A cheeky weekend away? Muddy stays: Ettington Park
Since Bridget Jones went on her mini break with Daniel Cleaver, I’ve always loved the allure of a naughty night away (even if nothing naughty happens, its just good to get a break from the old routine)! Not as easy as it once was BC (before children), but nontheless, I still try and make it happen a couple of times a year. And if I can avoid a long journey to get somewhere divine (especially if it’s only for a night), the merrier I will be.
Step forward Ettington Park Hotel, the only AA 4 Red Star hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare (and since April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, very timely). I wanted to be far away enough from home to feel like I’d gotten away, but without the worry of a four hour trip to the Lake District or stress of being stuck in London traffic jams. This was the polar opposite, despite some motorway work on the M6, we were there in just over an hour. We stepped out of the car (leaving behind various McDonalds wrappers, I’m no angel) and walked into 40 acres of parkland set in a verdant valley with the River Stour meandering through it (Bridget Jones, eat your heart out). Situated just six miles from the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon and just a few miles from the start of The Cotswold Way, it really is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of busy life.
Ettington is part of Hand Picked Hotels, a collection (not chain, is how they describe themselves) of very individual country house hotels located throughout the UK and Channel Islands. They all have beautiful architectural features and historical quirks but embrace contemporary design too (we had cool music playing in the drawing room, so none of that hushed whispering because my dulcet Northern tones stick out like a sore thumb).
I love architecture and design, but don’t claim to know a lot about either, other than what I like. Ettington Park is built from six types of Cotswold stone (so I read) and looks pretty amazing! When you pull up, don’t be put off by the grandeur of what the brochure describes as a ‘Neo-Gothic mansion’. It is quite overwhelming at first sight (slight worry about my jeans and Doc Martens) but once inside, the staff gave us one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received! The artwork looks so antique, you really could feel the history of the place, and at one point when I walked to the chapel, I felt like it could have been hundreds of years ago (the story goes that the hotel is haunted, and in the welcome book, the old night manager – now retired – talks us through the various ghosts dotted about the hotel and grounds. It’s a nice touch).
When we arrived our room was ready but we were a bit peckish and in need of some light refreshment (we were on holiday after all ; )
Mr Muddy was the lucky travelling partner this time, having managed to get the Mini Muds at various sleep overs. We were shown to the drawing room which was bathed in light, thanks to the floor to ceiling windows and promptly ordered a cold Sauv Blanc and watched the world go by.
Feeling refreshed, we ambled up to our room which much to our delight (and amazement, because its something that always seems to happen to others, not me) was an upgraded suite! The room was easily large enough to have space away from my fellow traveller, if I needed, and it also had a lovely selection of magazines and tea and coffee (something on my hit list being the lil’ old tea lady I am)!
If you live in a town or city, you will be stunned by the views from the room, they were amazing. As night drew in I looked out from the desk where I was squeezing in a bit of blogging, and saw several deer ambling across the front lawn (I don’t think there was anywhere I would rather have been right at that moment).
Ahhhhh in the theme of Shaky (the Bard, not the Welsh pop star), if music be the food of love, play on! We hadn’t even made it down to dinner and I was feeling like I’d been uprooted from the bustle, and dropped like a feather into a cocoon of calm. And speaking of dinner, OMG! And I mean, OMG! The hake was possibly the best fish dish I’ve tasted (outside of the meditteranean). But hang on! I jump ahead of myself. Before we managed to get to the restaurant, it was pre dinner drinks and canapes in the drawing room. I ordered a Margarita off menu, as I often do (because I’m very awkward, according to Mr M) and it was delish, as were the canapes (which I often think just taste like a mouthful of toast with Philly on). It’s also a lovely bit of ceremony that I really like (so much so in fact, I’ve known pre-dinner drinks turn into the actual dinner).
But not this time. We were both Hank Marvin, and I’d had the privilege of sitting down with Paul, the lovely new chef whose plan, so he told me, is to move away from the inherited menu (could be considered a bit stuffy), and concentrate on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Like a gambler who gets insider information on the horses, I gobbled up Paul’s recommendations of what I should eat off the separate daily menu (pistachio and ham hock terrine, followed by hake with almond and celariac, since you ask), and it was sublime. The restaurant itself is small, but beautifully atmospheric (so much so, none of my evening photos turned out as it was lit purely by candlelight).
