When you are demolishing your own home, it is really rather lovely to spend time in someone else’s, particularly if it is a listed Grade I Elizabethan Manor. Mr Smith’s ambitious plans for our modest London flat having left us somewhat jaded and dust covered, our weekend break in Devon was well timed.
Surveying our surroundings in Combe House’s oak-panelled Great Hall, the sheer scale was mind-expanding. Everything is vast: the heavy oak door we had arrived through, the five-metre-long cloth curtains hanging from ceiling to flagstone and the cavernous fireplace, filled with giant, glowing logs in an immense grate (yes, it is spring, but baby, is it cold outside). From the walls loom 18th-century ancestral portraits interspersed with bold taxidermy.
The size of this room could surely contain our entire flat, I pointed out to Mr Smith. Clearly, back in the day they did things differently. Swiftly Mr Smith used this to illustrate an ongoing moot point in our relationship, barely suppressing mirth to announce that the estate’s origins coincide with the only date he claims I know in English history: 1066 – of course. Combe House’s land was given to Bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, after the Battle of Hastings, apparently.
Luckily, distraction arrived in the form of chilled champagne with a selection of miniature morsels of food (commonly known as canapés). As our Baby Smith was settled upstairs in our bedroom, monitored by the lovely girls in reception, we toasted our delightful change in circumstance.
In the dining room, we had the chance to soak up the quintessentially English view of rolling countryside, vibrant green in the evening sunlight, from huge, stone-framed windows. As the estate encompasses some 3,500 acres I reckon we’re looking at Combe House’s land as far as the eye can see. Which is heaven if you’re a fan of wide-open spaces. Or if you live in a half-renovated flat in London.
The walls have been hand painted in a pretty floral design and in the second dining room I spied a pinky Farrow & Ball wallpaper. Wandering back from the loo I was intrigued to see a distinctive William Morris design, looking oddly contemporary, which confirmed my suspicions that Combe House merges old and new extremely well.
Dinner saw us in the good hands of chef Hedleigh Barrett who is clearly a guru of textures and tastes, producing little flavour bombs that burst on your tongue: foie gras studded with honeycomb, scallops scattered with hazelnuts, and smoked duck leg croustillant. Sustainability is big here – the provenance of meat and fish is very local and veggies come from the garden.
Our bedroom was so dark and quiet that all three of us slept in. Mr Smith enjoyed the reassuring comfort of sheets, blankets and a heavy Colefax and Fowler eiderdown (the hotel thoughtfully checked our bed linen requirements upon booking), but Master Smith was not keen on the shutters, which meant he missed the dawn chorus.
Our mullioned Elizabethan windows framed the view of a flowering magnolia tree, and some Arabian horses cantering friskily in the fields. Our bedroom, one of the oldest in the house, had delightful hand-painted wall murals but, like the rest of Combe, it has been tastefully modernised. There’s a Farrow & Ball blue and grey colour scheme, upholstered armchair with matching bed end stool and Warris Vianni silk curtains. Very luxe country house, but extremely comfortable too.
Combe’s breakfast is not to be missed, which you might do if you’re not there by the distinctly early time of 9.45am. Thankfully, we had Master Smith to consider, so we were seated punctually by 7.30am. Three bowls of porridge came with jugs of Devon cream and maple syrup, followed by Combe’s own eggs in various guises – with smoked salmon (for me), the works (Mr Smith) and buttered soldiers (for Master Smith), leaving just enough room for a homemade croissant with jams and marmalades from the estate.
The estate certainly needs time to explore. Adjacent to the Manor is the glorious Victorian kitchen garden where we played ‘spot your dinner’. Basket-weave edges contain the vegetables: multicoloured chard, radishes, beetroot and herbs aplenty. A pathway snakes round to one side, through ancient oak and bay trees, to reveal an outdoor thatch-roofed bathing area. We met the chickens, scratching around in their expansive coop, and lifted the lid of the nesting box to discover brown eggs.
A hidden path, strewn with cerise rhododendron petals and lined with wild bluebells, neatly led us back to the main lawn where the honey-toned manor is framed by magnificent 200-year-old Lebanese cedar trees. The gnarled branches, low-slung over the lawn, form a natural lover’s seat overlooking the buttercupped fields, stretching to Dartmouth. Unlike the interior’s classic feel the garden has been left to run a little wild: lichen-covered brick walls, mossy, upturned terracotta pots and an age-old Arboretum. It’s a secret garden and most definitely romantic.
You could easily while away a few hours here but Mr Smith was set on a visit to the coastal fishing village named Beer. Although I was skeptical about it being much more than a pint-in-hand photo opp, actually what we found was a sweet pebbly beach, with pretty fishing boats, striped deckchairs and even bona fide bearded fishermen selling their catch. A few snapshots and a stone-throwing contest later and we were ready for a Devonshire cream tea and Master Smith’s supper back at what we’d begun to call The House. As you can imagine, our spell there had made returning to The Flat increasingly less appealing.