Murder: A Scotch
Skyfall: I think you mean Ashdown old chap, and like Bond this story starts with a woman wielding a gun to my detriment…
Not as detrimental as to our Bond, but I was outshot? OUTSHOT! This is an outrage. And by a lady. Again. Albeit a beautiful, eloquent and darn right lethal one. This is not the Bond-esque persona I was hoping to portray and Lady Stirling seems to have done a very good job of stealing my thunder(ball). What would the chaps at Arb HQ have to say? More importantly what would the chapesses say? We’d better rewind a few hours to the start of this tale and see how I ended up in this near reputation-destroying predicament. What’s that? Oh, yes, I do indeed have a reputation.
It was a beautiful late summer day, which was a blessing as the weather had been less than kind and more in keeping with the grey, Russian constructionist drabness most English men and women have come to expect between the months of June and September. Lady Stirling, Miss B Stirling and Little Miss T Stirling were on a train dashing out of Victoria and heading towards the glories of East Sussex and the beautiful Ashdown Country Park. Before us, the thrill of shooting, the adrenaline of racing, the glamour of champagne and the luxury of a grand piano in our room – Rachmaninoff anyone?
The drive into Ashdown Park presents you with a classic winding, hedged drive which suddenly blossoms into open park where you can see, if lucky, some of the many free roaming deer. “Put that gun away!” I shouted at Little Miss T, “This is no time for game hunting, and besides we’re out of season.” A small, sheepish, grinning face returned the family blunderbuss to a bespoke Smythson leather case.
Once past the distraction of the deer, the hotel rolls out in front of you with all the grandeur that neo-gothic Victorian design has to offer. We dive out of the car and charge into the main building. Luckily for us Ben Booker, the hotel manager, was there ready to wrangle, disarm and coral the children while simultaneously introducing, charming and directing us towards tea on the terrace. Good show old chap – although we need to pop back and pick up the girls’ side arms at a later date. We take tea and make the most of the glorious weather before it vanishes. Cookies feature heavily, a blessing of having the children with us, and we watch them tear around the gardens while we sip our drinks – the children that is, not the cookies.
Tea complete, a brief stroll around the neat lawn, a visit to the lake and it was time for lunch. A grand buffet was served. It had the feel of Downton Abbey to it with the house looming in the background and people on hand to assist. Caesar salad, salmon with asparagus and potato salad, Greek salad, burgers, treacle tart – where to start, where to finish? We nibbled and tasted and enjoyed, but not for too long as the afternoon had excitement and relaxation standing shoulder to shoulder and in equal portion. We had yet to visit our digs, so a very pleasant lunch done, we headed to our room. Part of the hotel was once used as a convent and it was in this direction we were directed. Think now back to early Kubrick, specifically long corridors and zero point camera work. Then introduce two little girls holding hands and you have a scene straight out of The Shining. I was pleased I’d said no to the tricycles at this point. The long corridors are full of character, nothing malevolent here. As well as being calming, there is charm to them that comes from the stone work and wood panelling, the walk to the room is pleasantly peaceful.
Our room was grand, spacious and full of charm. Gift bags and Ashdown teddy bears were posted on each of the girl’s beds guarding a brace of cookies a piece. A four-poster bed and grand piano give the room some gravitas, while the wainscoting made me want to sip scotch and read Keats. Lady Stirling departed for a full body massage at the spa whilst the junior agents and I headed off to the day’s activities.
First up: shooting. I swagger over to the shotguns, T&B are being kept occupied by our hosts, and I chat about shooting in Scotland, a pair of Purdeys and a rabbit that holds the accolade of being my finest shot. A few traps later I’m into the swing. I think I’ve done pretty well. Next the Apache – a kit style car that has no other use than to be driven at ludicrous speed while you try and knock over as many cones as possible. At least that’s my interpretation of the rules. It turns out the fixed grins on the girls’ faces are not due to my safe return, but to them beating me to the driving seat, or passengers’ seat. High speed laps are now clear competitors to Scooby-Doo. Now I’m on a Quad bike, it’s going faster and faster; I’m escaping from something, not sure what, the Inland Revenue perhaps – who cares, this is great! Every Bond story has to have a high speed chase and this is it. I return back to base camp and find Lady Stirling has joined us. She is standing with a shotgun casually draped over one arm and a wry grin on her face. I know that look; it says, “You lose”. Bugger. “How many?” I ask, knowing I won’t like the answer. “More than you,” comes the whispered reply. I glance over at the chap who was in charge of the guns. He had only disdain and embarrassment in his eyes for me, a look that said, “You’ve been out shot.”
So this is where we catch up with the start of this story. Outshot by my wife, that would never happen to Bond, though admittedly he wasn’t married long enough to find out. There was nothing for it but to iron out the kinks of the day with a swim; the pool is softly lit and makes you want to glide from end to end instead of hammering out lengths which is my usual wont. The jacuzzi beckons and the afternoon wraps up in bubbles.
Which is exactly how the evening starts. We are in a lounge, walls hung with oil paintings, tables adorned with olives, and hands are holding glasses of champagne. We are dressed to kill. I check my six, no sultry, smoky-eyed seductresses looking to steal the latest Arb reviews – alas – but there are three other ladies I have to keep my eye on, or them on me. We choose to take dinner in the room as we are all keen to take advantage of the space and to keep the girls under control: shepherd’s pie, steak, creme brûlée, a lovely Chablis chosen by Ben. The evening slows down, relaxing is compulsory. We are all tucked up in bed; the girls are sleeping and cuddling their new Ashdown teddies. What a day.
We get up at a sensible hour and take breakfast overlooking the grounds of the hotel. The weather has decided to withdraw its previous offer and negotiated us down to a chillier, grey day.
We don warm coats and head out into the grounds. Winter might be fast approaching, and if you’re a goose I’d get onto Weight Watchers immediately, but the grounds lend themselves to strolls at any time of the year. Be it in short sleeves or chunky knitwear you can get away from the hustle and lose yourself in beautiful gardens, lakeside strolls and even a round of golf, but I would advise keeping a hearty hip flask of Bowmore to hand as you might find yourself out exploring the wonders of the hotel’s vast acreage longer than you planned. We find the secret garden, an enclosure of elegant design and calmness – retire here later in the day for assured quiet.
Guns, fast cars, filmic moments, hot chocolate, endless cookies, champagne, relaxation and calm. A heady combination and by the time we check out I feel I know Ashdown Park quite well, although in true Bond style you get the feeling there is plenty more to discover.