A magnificent mile-long drive lined with beech and limes planted in 1827 leads all the way to Luckham Park. As the Palladian mansion looms into view, all ivy-clad golden Bath stone, pillared portico and bowed wings, you feel as though you’ve stumbled into the pages of a Jane Austen novel, a spirited ingénue determined not to seem unduly impressed.
Lucknam has a colourful history. The original house and its 100 acres were bought in 1680 for £500 – the proceeds of 7000lb of tobacco imported from Virginia. The main part of the house was built by the fag merchant, with the portico and wings added in the early 19th century by a Croesus-like Dutchman, the Philip Green of his day. Andreas Boode owned five coffee plantations in Demerara –worked by 2000 slaves – and married the rector of Liverpool’s daughter.
At the beginning of World War II the house was home to hundreds of evacuees, before being transformed into an informal headquarters for airmen from the neighbouring aerodrome, who used the beech and lime tree driveway to park their Spitfires and Hurricanes, trees providing perfect camouflage.
In its latest incarnation as a luxury country house hotel, Lucknam Park ticks all the boxes: two restaurants, one Michelin-starred; spa complete with indoor and outdoor hydrotherapy pool, variously scented saunas and steam rooms, state-of-the-art gym, and lounge with mixology bar – my kind of spa; equestrian centre with gorgeous glossy inhabitants – you can tell they’re almost as beautifully looked after as the hotel guests; cookery school in its own cottage in the grounds, offering courses in everything from the perfect steak to vegan stuff, street food to Michelin-starred cooking at home.
If this seems like a lot of things to do well, it is. But (spoiler alert) everything is done impeccably, not a corner cut, nor a sheet left unturned. It’s just a shame we were only there for one night.
Our first floor suite, with views stretching across the tree-lined drive, is idyllic. Understated country house furnishings in pleasingly muted shades of green and pink, swagged curtains, magenta orchids on the windowsill, pretty bird-and-flower wallpaper in the lobby between bedroom and sitting room.
The vast antique bed is as comfortable as it is decorative (I’m beginning to suspect this is a sine qua non for Pride of Britain hotels), with scalloped rosewood Art Deco headboard, highest threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets, plumpest of pillows galore.
The white marble bathroom with large bath, thundering rainforest shower, twin basins, fluffy towels and Espa toiletries (natch) cannot be faulted – even the most jumped-up Trip Adviser critic would be hard pushed (‘the wife and I were disappointed to note…’).
There are even grander suites available – literally, the Grand Suite and Grand Master Suite – which look fantastic, but in honesty, all the rooms are impressive, decorated in the same good taste, not skimping on the basics, brimming with high-end detail.
We kicked off with drinks in the library, a sentence that fills me with joy. Books, booze and roomy, welcoming armchairs – what’s not to love? My cocktail was a smooth, cool-as-a-cucumber martini, Andy’s a raspberry Tom Collins. With them came amuse bouches of goats’ caprese cone, butternut squash balls and taramasalata (not millennial pink) with avocado.
Having adjourned to the dining room, a high-ceilinged beauty that was once the ballroom, we are served a white rioja from 2017 and I try my first course: dressed crab with yuzu and lemongrass jelly, Exmoor caviar. This is delicate, refreshing – my scribbled notes say ‘little slivers of artichoke most yum’. Andy‘s scallops with smoked eel and apple are fantastic, a brilliant combination of flavours and textures.
To follow, on recommendation of the French waitress, I go for ‘slow cooked Roundway Hill pork belly, caramelised apple, roast duck liver, glazed onion’. Blimey, this is serious. The melting, fatty meat is accompanied by to-die-for duck liver and silky, buttery pomme puree, balanced with spring onions and wilted spinach – all truly delicious, but the pork itself is too much for me.
Andy loves his pot roast Yorkshire pigeon with ceps and blackberries, not a critical word, happy tummy. It looks great too, moodily dark with seasonal fruit and fungus. Golly, there’s a pre-dessert, a white chocolate ‘lollipop’, really very good, Michelin star flashing loud and clear. Andy’s actual pudding is banana parfait with warm rum and raisin sponge – boozy, fruity, grown-up. My Manjari chocolate cremeux with caramelised peanut, raspberry and milk sorbet is dense and creamy, its sweetness offset with the salty crunch of nut, zesty tang of berry, soothing cool of dairy.
We are dining in the Restaurant Hywel Jones, the eponymous chef having worked with Marco Pierre White and David Nicholls, former executive chef at the Ritz. As you might expect, he uses micro salads, vegetables and herbs from the kitchen garden, sourcing other ingredients from local suppliers. There is also a brasserie in the nearby spa serving light lunches and informal, al fresco dinners (weather permitting).
Out and about:
The hotel gardens are spread over 5 acres and set within 500 acres of listed parkland, positively crying out to be cantered across, or cycled through, depending on your predilection. The traditional English walled garden dates back to the 1830s and is exquisitely pretty, brimming with country blooms in spring and summer, sculpted yew framing the herbaceous borders.
The rose garden is reminiscent of a French courtyard with fruit trees climbing trestles around the converted stable building walls and a small formal pool in its centre. Lavender is abundant, highly scented and vividly hued; various bathing areas beckon. Oh, it’s just lovely.
If you must venture further afield, Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge are all within easy reach, but really, when you have all this at your fingertips, why would you?
Who goes there?
Money notwithstanding, who doesn’t? Lucknam Park is popular with high-flying couples –movers and shakers getting away from it all. Families love it– the Hideaway is a whole building dedicated to children, with everything to keep the little darlings happy, from a games room with table tennis and table football, to imaginative playroom (arts, crafts and music), and a role-play room featuring mini playhouse, shop and dressing-up costumes (actually that sounds fun for adults too).
If you happen to be horsey, or foodie, or a spa devotee, or, y’know, human, you’ll be well looked after here. Lucknam also hosts corporate events – the night we stayed, we had the dining room pretty much to ourselves bar some very generous employers treating an increasingly raucous group in a private room to some kind of team building malarkey.
And it would be a heavenly place to get married, the glorious gardens the perfect setting for a lavish, romantic knees-up.
The worst thing:
With standards this high, it’s genuinely impossible to think of a negative. If pushed, the pork was too rich for my taste, but that is purely a matter of preference.
The best thing:
Lucknam Park is sensationally beautiful (did I mention the gardens?) the estate expertly managed by consummate professionals, warm but never cloying, brilliant at what they do.
If anything could persuade me to abandon London for the bucolic fantasy, living within commuting distance of Lucknam Park would do it.
A one-night stay in a classic room costs from £295 per night (two sharing), including use of the spa. Contact Pride of Britain Hotels (0800 089 3929, prideofbritainhotels.com).