So, the party is definitely over and the January blues have set in. What to do? How about the English countryside, cosy rooms, great food, blazing fires and a vast spa? And an awful lot of history.
Stoke Park is 20 minutes from Paddington – and I’m including the taxi from the station here. How can anywhere so uncitylike be so close? There’s a vast park (much of it golf course), red kites fly overhead and, for a more poetic take on the January blues, you can walk to the church where Thomas Gray composed Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard– St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges.
The Georgian mansion at Stoke Park replaced an earlier Tudor one, though much of that still remains and can be seen across a park designed by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. This was, for a while, in the possession of Elizabeth I then later the new mansion was built to suit more modern tastes under the watchful eyes of John Penn. He was the grandson of the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, inherited almost 24,000,000 acres of it at the age of 15 only to lose it after the American Revolution when it was confiscated. After centuries in private ownership, in 1908, Stoke Park became Britain’s first ever Country Club and has been gaining plaudits ever since.
It’s even a bit of a movie star with leading roles in two James Bond films (the most famous game of golf in cinematic history took place here between Bond and Goldfinger). Hugh Grant went rowing on one of Stoke Park’s lakes in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Madonna strolled through the park as Wallace Simpson in W.E.
The spa has won quite a few of its own awards and is housed in the Pavilion but spills out into a lovely garden with an outdoor sauna and big hot tub – great in cold weather! You may not be thinking of golf in January but there are indoor as well as outdoor tennis courts, a big gym, lots of classes (I tried dance fusion and Pilates, both good, but there’s also hot yoga, group cycling, ballet stretch, meditation – you name it, it’s round the clock). There is a massive heated indoor swimming pool in a lofty orangery with floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the park, plus plenty of steam, sauna and relaxation rooms.
I had two treatments that followed seamlessly one after the other. I decided to plump for Thalgo as this is the signature brand at Stoke Park and I’ve been intrigued by it ever since my first experience on board ship (see October Spa of the month). Thalgo uses marine products (salts, minerals, seaweed) as the basis for all its treatments and first up was a Thalgo Ultimate Full Exfoliation. I had a choice of Indoceane or Polynesian salt scrub (I chose the latter on the basis of its totally irresistible smell with, among other things, Tahitiain vanilla). It also includes white sand from Bora Bora, sea salt and coconut shell. The scrub removes all the dead or rough skin and, after showering off the remaining salt, you return for a gentle massage with Polynesia Sacred oil made with the same heady scent. You can extend this into a two-hour ritual, adding in a milk bath and a longer massage.
After this, it was time for the Thalgo Skin Solution Facial, very much tailored to your own particular skin needs. Given my dry skin we went for hydration and Source Marine. There is a double cleanse, exfoliation (my face was the only bit that hadn’t been totally scrubbed already), a lovely face massage (known as an Ocean massage using movements to mimic the waves of the sea) and a mask. While that one was cooking, I had a choice of scalp massage or hand and arm massage. With the foolish notion that if I went for the hand and arm massage, I could get away without washing my hair I plumped for that. All very relaxing. I went back to the sumptuous room expecting my friend Diana to be waiting for me as she’d finished an hour earlier. In fact, after the Aromatherapy Associates Intense Muscle Release (Stoke Park’s other favoured brand), she had gone to the relaxation room and fallen into a deep sleep!
After all this, we prepared ourselves for a sumptuous dinner in Humphry’s Restaurant (named for Repton) and were not disappointed. Humphry’s is Stoke Park’s fine dining restaurant (there are two others to choose from, too) and before you even begin, a little plate of three tiny amuses bouchesarrives while you are having a drink in the bar. There were little smoked salmon rolls filled with horseradish cream, a veggie quiche and a mini meatball. Even when you get into the restaurant there’s a coffee cup of garlicky carrot soup before the first course.
The menu itself is seasonal and stylish. Starters include curried scallops with roast cauliflower puree, pan-fried wood pigeon with beetroot, blackberries and toasted sunflower seeds and pumpkin veloute with truffle mascarpone. Mains include pan-fried saddle of venison with potato terrine, roast chestnuts and gin and chocolate jus, pan-fried halibut with miso-glazed octopus and pheasant with hay baked celeriac. This is not a spa menu, I know, but superb cooking and just perfection for a winter escape.
After a morning exercise class, a bracing walk to Gray’s churchyard and a coffee by that blazing fire, we were totally relaxed and just a little bit reluctant to get back to the city…
For more information and bookings, visit www.stokepark.com.