reviewed: December 2006

Some of the most famous garden pictures in England are a series of eight oils by the Spaniard Balthasar Nebot, painted in 1738 at Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire. They show enormously high hedges, gardeners with scythes, rollers, brooms and baskets, with visitors enjoying themselves among gravel paths.

The gardens, reputedly constructed to epitomise Whig political ideas, were long dismissed as fantasy but archaeological remains prove that they did exist. Although they were swept away by a landscape park in 1738 (Sir Thomas Lee had them painted before demolishing them), the present owners of Hartwell House commissioned a model of the house surrounded by the gardens, so anyone lucky enough to stay at the splendid hotel can see how they once were.

We stayed in a charming, cosy suite in the stone-built stable block. This was ideal for our dog, surrounded with crackling woodland and squirrels, rabbits and crows for her to chase, and huge walks on its 90-acre estate. On the other hand, we admired the landscape gardens, which replaced those shown by Nebot: these were designed by Richard Woods with canals, bridges, an equestrian statue of Frederick, Prince of Wales, along with monuments of Hercules and Marsyas and a Gothic-Revival church. In early spring, visitors are surrounded by snowdrops.

Staying at the part-18th- century, Jacobean hotel is to experience what country-house life was like in its heyday. The large public rooms are lit with log fires, which are lined by comfortable, deep sofas. The Jacobean staircase, complete with large carved figures, leads to the 30 bedrooms in the main house. The dining room, pure Soane, is copied from one in 11 Downing Street. It has fine views and delicious classic food.

The grandeur of Hartwell House has attracted many historical figures, from Louis XVIII (who lived there after fleeing France in 1791 and kept a menagerie on the roof) to Bill Clinton and the Emperor of Japan. Indeed, where Louis’ chickens and rabbits once nibbled, guests can relax on a sunny terrace.

Our stay was one of such relaxation. The hotel is impeccably managed, the welcome is warm and the concern for comfort is genuine. The director and general manager, Jonathan Thompson, manages a hotel that combines service without servility, which is truly hard to achieve.

Hartwell House, Oxford Road, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP17 8NL (01296 747444 www.hartwell-house.com). Rooms from £270 per night with Continental breakfast and full use of the spa