Gidleigh Park has been on Toby Keel's bucket list for a decade and a half. He finally ticked it off this summer; was it worth the wait?
On a beautiful, early spring day about fifteen years ago, my other half and I set off up the M6 after work one Friday evening. Just outside Stafford it started to snow. By the time we reached our destination – a cottage near Ambleside that we’d booked for the week at rock-bottom, last minute rates – the snow was already three inches thick.
By the morning, there was a foot and a half of pristine, Cumbrian snow all around. It was glorious, but it didn’t agree with the tyres on my 1984 Austin Maestro. We were utterly snowed in.
If we hadn’t been, we’d never have tuned in to Masterchef, recently-rebooted by the BBC, with Loyd Grosman having been replaced by John Torode and Greg Wallace. And if we hadn’t tuned in that week – I think it was the semi-finals – we’d not have come across one of the venues featured: Gidleigh Park.
The chef at the time was Michael Caines, whose elegant and beautiful food almost popped off the screen, even on the fuzzy, non-HD 18” set in the corner of our little cottage. This astonishingly pretty country house in Devon was as sunny on screen as Cumbria was snowy out of the window, and we were transported. It was immediately installed onto the bucket list.
It might have taken 15 years, but this summer we finally made it along. Mr Caines has long since moved on, of course, but the place hasn’t altered in the details that matter. There has been a manor house at Gidleigh since the 16th century, but despite its Tudor appearance and oak-panelled corridors the place as it stands today is in essence a creation the 1920s, built by a Tunbridge Wells architect called Stanley Philpot for an Australian businessman called Charles McIlwraith. It became a hotel after the war, and has been part of Andrew and Christina Brownsword’s small collection of hotels in 2005.
Each of the 24 rooms at Gidleigh is furnished in a comfortable, traditional country house style – think leaded windows behind Laura Ashley curtains rather than sleek, glossy modernism, but all the better for it. This is a place to walk in, relax and immediately feel at home.
The grounds follow suit. Gidleigh is set in 107 acres that include lawns, river, woodland and a kitchen garden where the gardener happily chatted us through the various things being grown. There’s also a croquet lawn and a vast, 18-hole putting green designed by Peter Alliss that features all manner of proper hazards. It’s properly tricky: we actually lost a couple of balls in one of the ponds.
All in all, it’s simply a marvellous place to stay for a few days. The Brownswords had been regular visitors for years before they bought the place, and it shows: the unspoilt, timeless charm of the place is a credit to all involved.
Food and drink
As good as the hotel is, what has made Gidleigh famous these past 15 years is the restaurant. The first half of this year has been a nerve-wracking time for Gidleigh, however, since a new executive chef took over in January, Chris Simpson. Beyond the usual ups and downs of a change of boss, there was also the prospect of potentially losing Michelin stars, which are any restaurant’s ultimate marketing tool.
It’s a shame that it has to be that way – the marketing tool ought to be the food itself, of course – but that’s the modern reality in a world where people will literally travel the globe to experience the rarefied atmosphere of the best restaurants. The good news for Simpson – who was previously head chef at the two-starred Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Port Isaac, Cornwall – is that Gidleigh has won a Michelin star in the latest guide. They’d have preferred two, no doubt, but stars are notoriously slippery after a regime change and the hotel is rightly celebrating the achievement for the chef.
It’s easy to see straight away why the French guide’s team of professional sticklers were impressed. The dining rooms are beautifully and spaciously laid-out, making you feel like you can enjoy the atmosphere without other people being on top of you as they are in some places.
We went for the tasting menu with the wine flight, which kicked off with a wonderful salmon amuse bouche that immediately had us licking our lips in anticipation. The first of the eight courses, the sweetbread, didn’t disappoint: impossibly light, in a rich sauce with shimeji mushrooms, complimented by a Cabernet Franc. Lemon sole with brown shrimps was full of verve and freshness, the squab that followed was perfectly – but perfectly – cooked, with a pea puree, bacon bits and baked onion that was probably the highlight of the meal.
The turbot that followed didn’t hit such heights, despite a lovely celeriac sauce, but the perfectly-pink lamb with ‘Hen of the Woods’ mushrooms that followed quickly moved us beyond it.
It was beautiful, and simple: like the ultimate peasant food dish, with superbly fresh ingredients made the stars of the show.
For dessert the strawberry panna cotta and a glass of banyuls – a sweet French fortified wine, not dissimilar to port – was a perfect match; the chocolate tart made with 80% cocoa chocolate, similarly, was harsh on its own but lifted up by the dessert wine as well as the pistachios and yoghurt sorbet alongside it.
Throughout the meal the service was consistently attentive and friendly, free of stiffness or formality yet still making the experience feel special. As of course had the food. It’s always a pleasure and a relief when a place lives up to the image you’ve built up in your head; Gidleigh Park did exactly that.
The tasting menu at Gidleigh Park is £145 per head, with the wine flight £85; the three-course a la carte menu is £125.
Things to do
We’re not entirely sure why you’d come down Gidleigh and want to leave; this is a place to settle in and relax as if it were your very own country estate.
That said, the nearby village of Chagford is a gorgeous little spot, full of quirky shops, cafés and a superb deli. Moretonhampstead is also worth a stop.
For lovers of architecture one of the South West’s most interesting buildings is also just a few minutes away: Castle Drogo, an early 20th century house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The National Trust has been pouring millions into the building – the design specified flat roofing areas which have caused trouble almost since the day building work finished – but even clad in scaffolding it’s an astonishing site in an incredible location.
Beyond that the golf course at Bovey Castle is a fine spot to play if the weather is good, and for more outdoor pursuits you have the whole of Dartmoor almost on your doorstep.
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