Confession time. I am a travel editor and I have NOT been overseas this summer.
This is not because I was too scared/worried about quarantine/so fed up of the will-we-won’t-we air bridge seesaw that I didn’t want to apply it to my own holiday (with respect to those to whom any of the above apply).
No, my choice to holiday in the UK was for two reasons – as a family we love Britain and holiday here frequently, Covid or no. And I was curious to see how some of our favourite hot-and-not spots, and the people in them, were coping with corona protocol.
So rather than a holiday let, our usual favourite way to do a UK week away, we set off on a round-Britain road trip, starting with the South West – the day that Devon and Cornwall reportedly hit gridlock…
After some time spent on Google Maps frantically rerouting, our first leg went without a hitch, and we even arrived at our first stopover in Bradford on Avon – which lies on the oft forgotten, slightly less manicured, just as magical fringes of the Cotswolds – in time for lunch.
Woolley Grange is part of the Luxury Family Hotels group, which counts the impressive Ickworth and flagship Fowey Hall among its number (more of the latter, later) and a brand based on a rumble-tumble, quintessentially English kind of luxury that is like Tiger Balm to frazzled parents of toddlers and pre-teens desperate for a place to gin and tonic while their children (safely) roam free across gently landscaped grounds. These are properties where little minds, feet and fingers can explore – how un-Covid can you get?
We didn’t have to wait long to find out. Woolley Grange is shabby chic in the original sense – a Jacobean manor delicately fraying around the edges, full of quirky artefacts collected across the years (but no precious ornaments asking to be knocked over) and set in willowy gardens scattered with deckchairs, teepees and treasure hunts. The welcome, while not uber efficient, is personable and esoterically sincere. Polite requests to wear face masks were respected by all inside and staff wore them uncomplainingly even for outside service, a relaxed approach that made it all seem very normal, even for the children.
In the comfortable, classically designed rooms, there are touches of recognisable luxury – Orla Kiely mugs, Elemis products – and more of that personable touch: sweet peas to take home, homemade elderflower cordial and chocolate. And the thoughtful touches are everywhere – such as hot water from the bathroom taps set to a temperature that won’t scald little fingers.
We decided to skip the afternoon’s flower crown making – a feature of the hotel’s summer ‘country festival’ of activities – and instead made the most of our indoor pool booking. I’ve written previously about how much I’m enjoying the current need to prebook activities and the hour spent splashing around in what was, for that 60 minutes, our own private pool, looking out over the walled kitchen garden as the hotel’s resident India Runner ducks peered in, was joyful.
I followed it up with a massage in the pretty spa – perfunctory, pleasing and… yes, personable.
The service, along with the menu, ramps up in the evening with more knowledge and enthusiasm if not polish (however once you’ve made headway into the array of gins, never mind the wine list, you may not care either way). As we sat outside perusing the gentle chaos of lemonade-fuelled children running across the lawns, we took great delight in a game of ‘what would we do with it’ – which involves transforming a property into your dream home, money no object.
After a blissful morning swim in the outdoor pool (definitely on the ‘keep’ list), it was time to pack up our daydreams and head off to Cornwall for our next stop – where someone has played that game for real…
Our journey passed uneventfully. I’m not sure where the traffic was, but in a win for our stress levels if not our waistlines, we arrived again just in time for lunch. However for once, despite a mouthwatering new menu, food wasn’t the first thing on our minds. Fowey Hall – said to be the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s Toad Hall – has been a family favourite for years, often as a stop off en route for holidays even further into Cornwall, and we can chart the years in terms of how fast the kids can climb the grand stone staircase that leads up through the garden to the impressive terrace. But on our last trip, the hotel’s faded grandeur had turned into ‘tired’, and we bemoaned the lack of investment into this beautiful building.
This year, however, the hotel has been treated to a top to toe multi-million-pound refurbishment that befits the Hall’s grand Grade II listed Victorian architecture, refined and finished during lockdown, with slick and stylish interiors by StudioJill – think contemporary use of colour, modernist (but comfortable) furniture, and a playful array of kitsch accessories, many of which play to the dog-friendly nature of the hotel including the ‘soft head’ dogs on walls throughout. Children’s rooms are fun while retaining the same sense of sophisticated elegance, with bolder use of colour. Even the library has been completely restocked with brand new sets of family favourites and literary classics and is claimed to be the biggest children’s library in the country (we lost our eight- and eleven-year-old on more than one occasion, only to find them sunk into the overstuffed sofas, their nose in a book).
It’s more than a successful transformation that’s brought the architecture alive while sprinkling the hotel with some overdue design stardust. The staff seem to like it too – there is a skip in their step and you get the feeling that once they’ve got over the very newness of the new normal (and the heatwave, prevalent during our entire stay), this is an A team waiting to happen.
Face masks among guests are a rarity here – they are requested but not insisted upon – but whether it’s the high ceilings and spacious rooms, the overriding air of relaxed bonhomie or just the fact that we were wearing ours regardless, it didn’t seem a problem. In all other areas Covid protocol is strictly adhered to, from bar table spacing to restaurant reservations to the one-way system around the spa (a back massage here was also good, if not outstanding). The indoor pool is large enough to accommodate more than one family, but owing to the aforementioned heatwave, too hot for us grown-ups. Thank goodness for the adjoining sundeck overlooking the harbour (and the herberts swimming inside).
The new-look menu is as sophisticated as its surrounds, a contemporary take on Cornish cuisine. There are classics in abundance – juicy burgers, several cuts of steak, a separate salad menu, all locally sourced, jostling for space with freshly caught fish and delicious vegetarian dishes. The children’s menu, as it is across the brand, is almost as long as the grown-up version, and the kitchen’s ‘can do’ approach to variations on a theme guarantees happy small people at every mealtime. An interesting, considered and well-priced wine list complete with English vineyards and a swish collection of cocktails that would befit any London hotel bar makes for meandery evenings on the terrace or across the many restaurant rooms and bar spaces.
Our only criticism was the lack of outside lighting. As our balmy Mediterrean-style evening meals outside stretched into after-dark drinks, the children intent on chasing bats as we kicked back and watched the lights of Polruan across the harbour flicker on, the planting schemes that surrounded us were crying out for some lighting of their own. (As were we, blinded by the near darkness and bereft of even a table candle to light the night).
It was these lights that drew us, for the first time, to Polruan on the ferry that runs every 15 minutes from Fowey. While Fowey’s harbourside had its fair share of holidaymakers enjoying fish and chips and an outdoor drink from the pubs, we’ve seen it busier, and neither town showed any stress or overcrowding from the reported hordes of tourists. In Polruan, which has only 30 per cent of its houses populated in low season, we were adopted for an hour by a year-round resident keen to show us its historic block tower and share with us the desperate effect of lockdown for the local economy. “We’re glad to see you,” she said. “Anyone who says otherwise must have another livelihood.”
Fowey Hall’s makeover certainly hasn’t hurt the area, with the hotel fully booked into September – although, surprisingly, opinion is split between regular guests as to whether this is a welcome makeover. Some, while loyal to the last, think it is too smart, too polished and feels less child friendly. Just how, is hard to fathom – in fact my only question was whether there are plans afoot to give Woolley Grange the same treatment. She’s definitely worth it – but, as we set off for our third and final West Country stop, does she or her regular guests even want it?
Double rooms at Fowey Hall from £249; and from £179 at Woolley Grange, both including breakfast (luxuryfamilyhotels.co.uk; 0208 076 5555).