Muddy stays: Hotel Endsleigh
Need a bucolic topper-upper? Muddy's found you the perfect place in Olga Polizzi's Devon dream near Tavistock.
Next time you need to lie down in a darkened room, don’t – book a stay here instead. Hotel Endsleigh is the ultimate soul-soother, with tinkling waterfalls, tweeting birds and acres of emerald-green to un-wrinkle your furrowed brow. It’s the hotel equivalent of Crème de la Mer face-cream, lemon posset and a week in the Med, right here in Devon.
A Grade 1 listed Regency house set in over 100 acres, Hotel Endsleigh was for centuries the holiday home/hunting lodge to the Duke of Bedford. Bought in 2004 by hotelier Olga Polizzi (mum to Channel 5’s Hotel Inspector, Alex Polizzi), she loved it so much she disregarded her Forte Hotel-owning father’s advice never to buy any place with less than 30 bedrooms, and I’m overjoyed she did.
It’s heaven for fans of period porn, with family crests and ancient ordnance survey maps on the wall, plus more gongs than Serena Williams, including Conde Nast Award for Excellence 2019, Best Countryside Hotel 2018 and The Hoteliers’ Hotels Top 100 2016.
Set in the lush Tamar Valley on the edge of Dartmoor with Plymouth, Dartmoor and north Cornwall all in easy reach, although with Humphry Repton landscape gardens to explore, fireplaces to snooze by and Ten Tors gin in the bar, you might not get that far.
Designed in the cottage orné (decorated cottage) style by Jeffry Wyattville in the early 19th century, it’s luxurious yet earthy, with its roots firmly in its aristocratic heritage, although the only clue to its hunting associations is Endleigh’s fish logo. You won’t have to shield your eyes if you hate stuffed animals in glass boxes, it’s a taxidermy-free zone.
Olga has a knack for preserving the best of the old English and combining it with her classy objet d’art (some of it, according to GM Adam Cornish, sent down from her London home) to create an unstuffy, modern vibe.
It’s easy to imagine it’s always looked this way, when much of it has in fact been lovingly restored, including The Children’s Parterre, with its rill and low hedges.
There are two lounges with loads of comfy sofas and two crackling fires. Fancy resting your weary bones on this winged chaise? Dip into a newspaper or a book from the library shelves, ideally a PG Wodehouse, or just gaze out at the trees and the River Tamar below.
What’s missing in this the pic? Yes, the bar! It’s a help-yourself affair with an honesty book behind that door on the left handside. Similarly, when you first arrive in the panelled hall, there is no reception to spoil the view of the hearth and giant bouquet, it’s tucked around the corner. That said, the staff are so helpful and plentiful there is always someone lovely to bring you tea/coffee/gin when you’re gasping.
The Endsleigh mantra is ‘home from home’ with a rhythm to the day that sees the curtains magically drawn, candles and hearths lit and vases filled with fresh flowers from the gardens. Although you could be in the pages of House and Garden mag, it’s so relaxing, you feel no-one would mind if you curled up and dribbled on the sofa.
In summer, instead of woodsmoke it smells of lilies, when the doors spill out onto the numerous terraces, and giant Brazillian gunnera leaves loom over the waterfalls and palms swaying in the summer breeze. *Yep, booking as I write.*
SCOFF & QUAFF
The food is amazing, all home-made on site, including those delicious home-made biscuits – so hard not to steal more than your fair share! A traditional afternoon tea for residents gets laid out in the Library each day, the plates piled high with Devon cream and scones, finger sandwiches and cakes.
Our dinner kicked off with an aperitif and a relaxed peruse of the three-course menu in the lounge, in the company of a carved wooden pooch so realistic you’ll want to pat it. Let them know when you book if you want your own vegan or intolerance-friendly menu.
We sat in one of two dining rooms, wood-panelled and decorated with the crests of the Bedford family and their prestigious friends, visual name-dropping, like Instagram for the 19th century. The second one on the left as you enter is the most unusual, designed with pictures of a tree, boat and airplane, for the sixth duke’s wife, Duchess Georgiana. Evidently a free spirit who loved travel, one day she left in a plane and was never seen again, although why she’d want to leave is beyond me.
The three-course menu takes its cue from the countryside, with rabbit, pheasant, venison and beef depending on what’s in season, and with eight miles of riverbank, a range of fish depending on what gets landed locally. Though there’s linen on the tables, the friendly staff and swift service makes for a sophisticated but relaxed affair. If you’re not sure what to go for, pick any dish you recognise. I guarantee it will be better than any version you’ve had before.
We’re in fishing territory, so what better way to start than with a tasty mackerel, pepped up with citrus and beetroot flavours – the prettiest fishy I’ve ever seen on a dishy.
For mains, I went Italian (in honour of Olga) with a risotto so extraordinarily light and fluffy it would make good comfort food for angels. A surprisingly huge plateful too, cut through with thinly-sliced Jerusalem artichokes and rocket leaves.
The hubby described his monkfish as like a deconstructed fish pie, and served with peeled potatoes so soft they were almost like intact mash. The brackish sauce and salty samphire was like a beach holiday on a plate.
For dessert, Mr M went for a wonderfully light soufflé which arrived with an alchemy bottle of liquid chocolate which was poured into the ramekin for a little bit of added theatre and fun.
