A 17th Century country house hotel hidden deep in Devon dairymaid countryside. Our taxi from Totnes (the nearest station, a 45-minute drive away) takes us over rolling hills, past picture postcard thatched villages, patchwork fields in every shade of green, occasional glimpses of glimmering blue a tantalising reminder of our closeness to the coast (why did we spend the entire summer heatwave in London?). We turn onto a narrow, winding track bordered by towering hedgerows through more fields and farmland, eventually turning into Buckland’s impressive grounds.
The house, an elegant manor of warm grey stone, is handsome and beautifully proportioned, with golden-ratio windows, large and white-framed, sloping slate roof and wide stone steps leading up to the white-pillared, heavy wood front door. Inside, the ground floor communal rooms retain their original panelling and generous fireplaces; floor length curtains in thick creamy silk frame views over the terrace, garden and glorious landscape beyond. The trees here are varied and enormous, some even dwarfing the grand house.
The lower ground floor, which used to be below-stairs kitchen and scullery, has been knocked though into one large, airy room, cream-painted with pale gold stone tiles underfoot, leading through French windows onto an outdoor terrace which overlooks manicured lawns and a classical fountain. Perfect for weddings.
The whole place, from the family portraits hanging from the polished panelling of the Queen Anne Restaurant, to the medieval tapestries lining the walls up the stairs to the bedrooms, is steeped in history. Since the first record of one William Tutsant owning the manor in 1189, Buckland’s existence has been a colourful one. In 1637, its then incumbent Sir George Southcote, ‘being oppressed with melancholy, feloniously cut his throat’; not long after, in the Civil War, his son and grandson, Cavaliers through and through, had to flee to Exeter, to ‘escape the violence’ of the Roundhead soldiers.
By 1820, after much internal wrangling, the family was bankrupt due to ‘profligate spending and gambling’ on the part of John Henry Southcote’s two daughters and ‘unwise investments’ by his son. Is it wrong to rather admire the cut of their jib? Buckland’s final owners were an Irish Colonel and his wife who escaped the Troubles in 1923 after their castle in Co. Derry was attacked; having been taken outside to be shot, they managed to flee by boat after the Colonel’s wife flung herself in front of him, throwing their assailants off guard. Their former home burnt to the ground as they picked themselves up and ran. It wasn’t until the Colonel died (aged 98) in 1953 that the house was put on the market and eventually sold to become a hotel.
Buckland’s 16 rooms cater to a variety of tastes and budgets. The Contemporary Classic (cheapest) in the former servants’ quarters are cool and quirky, with sleek, comfortable modern décor contrasting with sloping ceilings, small windows, creaky floorboards and rickety stairs leading to bijou bathrooms in the rafters.
Next up are Traditional Classic and Traditional Superior, both categories individually and attractively decorated. Our Master Suite? Now you’re talking. It’s pleasingly spacious, with sitting room (separated from bedroom via glass double doors) large enough to accommodate a three-seater sofa and antique dining table that could easily seat six.
A pretty chaise longue in the bedroom is upholstered in the same purply velvet chenille as the sofa, and cushions in complementary shades of mauve and damson are echoed in a silk and velvetrunner at the foot of the four-poster bed: regal hints against an otherwise soothing palette of pale gold and cream.
The bathroom has been cleverly designed to make the most of the old house’s nooks and crannies,comprising one room with bath and loo, adjoining corridor with washbasin and robes, and walk-in wet room big enough for two with double rainfall shower heads. Toiletries are Temple Spa, towels large and fluffy (natch).
Refreshed and abluted after the long journey from the grimy metropolis, we recline on the sublimely comfortable bed and gaze out at the bucolic beauty of the valley below, relishing the peace and stillness.
Dinner kicks off with cocktails and canapes in the cosy, clubby bar, all dark panelling and deep leather armchairs; a newspaper rack with all the day’s broadsheets completes the picture. Ricotta and broad bean tartlets, soused mackerel on cucumber, marinated olives and popcorn with truffle oil whet our appetites as we try to decide what to order from the a la carte. I ask Mike Hall, the helpful and affable General Manager, how the tomato in a starter of Dartmouth crab manifests itself (I have an aversion to slices of raw tomato – capricious and illogical, considering pasta al Pomodoro would be one of my death row dishes).
He confirms it comes exactly as I loathe it, then discretely – not at my request – repairs to the kitchen to see what can be done. He’s back minutes later with the news that the chef is happy to replace the tomato with chargrilled pineapple if I like the sound of it. I certainly do, and when it’s brought to the table I very much like the taste of it, too, the juicy, honeyed fruit emphasising the delicate sweetness of the crab, green flecks of coriander adding an aromatic citrus note. In fact it’s such a successful pairing that I see it has now replaced its earlier tomato incarnation on the menu. Top marks for both ingenuity and kowtowing to the whims of a difficult customer.
Andy seems very happy with his quail breast and leg with a ‘crispy egg’, particularly impressed with the light crunch of the perfect soft-boiled egg’s batter. To follow, he goes for pan-fried lamb with creamed peas, a sweetbread nugget, and rosemary & garlic jus. The lamb and sweetbread are beautifully cooked but he finds the jus a bit bland.
No matter, because I draw the long straw again with my main course of potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms. My notes say ‘yummy, bosky, food from the earth. Posh comfort food.’ And it couldn’t be more autumnal if it tried.
For pudding, Andy’s blackcurrant bavarois with Guinness ice cream looks stunning, a moody symphony of darkness. It tastes pretty good too, the ice cream’s slight bitterness a nice foil to the fruity custard. My chocolate mousse with salted caramel ice cream is delicious, obscenely rich, the mousse so dense it’s almost a ganache. Not something I could eat every day but if you can’t indulge yourself in a place like this, where can you?
Who goes there?
When we visited on a Monday in September, everybody else dining in the Queen Anne Restaurant was over 70. A splendidly patrician old lady and her slightly younger, corpulent male friend were discussing judges and QCs of their acquaintance. But this was a Monday night at just-back-to-school time, and I’m not sure how many of the diners were even staying at the hotel. They looked more like well-heeled locals enjoying the perks of retirement.
I’m sure this is not the case at weekends and during high season. Mike Hall tells me that a lot of families visit during the school holidays, and couples over long weekends – it really is quite a long journey from most places for just one night, lovely though it is.
And as mentioned before, it’s a deservedly popular wedding venue. Romantic, picturesque and remote enough for all manner of late night shenanigans to go unmarked.
Out and about:
Buckland is situated in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to venturing beyond its grounds. Kingsbridge sits on its own estuary and is surrounded by lush rolling countryside, making it popular for walking and sailing. It has a tranquil charm and friendly atmosphere.
Slightly further down the river is Salcombe, the most expensive stretch of coastal land in the UK, beloved of boaty types, thirsty types (its pubs are numerous and lively) and Jack Wills-wearing teenagers with outdoor tans, streaky blond hair – boys and girls – and ringing, confident voices. At the other end of the spectrum, you could get back to nature with a long walk on wild, windswept Dartmoor, communing with stout, shaggy ponies and imagining yourself in a Hardy novel.
The worst thing:
The distance from London (although, come to think of it, this could be the best thing too).
The best thing:
Probably the manor itself, its history, location, views. A lovely sense of permanence permeates the place and you leave feeling reassured that parts of England like this still exist.
Buckland Tout Saints Goveton, Kingsbridge, Devon, TQ7 2DS; 01548853055; www.tout-saints.co.uk
Buckland Tout-Saints is a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels collection (never more than 50 hotels, to guarantee quality and exclusivity); www.prideofbritainhotels.com