As you’d expect from a Relais et Chateaux Hotel, Whatley Manor has a rather impressive entrance. As you approach via the long tree-lined drive, though, you’re not quite sure where that entrance is. A discreet sign seems to point to some closed wooden gates beneath an ancient stone arch. It seems unlikely but once you’re close enough, they open slowly to reveal the loveliest of Cotswold stone manor houses, covered in wisteria and climbing roses, the air scented with wood smoke. So, yes, pretty impressive.
All around Whatley, there are gardens and parkland – lawns (with croquet, obviously), deep herbaceous borders, box gardens, rose gardens, kitchen gardens for the restaurant. There are even olive trees. The house is built around two lovely courtyards, one still recognisable as a very superior stable block, now home to the spa. More of this later. In the meantime, I just wanted to be introduced to the hotel.
Originally, and somewhat unfortunately, it was called Twatley Manor, beginning life as a farmhouse and growing from the eighteenth century onwards in a rambling kind of way with old buildings incorporated and new ones designed according to the latest (Georgian) standards.
I find my own room filled with fresh flowers, while on the table there are lusciously ripe strawberries and, best of all, hand-made chocolates covered in edible gold leaf. And when I say room, there are three of them. The generous sitting room overlooks the garden, there is a massive bed in the bedroom with steps down to a bathroom with a freestanding bath and wisteria framing the window. So just one long idyllically summery romance for the escapee to the English countryside.
It was all leading very pleasantly towards dinner and I knew this was going to be something special. Whatley has had not one but two Michelin stars for the last nine years under Executive Chef Martin Burge. The new Executive Chef, Niall Keating, is just 26 but has already worked in several significant Michelin-starred establishments in the UK, USA and Denmark. He has been at Whatley for less than six months and has produced a new (and constantly changing) tasting menu that should certainly bring him the same kind of accolade.
I had been told that dinner consisted of seven courses though when I saw the menu, it seemed to have at least 12. It was also served with a “flight of wines” designed to complement each of them. Food highlights included a black, wobbly jelly kind of tortellini, a tiny delicious risotto with chorizo and raw scallops and the most tender lamb with dill pickle and horse radish. While on the wine front, there was an unusually complex and quite elderly (2013) rosé and – totally unexpectedly – the “bread course” came with a wine glass of a local boutique beer, very light and almost pink in colour.
After all this I was expecting something pretty surprising in the spa the next morning. And I wasn’t disappointed. I was going to a spa-within-a-spa described as a “Bubble Suite.” The bubble itself is a blown-up tent-like room that unzips for you to step inside. It gives a little shudder as you zip it up again and then the sides billow gently with its highly oxygenated air that has been filtered to remove any pollution, allergens or dust. This is an environment designed to enhance your skin’s ability to absorb a whole range of highly innovative products ten times faster than they normally would.
My treatment was called Natura Bisse (a luxury skincare company based in Barcelona) Diamond Ritual and it was pretty special, all 90 minutes of it. Therapist Violaine began with a lavender inhalation for relaxation and, after a lovely back massage with Diamond Body Cream, began the real business of the Diamond Energy facial, promising rejuvenation, hydration, a reduction of fine lines and skin that is elastic and positively luminous. It all sounded pretty good to me.
It began with cleansing (including a special lip cleanser that made my lips softer than I’ve ever known them) and toning and then Glycol peeling. I was a bit worried about this as it uses fruit acids to exfoliate and I have quite sensitive skin but, except for a bit of a tingle when it was first applied, it was fine. And, given the promise of an anti-ageing and detoxifying result, what can you say?
Then there were Diamond Energy serums, creams, toners and moisturisers all of which Violaine worked into the skin with massage and pressure points, reflexology and lymphatic massage to activate the facial skin and muscles and carry the toxins out of the system. There was, too, an algae mask that covered my eyes and mouth, closing the pores and locking the products inside the skin. You could smell the sea in it.
It was all pretty special. Inside the bubble, there is the most comfortable of massage tables that moves to give you the most relaxing position and you’re not just lying under a towel. Oh no. Here you have the softest bamboo sheets with blankets and pillows. Ninety minutes? I could have stayed all day. In a way, you do. Violaine explained as she gave me a fruit smoothie afterwards that the highly active ingredients in the products continue working for another eight hours.
When it was time to leave and they brought the car round, someone had hung a bunch of lavender from the garden from the mirror. It’s the little things that make a difference, don’t you think?
The Grade II listed Cotswold manor house has 15 bedrooms, 8 suites and 5 AA Red Stars. An overnight midsweek (Sunday to Thursday) stay costs £260 per room including breakfast and use of the spa. For more information, call 0800 089 3929 or visit www.whatleymanor.com.
Whatley Manor is a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels collection (never more than 50 hotels to guarantee quality and exclusivity). For more information, and details of other properties in the portfolio, visit www.prideofbritainhotels.com.