Shakespeare may have said ‘the appetite may sicken, and so die’, but he’d clearly never eaten at Ettington Park. I’d call it fine dining, but not formal; stately but not stuffy. Refined AND relaxed, just like we were the next day by the time we made it to the pool (which I have to say we really needed, as it transpired that staying in the hotel, were a couple from my home town who invited us for post dinner drinks. Several of them).
The pool area isn’t huge, but it’s lovely and does have a sauna, steam room and hot tub, so plenty enough for an hour or so of sweating out double whiskeys (him, not me), and there’s a cute outdoor space for when the weather improves. Having once again built up an appetite, it was time for brekkie, and yet again, we were not disappointed!
Alongside the cooked brekkie, there was a huge choice on the continental, and loads of alternative options for the non dairy/non gluten amongst us! The kids weren’t with us, but children are welcome, and mine would have loved the choclatey cereal options and array of pastries (worth noting that on the dinner menu, they’ll do smaller versions of the proper food, so the wee ones don’t just have the standard kiddie fair).
Replete and restored, it was off for a bike ride (promising Mr M he could read the papers and nap afterwards).
It’s a proper playground outdoors; nearby ruins and No Entry signs to peak the ghost appeal of the place. The sun thankfully stepped up for the occasion and I remember wheeling down the tree lined path, past the sleek, expensive cars; the first warm rays of spring on my neck thinking ‘why didn’t I marry a footballer/aged billionaire/social media owner?’ Ahhhhh, but I suppose if one lived like that every day, one wouldn’t appreciate it (keep telling yourself that Anna-Lou)! And besides, there were plenty of normal cars like ours there, so it really is a place for all.
The staff really were some of the friendliest I’ve met over the years, and their willingness to please meant we felt like Lord and Lady of the manor, if only for one day (big thanks to the manager who aside from being lovely, kept Mr Mudster happy by talking rugby for half an hour). We didn’t make it into nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, but when we popped our overnight bags into the car to drive back to reality, I really felt like we’d had a proper break. It’s not as cool as say Babbington House or Soho Farmhouse, but then it’s not aimed at the ‘meedja’ darlings of the world. It does however bridge the gap between traditional formal hotels and the new generation hip hotels, and can really be a little bit of what you want it to be. We even brainstormed our respective careers and life path while imbibing the cocktails and breathing in the fresh air, because sometimes all you need to see things from a different perspective is the right kind of place. And Ettington Park on that sunny day in March was it. As the old Bard said: ‘We know what we are, but know not what we may be.’ Well pack up for a night or two, wave goodbye to the rat race and you might just find the answer.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Family celebrations, secret rendezvous’, Champagne breaks and affordable mid week fun. Beautiful surroundings but unpretentious and inclusive service. For Northamptonshire folks, it’s close enough for painless travel, but far away enough to feel like you’ve had a proper break.
Not for: Party animals looking for a night of house music and skinny dipping. There’s no curfew or raised eyebrows at noise (we certainly cackled until the early hours), but it’s more of a coupley/friends type vibe than full on rave. Kids are more than welcome, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a kids hotel, or at least not very young kids who might need a lot of stimulation (mine seem to be happy with a good nosh up and free WiFi connection these days).
£££: Not bad for what you get, and there are always specials on. Cocktails for around the £10 mark and three course dinner for £29. Hand Picked Hotels are offering a Spring Heritage Break at Ettington Park Hotel from £173 per night. Includes accommodation in a Classic Room, a three course dinner with a glass of wine, and a traditional breakfast. For travel until 31 May 2016 using code PSPR16. Also being offered is The Bard’s Afternoon Tea – £25.00 per person. A traditional afternoon tea served in the Great Drawing Room including the Bard’s finger sandwiches, homemade scones, cakes and pastries. The package also includes a guided tour of the hotel and grounds and all its history and a complimentary RSC William Shakespeare publication per person, from 23 April until 31 May 2016.
Ettington Park Hotel, Alderminster, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 8BU. Tel: 0845 072 7454 or 01789 450 123