Old stuff, it’s always fascinated me. As a student I spent hours floating through Brighton’s hedonistic Lanes, battling my way through chaotic antique shops searching out long lost treasures. My favourite haunt was Snooper’s Paradise, where a rickety turnstile gave way to a labyrinth of antiques; burnished wooden tables with cracks and crevices revealing their years, elegant vintage bags which had seen far more glamorous nights out than myself and the saddest of all, once gleaming jewels sat in an old cracked pot ready for perusing, each with their own secret story.
But as one wise old chap once said, ‘the most valuable antiques are dear old friends’, and I couldn’t agree more. Having grown up in a sleepy Norfolk seaside village with a pocket of close knit friends, I always yearned for something more and soon abandoned its’ windswept shores and flowered fields for buzzy Brighton and later London. As I schizophrenically darted between the two worlds, many friends and acquaintances fell by the wayside. But one curly haired bumpkin outstood the test of time, yes Lizzie was there at every turn; visiting my latest shambolic abode, accompanying me on foreign flings and knowingly smiling as I introduced her to yet another unsuitable chap ‘honestly Lizzie, I really think he’s the one’.
And so, with Lizzie by my side, it was time to embark on our annual weekend away and aptly the destination was Buckinghamshire’s iconic Stoke Park; the UK’s oldest country club. In fact, this glorious estate dates back to the Domesday Book no less! Throughout the last 1000 years, Stoke Park has been owned by an eclectic bunch, from bankrupt Earls to Royalty, however it is John Penn, the soldier, scholar and poet that we have to thank for much of what we see today. And boy do we see it, the curious looking domed mansion and its surrounding lakes and vistas have been the backdrop for films including James Bond, Layer Cake and my personal favourite, Bridget Jones.
Today the 300 acre estate is a playground for the rich and famous, with everything from a 27 hole championship golf course, 13 tennis courts, an award-winning spa and three fantastic restaurants.
As we turned off the main road and down what has to be one of the country’s longest driveways, we crossed a picturesque river, complete with bobbing narrow boats, before pulling up to the club itself. The hotel is split in to two distinct buildings; The Manor and The Pavillion. The Manor is wonderfully over the top, from the outside it looks like a mini White House and inside is awash with spiral staircases, polished marble, oversized artworks and gold gilt at every turn. Our destination, The Pavillion is a newer addition to the property, scattered with Andy Warhol posters and quirky furniture it boasts a more contemporary style and an award-winning spa, perfect for a pamper weekend.
The indescript corridors gave nothing away but as we apprehensively opened the door to our room our faces broke in to huge grins, we had a generous sized junior suite with an enormous bed and a decadent marble bathroom and well, no suite is complete without Playboy artwork hey. No sooner had we unpacked (okay, and dive-bombed the huge bed – some habits die hard) we were dashing downstairs to the spa. The acclaimed spa boasts a large heated pool overlooking the grounds, Italian marble steam rooms, a nail bar and a tropical aquarium… obviously.
As Liz and I caught up in the steam room, the difference in the directions that our lives had taken was laughably evident. As I filled her in on my pointless stresses and strains of baffling spreadsheets and tense presentations, she filled me in on the dairy crisis. As I whinged on about my commuter concerns, like which odious yellowed arm pit I would spend my journey in each day before getting thrown across the train carriage each morning, Liz filled me in on her farm’s worsening pot holes. Maybe Norfolk wasn’t so bad after all, a traffic jam there was getting stuck behind a tractor, which when surrounded by daffodil fields and floral hedgerows wasn’t such a bad thing in my recollection. There was nothing for it, this stressed city girl needed a massage and she needed it now. The choice was obvious, the Aromatherapy Associates Sleep Deeply treatment; an hour long treatment that promised to ‘balance the nervous system and ease and overactive mind’. Sold.
Feeling suitably relaxed and pampered we made our way towards the main manor for dinner. The hotel has three restaurants of varying formality, but after another year apart this reunion called for celebrations so the choice was simple; Humphry’s it was.
The elegant fine dining restaurant boasts three AA rosettes, not surprising given that it has Chef Chris Wheeler at the helm. Previously Jean Christophe Novelli’s right hand man, Chris has often graced our TV on shows like Hell’s Kitchen. Humphry’s exudes a timeless elegance, awash with a delicate palate of cream and gold with perfectly laid tables hugging the fireplace and overlooking the immaculate estate.
On arrival we were greeted by the beaming Maître d’ who ushered us to our table, ‘Miss Baldwin, how wonderful to see you again. I hope you don’t mind me asking but do you still have your mollusc allergy?’ Blimey, that is some memory, it had been well over a year since my last visit. Impressed, we pulled up a pew and after repeatedly perusing countless tempting dishes we opted for the tasting menu so we could leave the decisions to Chris and carry on with our catch up.
As we reminisced about years gone by; shivering together on the beach as the boys surfed, drunkenly singing along to the guitar and days spent gossiping in the dunes, dish upon dish of immaculately presented local delicacies arrived, joined by a perfectly matched wine, courtesy of the knowledgeable sommelier. As nostalgic as we felt, this beat fish and chips on Cromer pier. The lamb on the bone was perfectly pink, tender and succulent and the enormous raspberry soufflé was light and airy yet full of flavour. Suitably stuffed we headed back to our suite, quite possibly our most decadent girly sleepover yet.
The next morning, after breakfast in the mansion’s Orangery restaurant and a stroll around the stunning 300 acre estate we managed to delay leaving the mansion for at least another hour with a tactical mid-morning tea in the grand hall. As we finally got ready to leave behind this historic hotel and head back to reality, we took in the last of the commanding marble pillars, the elaborate spiral staircase, the grand piano and the enormous chandeliers. As the poet Emily Dickenson once stated ‘my friends are my estate’, lucky that hey Liz!
For more information, including bookings and details of upcoming events, visit www.stokepark.com.