A first class country house hotel set in spectacular surroundings, Hambleton Hall has notched up an impressive number of accolades since its conversion in 1979. It has the longest retained Michelin star in the UK (since 1982) and was the Good Hotel Guide’s Luxury Hotel of the Year in 2017, Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence winner in 2016, Pride of Britain’s Hotel of the Year in 2016 for Outstanding Hospitality. They keep coming: the Good Hotel Guide Editor’s Choice 2016 award for Country House Hotels, the Good Hotel Guide Editor’s Choice 2016 award for Honeymoon Hotels, 2016 winner of Condé Nast Johannsen’s Annual UK & Ireland Awards for Excellence… Too many, dating back years, to list here. It’s also a member of Pride of Britain Hotels and Relais et Chateaux, both of which maintain extremely high standards. Looking forward to our visit? You bet.
As we approach the Hambleton peninsula, the road narrows and Rutland Water, the largest artificial lake in Europe, becomes visible to our left. Soon we are driving through the pretty village of Upper Hambleton, all ivy- and wisteria-clad stone buildings, with the odd thatched cottage (just the right side of twee) upping the charm factor. And there, right in the heart of the village, is the entrance to Hambleton Hall, a grand Victorian house dating from 1881, standing at the end of a long, tree-lined drive.
The interior is sumptuously decorated in classic country house style – nothing too chintzy, but opulent fabrics, hand-painted wallpaper, swagged curtains and vast floral displays on oval tables polished to a reflective sheen. We head out through the drawing room’s French windows for tea on the terrace and the sheer beauty of the location hits us. The vast body of water glimmers enticingly at the bottom of a grassy hill, at once calming and uplifting.
The perfectly-kept gardens are set around a circular pond and fountain a few stone steps down from the terrace, and have been expertly designed with a brilliant eye for colour and form. A riot of pretty pinks, lilacs and cornflower blues punctuated with cheery margarita daisies and sweet yellow primroses floods the flowerbeds; formal spherical topiary provides contrast and structure.
We finish our tea (and crisp, buttery home-baked shortbread) and head down to the water to explore. It’s a five minute walk to the sandy footpath surrounding the lake, where contented-looking sheep graze under trees and swans glide serenely on the water. We follow the path through ancient woodland, dappled sunlight falling through magnificent oaks and elegant silver birches and
reflected in rippling waves lapping the shore. Birdsong competes with the sound of the water; otherwise all is silent, a blissful escape from the cacophony of London.
Afterwards, we brave a swim; the heatwave is not quite yet underway, but the outdoor pool, in its own walled semi-enclosure with views down to the lake, is enticing. The pool area has been done up with as much attention to tasteful detail as everything else in the gaff: nautical blue and white striped towels in the changing room (ivy- and wisteria-clad stone exterior, white-painted tongue-
and-groove interior), stylish bleached wood and mesh sun loungers, pale linen parasols.
Hambleton Hall has 17 individually designed rooms, ranging from Master to Superior, Intermediate and Standard, and priced accordingly. The Croquet Suite is in a cottage in the grounds and comprises a large king-sized double bedroom, en-suite marble bathroom and smaller double/twin bedded room with a bathroom on the half landing. A sitting room and breakfast room occupy the ground floor.
Our Master Room is decorated in soothing shades of cream and eau de nil with accents of soft crimson and old gold – a couple of plump armchairs, a trim on the velvet curtains, floral touches in the gorgeous Chinese 18th century wallpaper. Our huge bed is as comfortable as I’ve come to expect from Pride of Britain hotels, with a French 19th century corona and curtains in the same eau
de nil velvet as those at the window. A plate of juicy, seasonal fruit – strawberries, cherries, nectarines – and huge bunch of flowers from the garden (I recognise them during our walkabout) are welcoming flourishes.
The marble bathroom has a twin washbasin, rainforest shower over a large bath and one mirrored wall. The other walls are papered in prettily sprigged cream and eau de nil that complement the décor in the bedroom; toiletries, appropriately, are Penhaligon’s. Both rooms have wonderful views over the terrace, gardens and long swoop of green down to the water, with its smattering of white sails.
Dinner kicks off with delectable cocktails and amuse bouches in (where else?) the cocktail bar. It’s louche, almost decadent in here, with a glam art deco feel: lacquered ruby walls hung with elegant line drawings and hunting paintings whose pink coats echo the rich red furnishings, a pleasing array of bottles lined up behind the polished wood bar. One can easily imagine Noel Coward, a regular visitor in the 1920s, holding court here.
Suitably refreshed, we make our way to the restaurant, liking the room’s understated luxury, all soft coral velvet curtains and upholstery, crisp white linen and gleaming glassware. It’s an ageless interpretation of English country house, very high end. Michelin-starred chef Aaron Patterson started at Hambleton in 1984 and worked with Raymond Blanc, Anton Mosimann and others before returning as Head Chef in 1992, so we’re anticipating a good meal.
As you might expect, the daily-changing menu uses only local, seasonal produce, much of it from the bountiful kitchen garden, which we visit the following morning. All the bread is baked at the hotel’s award-winning bakery, a five minute drive away in the village.
