Total silence. No cooing pigeons, no voices, no basslines through the floor, no tinny autotune from afar. No car engines, no motorcycle exhausts. Only once, the sound of a distant airliner overhead.
And that’s with the window wide open at night. What planet is this?
Et voilà, I am here, home of the exiled King Louis XVIII – Louis Vee Ex Eye Eye Eye
I’m sat on a long-striped cushion at a high window in room 14 on the first floor of Hartwell House, an imposing stately home with Jacobean exterior and pristine Georgian interiors now operating as a hotel. Hartwell is one of three historic mansions restored by Richard Broyd, given in the single largest donation to the National Trust. Hartwell is the largest of the three, the most regal and – conveniently for an overnight stay – closest to London. Even sticking to the speed limit, it seems far too close for this quiet splendour. Turning off the main road, the National Speed Limit sign appears immediately before an impossible single lane stone bridge, as if the entrance to Hartwell is part of a space/time continuum through which you must dart.
Such is time travel. I’m speeding up to slow down to another century. Et voilà, I am here, home of the exiled King Louis XVIII – Louis Vee Ex Eye Eye Eye – lived with his family and court until he was called back to reign. He was praying in his chapel when he was told the good news, a chapel which is now the hotel’s panelled bar. That’s a good story, Louis.
Wheeling into the circular drive centred with an equestrian statue of Frederick Prince of Wales, check-in is 3pm. This means tea at 3:30pm, which is great because I’m famished. Ushered through the great hall with its massive fireplace aglow, and the bar, I am shown to a fabulous Rococo Morning Room. Fabulous is the word for it, as the salon is decorated circa 1760 with gilded mirrors, flowers, chandeliers and delightful pastel and white plasterwork ceilings. They are so sharp and crisp that I can’t take my eyes from them. I look up so much that I am having second thoughts about a facelift. On silver and fine china come the best scones known to humanity; light and sweet, the size of cricket balls yet not gummy or sticking to the roof of my mouth. There was a vast array of teas, some unknown to Instagram. Cakes, tarts, pineapple macarons, the finger sandwiches, egg, and truffle cress, I ate them all in a cloud of greed. Even if you can’t get a room here, at the very least, come to ogle Hartwell House with its enormous fireplaces, paintings, old furniture, pastel plasterwork, woodwork of antiquity, compass and oriel windows but promise yourself the traditional afternoon tea in this divine dreamscape.
Set in 90 acres of National Trust land, mooching around the grounds is allowed only to residents or those having booked into the spa or restaurant. This explains Hartwell’s psychologically beneficial, nerve-healing quiet. I’m surrounded by proper historic decor – cornices, ornate rugs, a wildly amusing main staircase complete with carved figures (including newer additions of Thatcher and Churchill, reminiscent of the ‘Alien’ gargoyle at Paisley Cathedral).
Then there are the expected the HHH pineapple motifs. The huge Turkish towel robe as heavy as a horse blanket. The inevitable shortbread. The fluffy fresh cotton balls in a bowl on the vanity. A warning sign near the bath pleading guests not to take a phone call when the bath is running. (A friend accidentally flooded the Savoy like that).
I got my morning cardio in just thinking about all that metaphor out there
Of course, I know there are amazing things outside my room. Hartwell’s grounds give me a strong understanding of how green hectares, studied, planned, and raised as any living creature, are more inviting than anything I’ll seen on screen. There is a bridge, statues, funny archways that look like follies. At dusk, a mass of jackdaws swirl in the sky, following each other, while red kites speckle the sky in another direction. Outside offers a lot, even without mentioning the all-weather tennis courts. There are 18th century pavilions, monuments and a Gothic tower complete with crenellations, an Ionic temple, an obelisk as well as Zeus and Juno frolicking beyond the arch. A destination going back over 1000 years to Edward the Confessor with the fabric of the current building dating to the 17th century, Hartwell abounds with a justified sense of its own importance. I got my morning cardio in just thinking about all that metaphor out there.
Coaxed downstairs for breakfast to the arched dining room, I had the best table facing the large period windows. The breakfast menu had everything I wanted – a billion different yoghurts, porridge, Finnan Haddie, salmon, crushed avo on toast, great coffee.
Time for a walk, I push through the heavy wooden front door of Hartwell House up a gentle curve, gaping at the illuminated St Mary’s Gothic Church to my right, and through a small clump of trees to the spa. I should have booked a treatment as the spa has a good vibe. It’s dark outside now, and both pool and jacuzzi are gloriously empty. The pool is neo-classical, with one end featuring the statue of an elegant lady covering her top half with sculpted arms. She looks anxiously in the direction of the locker room where I bet she’s left her robe.
Then, dinner in the dining room, again with me gazing up at the fascinating convex mirrors reflecting the candlelight. The design is, apparently, based on a room at 11 Downing Street. Shall I bray about the salmon starter, or the fresh bread made on the premises? Who wants to read food swooning?
Listening to silence at the open window reminds me that Hartwell House would be a great place to bring someone you loved for Valentine’s Day. If not this year, then next. It’s not a knackering drive (you can take a helicopter), has many seductive historical details like fancy romantic-novel chandeliers, wooden balustrade gargoyles with boobs, aphrodisiac Valrhona Tulakalum dark chocolate fondant, what more could impress someone you like? Then again, to go alone and linger, amid a keen list of champagnes and sparkling wines, to ponder in its peaceful library, is rather a love letter to yourself. And those scones. Always the scones. C
Hartwell House, Oxford Road, Stone, Aylesbury HP17 8NR
01296 747444; hartwell-house.com