There’s an irony that some of the finest places to get away tend to be the ones that are the most discreet. It’s as if they don’t need – nor want – to announce themselves or shout ostentation. Bovey Castle is one of these.
It is tucked – literally, tucked – among buxom hills in the Dartmoor National Park. Even its environment throws you off the scent; you could be in the Yorkshire dales, such are the thick hedgerows and dry stone walls etching contours among the tumbling, sheep-dotted hillsides. The only indication to its presence being a rather grand gatehouse to its grounds on a narrow, nondescript B-road winding somewhere west of Exeter. You need to zoom in considerably on Googlemaps to see it.
As you enter, it cries golf. Precisely clipped fairways and manicured greens embrace you either side of the gentle meander towards the castle, players glance up from their tee shot to see who’s arriving.
For its apparent alluring etymology, it is neither old nor formerly fortified. But that doesn’t discount its impressiveness, nor its history. It was built in 1907 for one William Henry Smith – yes, that’s him, the currently down-on-his-luck stationer – a Jacobean palace with all the trimmings of Edwardian splendour, before being taken over in the 1930s by the Great Western Railway (a legacy of which giving the main restaurant its name) as the Manor House hotel, a title it still bears on maps. Indeed, it hasn’t long adopted the name of its neighbour, the village of Bovey, coined when under more recent ownership by the entrepreneur Peter de Savry, before settling into its current incumbent, the Eden Hotel Collection.
It is, even now, riddled with the charms of yesteryear, from the moss-dappled stonework to the tweed and plus-fours of the staff uniform to the ‘Telephone’ booths in the lobby (now cleaners’ cupboards, though still harbouring 90s-era BT payphones amid the mops and buckets) and it bristles with grandeur. The communal lounges are more like a 19th century Scottish laird’s living rooms, with ceilings that ascend to the sky, and elaborately carved wood panelling and stone inglenooks. There are even imposing portraits high on the walls that remark sternly at you as you pass by or sit with the papers.
“You’ve been upgraded,” we’re told as we check in. Three words that come with a halo of veneration. They weren’t kidding. We’re in the suite that looks like it was made for the brochure. Even the en suite had an en suite. It’s in an area of the hotel that’s not long been renovated, too – there are patches below stairs that look like they haven’t evolved since the 80s – and it’s both rich and delicate in its tastes. Faux velvet occasional chairs in coffee and burgundy complement thick, tapestry-like curtains hanging over the stone and lead-mullioned windows that look out across England’s glorious countryside. That view. That countryside. It’s why Elgar wrote music.
A contemporary free-standing bath takes centre stage in a bathroom the size of a conventional suite, juxtaposed by the ornate shabby chic mirror above his and hers basins. It’s charming, and cosy, in its grandeur. And the finishing touches don’t disappoint; Espa toiletries, a decanter of homemade sloe gin; and we’re told that everything is complimentary, from the filtered estate water in the fridge to the condiments on the coffee table. What a joy that my daughter can tuck into a jar of jelly babies and not have me admonish her for the £15 surcharge on the bill at check-out.
It was time to explore. I wanted to get among the grounds and that perfect view from the south terrace. I joined my daughter rolling down the bank to a path that led to the lodges – the opportunity to immerse oneself in the Devon moorland in stone-built, oak-timbered luxury – and out towards beautifully abundant gardens, the wildflower-lined avenue to the summer house and the croquet lawn.
With a brief pit stop at the play area – a little lacklustre but understandable being term time – we circled the mirror pond, taking in the definitive image of the castle, and strolled back along the River (read ‘stream’) Bovey that courses through the grounds and the golf course, before rolling back up the bank and answering the call of the swimming pool. We needed no more convincing that here was the ideal spot for the weekend away from the city.
It’s a spot, too, that prides itself on keeping one occupied. Personally, I could have absorbed that view from the suite all day but, when there’s plenty on offer, it seems churlish to miss it. Golf widows and orphans are gleefully catered for with archery and rifle shooting, and falconry displays (from a delightfully sardonic golf grouch), egg-collecting and meeting the resident ferrets make for immersive rural pursuits. In the school holidays the castle teams with children – again, much to the chagrin of the bird man of Bovey – many drawn to the Bovey Bears kids’ club. It’s hard to work out who does better out of a stay here; the golfing parents or their offspring.
Two hours in the pool with a four-year old is enough to give anyone an appetite and, since we’re dining with our daughter, we make for the Smith’s Brasserie. In truth, I duck out of the room a little early to sneak a G&T and a moment’s calm in the bar, eyeing the temptation of the humidor. Perhaps afterward. Smith’s is the familial option here, with classic bistro fare and, crucially, a very reasonably-priced menu for little ones, complete with colouring pencils, and a kitchen happy to go off-piste should there be any requests.
If you want to get away from the little ones, then a quieter affair can be had at the Great Western, Bovey’s signature restaurant. The menu harks back to the glamour of its Art Deco origins with much poaching of rabbit, brill and Dover sole, souffles, confits and ballotines delivered in a relaxed yet sophisticated setting. It is, too, the venue for breakfast, and a very accommodating staff a more than patient with a little one determined to sample everything on offer, including smuggling out a token box of Coco Pops.
There’s a lot of thought that’s been put into Bovey, and not a great deal they haven’t thought of. Nothing, in fact. Little surprise it’s received a plethora of awards, from 5 Red AA stars for service and hospitality and a further clutch of rosettes for culinary excellence, as well as being recognised as one of the top ten family hotels in the world by Mr & Mrs Smith.
And did I mentioned the golf?
Bovey Castle on Dartmoor National Park. For more information, including details of the lodges and Elan spa, visit www.boveycastle.com. For more information about other properties in the Eden Hotels Collection, visit www.edenhotelcollection.com.