We plump, sensibly, for the gourmet tasting menu, with matching wines chosen by the excellent French sommelier. To start, ‘A taste of garden lovage with smoked eel and purple wild onion flowers’ turns out to be a light, velvety soup of brightest green served in little earthenware pots, garnished with vivid violet flowers, with a sliver of melt-in-the-mouth eel lurking in its beauteous
depths. It looks and tastes like summer. Next, a symphony of tomato: jellied terrine topped with thin, translucent slices of yellow, orange and red heritage ‘crisps’ and resting in a delicate, pale infusion that tastes of nothing but the fruit, pure, undiluted – essence of tomato, if you like. Fragrant, milky basil ice cream cleverly encapsulates the herb and mozzarella components of a tricolore . To drink, Domaine Montrose Languedoc 2016 (mainly Grenache), a light crisp rosé, ever so slightly petillant.
The cubes of foie gras that follow, topped with wafer-thin slices of cherry jelly, are unctuous, unbelievably rich, cut through with a sweet/sharp cherry coulis. A deep, fruity Banyuls to accompany. Nice. Then, pan-fried sea bass with peppers, courgette flowers, artichoke and burrata, bursting with sunny Mediterranean flavours, happily paired with an Australian Mount Hurrocks 2016
from the Clare Valley.
Breast of Merryfield duck is enlivened by compressed watermelon and feta, a winningly summery take on the bird. Oh goody, more wine, this time a Peruvian red, Perez Cruz from the Maipo Valley, pleasingly named Chaski, which is Inca for ‘the messenger’. Knocking it back, we ponder on the absolute rightness of the name.
A deconstructed tiramisu to finish, accompanied by Royal Tokaj. Mmmm, I like this place. I’m generally ambivalent about deconstructed assemblies (they were constructed in the first place for a reason) but this is a picture on a plate, and just as pleasing to palate as it is to eye: a Tia Maria- soaked almond cake, thin layers of tempered dark chocolate, almond macaroon, clotted cream ice cream.
(Reading this back, it all sounds monstrously gluttonous, and we were more than replete when we waddled off to bed, but it was a tasting menu, so portions were smallish, and the chef’s lightness of touch uppermost throughout.)
Breakfast in bed was of equally high quality, Andy’s freshly-laid scrambled eggs and smoked salmon unimpeachable, my fruit salad garnished with edible flowers pretty enough to be described as Instagrammable if I didn’t deem the word (and concept) odious.
Who goes there?
The night we dined, an attractive, well-spoken couple at an adjacent table, celebrating an important wedding anniversary; their conversation became more fractious as the evening wore on.
A couple of extremely jolly older couples (men in plum-coloured cords) who kept ordering more wine, quoting Monty Python, enjoying themselves hugely. A nice looking American couple with a surly teenage girl who would have probably been happier getting drunk with her mates (do teenagers still get drunk with their mates? Maybe she’d have been happier vlogging from her
luxurious room). Whatever, these places are an expensive waste on ungrateful teenagers – as I recall, to my shame.
It’s abundantly clear the hotel is not short of customers – our visit was on a Monday and the restaurant was fully booked for both lunch and dinner. The following day, a dozen bright orange supercars (Porsche) zoomed into the carpark, just as we were leaving – an annual boys’ day out, according to Chris Hurst, the affable general manager.
Out & about
Within the grounds, you’re spoilt for choice with hard tennis court, croquet lawn and pool; without, the lake is the most immediate attraction, with windsurfing and sailing boats available for hire. It’s a 25-mile, extremely picturesque, walk around it, or cycle ride, if you prefer – bikes are available to hire at the Hall.
Further afield, Burghley House , built between 1565 and 1587 by William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I, is one of the largest and grandest of its era and a treasure-trove of paintings, antiques, tapestries, furnishings and porcelain sculptures.
The county as a whole is well furnished with historic houses; at the other end of the spectrum, Rutland Water is home to Aqua Glide, the UK’s biggest aqua park, with climbing walls, trampolines, balance bars, rockers and rollers – which sound fun, whatever they are.
The worst thing
There were no tea-making facilities in the bedroom. Petty, I know, and as soon as we called reception, a perfectly brewed pot was delivered immediately. Could be just us, but Andy’s something of a tea addict (until it’s time for wine) and would prefer not to engage with anybody but me until he’s had at least one cup.
The best thing
The location is pretty hard to beat, and it’s all fantastic, but if I had to pick one best thing, I’d say it’s the people who work there. Chris was utterly charming, helpful and funny from the minute he picked us up at the station to the moment he dropped us back off 20-odd hours later. Chef Aaron’s food was outstanding, and sommelier Dominique will forever hold a place in our hearts: Chaski! Banyuls! Tokaj!
Lucy Lord was hosted by Hambleton Hall, a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels collection (never more than 50 hotels, to guarantee quality and exclusivity). Overlooking Rutland Water, the Victorian country house hotel has 17 individually-decorated bedrooms, a restaurant led by Michelin-starred chef Aaron Patterson and its own bakery. An overnight stay costs from £310 per room/£155 pp (two sharing) including use of the outdoor pool (April to September), a full Hambleton breakfast and a morning newspaper. Contact Pride of Britain Hotels (0800 089 3929; www.prideofbritainhotels.com).