Tuesday, 9 December 2003

A luxurious place for luxurious people

One way or another the planned summer holiday never happened, so Mopsa and I were treated to a posh country break near Ashburton in Dartmoor in December. Prepared to confront bad weather head on, we chose somewhere that could provide cosy log fires, a supreme location, fabulous food and on the doorstep woodland walks for the mega-pooch.
Doing the old Internet hunt (googling: posh country hotel dogs) we found Holne Chase. As we drove down the rutted drive six weeks later through undeniably ancient woodland to a smart but not too grand hotel facade, we did the metaphorical rubbing of hands at having made a sound choice, previously sight unseen. Things got even better as a very friendly Dutch member of staff walked us down to the stable suite where we were staying. Stable doors opened onto a simple but smart sitting room with what at first appeared to be a cast iron log stove (turned out to be gas-fired) in full flame. Squashy Knole sofa, rugs, even squashier dog bed and TV (never turned that on) made up the downstairs, and a good sized bedroom with seven foot double bed and decent sized bathroom completed the upstairs accommodation. We snaffled the biscuits, bathed and changed for dinner and headed up to the hotel restaurant for the first of several delicious meals. If you like game, seafood, and most meat-eaters fare, then you'd be happy at Holne Chase. The food is excellently prepared, unpretentious and substantial with great local cheeses, big wine list and good, friendly service. The geese, ducks and hens that roamed across the huge lawns made it feel very much like home and the walk to the river was beautiful.
But then we noticed a few niggles, which to our mind deleted the hotel's own determinedly held definition of luxury. First the wardrobe: it was a cupboard with hangers which contained a rickety melamine chest of drawers. Only trouble was you couldn't see what you had put in the drawers as the cupboard had no light, and there was a real sensation of not really providing space for personal possessions and clothes for more than a single night. Bedside tables had no drawers either - just the ubiquitous chipboard with mini tablecloth and glass top to give the impression but without the substance. The bath was shallow and there were inadequate shelves for putting your own things down in the space - but a nice fluffy towelling dressing gown was provided (but only for one and there were two of us). No extra pillows were in the room and I like to sleep on a good mound of them. Being specially offered as a hotel to take dogs, walking boots, fishing rods and other accoutrements of the country life, there was no hard floor area for these, and worse, no sink for washing the dog bowl, filling the kettle and doing stuff you wouldn't want to do in the upstairs bathroom. The cold water was consistently warm - absolutely yuck for brushing your teeth but the worst of the domestics was the rationing of the bogroll. Even the lady on reception had the grace to say that at a luxury hotel, you should expect to use two sheets per go! We did have a fabulous break, but we were constantly aware that some of the small things that make all the difference to your longed-for holiday were not quite right. We didn't complain about any of these things as we were there to relax and rest, and I knew I could get it off my chest with a backward looking blog. There were previously unannounced supplements for some dishes (an additional £5 for beef on a menu that was already £35 per head for three courses). However, our special request for lobster on day 3 of our stay was dealt with swiftly and we had no qualms paying for a supplement for this which we knew we would incur in advance. The owner of the hotel was much in evidence - a countryside alliance type of chap, who joshed his guests loudly and with vigour (causing occasional offence, but apparently harmless). It was only as we had paid and we were leaving that he let rip some appallingly homophobic comment, believing that I would, of course, agree with him! I would suggest that the place needs a few "home improvements" but that the most successful one would be for the owner to spend his time playing pooh sticks on the various bridges on the Dart and leave the running of his fantastically located joint to his excellent staff and their lovely dogs.