As Smith Junior and babysitter disappear from view in the rear-view mirror, this Mrs Smith surreptitiously wipes away a tear and asserts that Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds is ‘going to have to be very special indeed’ to make up for being separated from the little darling for 48 hours. This is the last chance to get away before Smith Junior Number 2 arrives, and the first break from the rat race for what feels like an eternity.
We’re definitely in need of some ‘Cowley magic’. The subtle, minimalist signage that indicates your arrival at Cowley gives no real hint of what awaits. Then a rolling lawn… a towering stand of oaks… a glimpse of lake. And a picture begins to emerge of the pleasures to come. There’s a palpable sense of jangled City nerves starting to melt away. This is reinforced by a genuinely friendly welcome at reception that, combined with the contemporary furniture and background music, make it feel like you’ve arrived at a country house owned by the coolest people you know.
Things are starting to look good. Then Cowley ups the ante and we go from merely ‘good’ to ‘exceptional’. To explain: the hotel’s bedroom categories are referred to as ‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Great’ or ‘Exceptional’ – and we’re exceptionally happy to find that we’ve been handed the keys to the latter.
Floor-to-ceiling windows give views out over the sun terrace, yet another lake and glorious grounds beyond. A modern four-poster bed the size of the Smith family lounge, a private balcony large enough for a game of five-a-side football and a bathroom bigger and better-equipped than many a grand spa.
It’s when we clap eyes on the hotel’s C-Side Spa that things really start to look up. Despite the nautical-but-nice pun in its name, it’s all clean lines, slate-tiled pools and soothing treatment rooms. Not a kiss-me-quick sign in sight. (Though when I discover that specialist pregnancy massages are one of the treatments on offer, this Mrs Smith almost plants a smacker on her masseuse.)
Green & Spring is the hotel’s own brand of products (available also from the onsite Village Shop as well as other, less villagey boutiques, like Selfridges), the cares of modern life are rubbed, soothed and kneaded away over the course of a restful and rejuvenating hour, soundtracked by a playlist of your choice; Phillip Glass was perhaps, in hindsight, a little too angular a choice for what was otherwise such a deeply smooth experience.
Smoothness of another kind was provided in freshly squeezed fruit juice, and, taken in conjunction with a rare opportunity to catch up on all of the papers, made for a state of utter relaxation. You know you’ve hit the relaxation reset button when the major decisions of the day became choices between indoor or outdoor pool; room service or restaurant. A happy dilemma.
After a punishing schedule of massages and the giddy excitement of not having to look after Mini Smith for a day, room service it was. According to a quick straw poll among friends who know about these things, the – totally unscientific – litmus test of any hotel room service is based on the relationship between two vital factors: that is, the quality of the House Club Sandwich multiplied by the ice-creaminess of the vanilla milkshake. And the results showed Cowley Manor excelling on both scores.
Waking the next morning to bright, autumnal sunshine, we were fortified by the extensive breakfast on offer in the very impressive, but relaxed, dining room, and ready to face the delightful challenge of exploring the hotel grounds.
Surprisingly extensive, they gardens and woodland stretches to nearly 60 acres and include lakes, swans, hidden walkways with amusing signage (‘A path of exceptional virtue’), and any number of quiet resting places with benches or loungers to take in the views. Added to this, scattered about, are a number of pieces of modern art – not so many that they overwhelm, but enough to keep reminding you that, just as you think you’ve got a handle on Cowley, it’ll surprise you with a nice little twist on what a modern, country-house hotel should be.
After this, a game of pool on the unusual blue-baized table, followed by drinks in the buzzing bar (clearly popular with locals looking to take advantage of a great wine list and knowledgeable mixologists) was the perfect warm-up for dinner.
Served in the wood-pannelled surrounds of the dining room, the ambiance was a little more grown-up than at breakfast, but still warm and welcoming. The food was a comforting blend of staple classics and slightly more unusual options, and all of it was delivered and discussed with the unfailing courtesy we encountered from every member of staff during our stay.
As we settled down for a last night on the extraordinarily comfortable bed, we wondered when we could next come back, and if we could wangle another night away from Smith Jr.
Cowley Manor had clearly worked its magic.