I chose the S’mores which came with all the nostalgic ingredients, but none of the heft: marshmallow, crisp chocolate and oval of ice cream on a thin crescent of chocolate biscuit. How I imagine the Queen might eat the American classic, ie. classily.
To finish it was a pot of mint tea in the lounge and a plate of hand-made petit-fours (what’s another 1000 calories among friends?) while we chatted to chef Tom Ewings. His thing is local and foraged food, with a local shooter on speed dial for game, and a fishmonger who daily tours the markets for the best catch of the day. He’s cooked for Boris Johnson and Camilla and clearly puts his heart and soul into his food. Should you be lucky enough to marry here (all bespoke, not pre-packaged) he’ll be your chef too.
All 19 bedrooms are individually designed, so everything which has a function has beauty, from the caryatid lamps, to the metal light switches and the old ceramic bath – thankfully with fast, modern plumbing.
We stayed in Room 8 on the first floor which has a prime view over the 100m-long herbaceous border, the longest raised bed in the UK, with doors opening out onto a small lead-covered balcony. Those velvet green chairs! The colours are cleverly curated to bring the outdoors in, enhanced by the restored botanical-style wallpaper which originally came, backed on hessian, from the Duke of Bedford’s other home of Woburn Abbey.
You can see more original wallpaper downstairs in the Duchess’ Sitting Room. If you look carefully in the corner above the door you can see a bit that’s darker than the rest which the restorers leave for you to see how it would look un-retouched.
As you’d expect in a hotel of this quality, you get a kingsize bed with huge comfort-factor, monogrammed sheets with a high thread count, monogrammed robes on the back of the bathroom door and hand-crafted English Mitchell and Peach toiletries. Although there were no tea-making facilities, you only have to call down and they will bring it up at no extra cost.
Queen Victoria once stayed in this room. We were most definitely amused.
I saw not one single sprog but it certainly had plenty for the littlies, including a labrynthine rockery and a dripping tunnel to explore. Mealtimes and menus are flexible and there are downstairs family suites away from the main hotel. Tiny terrors might be a bit of a handful with all the expensive ornaments but there are lovely flat lawns and croquet to wear them out, so later you could take advantage of the baby-listening (or they’ll hire you in a babysitter).
There are also fun and games on hand: table tennis, badminton, bowls and boules along with children’s games, books and DVDs in the library.
If you’re a garden geek like me, take the tour of the historic woodlands, lakes and waterfall with head gardener, Ben Ruscombe-King. He’s full of interesting anecdotes about the champion trees and the old ruins of the brewhouse, where the estate once brewed its own beer – apparently the workers were ‘paid’ in 10 pints a day. No-one worried about health and safety back then.
Designed by Humphry Repton, Capability Brown’s protege, it’s designed in the Picturesque style – think Nature on steroids – so he would add a hill there or remove a copse if it spoiled the view.
Like makeover 200 years before Ground Force, the before-and-after changes are detailed in The Red Book in the lobby, a red leather-bound replica of Humphry Repton’s original watercolour plans for the garden, commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford.
It’s not open to the public, but if you ask nicely Ben’s got the key to the octagonal Duchess’ Dairy too, a marble-clad folly she apparently used to make cheese. All very Marie Antoinette.
If I could take one feature home, it would be the Shell House, a fairytale building at the end of the long border, decorated inside with shells, conches and coral with a mirror pool in its centre. Just magical.
OUT & ABOUT
Help yourself to a pair of Hunter wellies from the boot room and head out to the ancient stannary town of Tavistock, a 15-minute drive way, for good indie shops and the old-fashioned Pannier Market. Country Cheeses has a huge local following as do the olives in De la Torres next door and No 13 Boutique is a fave with the Polizzi family.
Kids in tow? Check out Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre, five miles away, for working exhibits of steam trains and undercover vintage carousel rides. If you fancy more outdoors, the National Trust’s Cotehele with a working watermill is 10 miles away, and it’s worth trekking the 45 miles to the Eden Project if you’ve come further afield to see the amazing tropical and temperate biomes.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: history buffs; countryside rambles, horse-riding, cycling and romps on Dartmoor; beaches: Harlyn Bay just west of Padstow is an hour away. Parties, there’s a function room in the stable block or the Duchess’ Sitting Room next to the bar accommodates up to 18. Dog-lovers, bring your pooch for £20 per night. Outdoor pursuits, with shoots and 8 miles of riverbank to book (with a ghillie) from March to October.
Not for: People who expect more bang for their buck, like a spa or gym, especially if gardens and rural views don’t do it for you. Anyone who comes out in a cold sweat when they’re too far from the teeming metropolis.
The damage: From £200 per night. Room 8, a double with en-suite and excellent views over the garden cost £450, including dinner and breakfast and the £50 garden tour with Ben.
Hotel Endsleigh, Milton Abbot, Tavistock PL19 0PQ Tel:01822 870000
Do you fancy a stay here, my lovely? I knew it! That’s why I’ve organised the chance for you to win a marvellous Reader Treat worth £450, inluding dinner, bed and breakfast and a tour of the grounds with head gardener, Ben Ruscombe-King. Get your muddy paws on it here.