to open in the hotel’s grounds in spring 2017. Stay overnight from £99 per room (two sharing), including full English breakfast. Call Mallory Court on 01926 330214 (www.mallory.co.uk).