‘Da!’ says Baby Smith, as we first enter the imposing foyer of Fowey Hall. There, curled up by the reception desk, is a shaggy black dog; a far more sanguine welcome than champagne. The dog doesn’t even mind when Baby Smith gives her a poke – this being her very first visit to a hotel, the little one’s manners are a bit wanting.
‘Welcome!’ says the friendly receptionist.
‘Da!’ says Baby Smith.
‘This is Millie, the hotel dog. You can take her for a walk, but please don’t feed her,’ the receptionist says. A family of four trot down the corridor in terry-towelling dressing gowns, their hair wet from a recent swim. ‘Da!’ said Baby Smith. While ‘da’ is a general expression of joy for the Smithling, on this occasion we take it to mean she wants to go swimming. And what better way to recover from a six-hour journey from London? Our bags deposited in our room, off we go.
We stride to the pool as all Londoners must do, eager to cram as much into the weekend as possible. But speed and purpose melt away in Cornwall, and we find ourselves stopping to contemplate the spectacle of Fowey Hall itself, transfixed by its lawns and their view down to the harbour. Fowey Hall, a warm sandstone chateau in a Queen Anne style, sits atop the fishermen’s village of Fowey. From its manicured lawns, we watch boats bob on the water and gulls circle overhead. Hell, even the trees are photogenic.
Set under glass like a giant greenhouse, and heated to a temperature that makes it feel like a warm bath, the pool, when we eventually get there, has floats, armbands and beach balls aplenty to keep Baby Smith amused. Fowey Hall bills itself as a family hotel and it really is: after our swim, it’s time for the little one’s first dinner, and the staff are so kind that they quite take away that slightly tense feeling you experience when your toddler is let loose in a grand hotel dining room. ‘Sausage casserole or salmon and vegetables?’ they ask, and, while I would quite happily eat both, I choose the salmon, which is dispensed to baby, sitting in a high chair with a powder pink tray. Children’s dining takes place in a bright, airy room around communal tables, so that toddlers can make eyes at each other over the Petit Filou. Three-year-old Inigo takes quite a shine to Baby Smith, but since she is too young to start dating, we take her back to our room for a quick siesta before the ‘grown-up’ dinner.
Our generously sized room, in the garden wing, has direct access to the gardens and is tricked out in an antique/modern, Ilse Crawford style (read: Victorian chest of drawers placed next to a Fifties chair). Like the rest of Fowey Hall, it is manna to the eyes of any parent worried that stylishness might forever evade them now that they have children. Yes, there are cots, kettles, sterilisers and bottle warmers kindly placed in the room, but those are the only reminders of your post-baby life. For a few hours in the evening, you can pretend you are child-free.
The most seductive part of Fowey Hall isn’t its Wilton rugs, elegant drawing rooms or sparking log fires, but something rather more prosaic – its baby-listening service. Every room is wired for sound, with an ultra-sensitive listening device that can detect when your offspring whimpers, never mind screams. Nor do parents trek down to dinner with a Tomy monitor: a kind staffer does the listening for you, only alerting you if baby cries.
And so to dinner we go: our first grown-up meal à deux for months. Seated in an oak-panelled dining room with dim lighting and big fat wine glasses to get drunk with, I get a fit of the giggles at the sight of so many knackered parents – the women all dutifully dressed up and the men in their best shirts. Mr Smith gets stuck into the Cornish crab, eschewing the fresh lobster (residing in a tank next door) for a locally sourced sirloin steak. I toy with the idea of six oysters from the Fowey River, but settle on asparagus, followed by a rich cod, chickpea and chorizo stew. Children are not allowed in the dining room at suppertime, but handfuls of the older ones pop in to regale their chewing parents with tales of what they’ve been doing in the games room. This doesn’t spoil the grown-up ambience, though, and it’s fun to covertly play ‘match the parents with their offspring’.
After a ‘pudding’ of local Cornish cheeses, we take the remainder of our bottle of wine and finish it outside on the terrace. When we tipsily steal into our bedroom a little later, Baby Smith is stretched out like a starfish in her cot. We switch off the listening device (heaven help those parents who forget to) and sleep like babies.
The following morning, after a quick breakfast of Dorset cereal, bacon, sausage and hash browns (and eggy soldiers for the little one), we head off to explore the village, stopping on the way to check out the Four Bears’ Den. This marvellous nursery, manned by a team of trained nannies, is another of Fowey’s charms: open all day, it allows you to leave the small fry and enjoy some grown-up time. We don’t want to leave our baby, so instead take delight in her joy at the slide, ride-on toys, dressing-up box, paints and paddling pool filled with plastic balls. Weirdly, all this pales into insignificance when she spots the giant trampoline. We spend the next hour bouncing up and down, working up an appetite for the Cornish pasties and ice cream that is to be our lunch. Who knows, maybe we’ve even burned off one of the many millions of calories we’ve imbibed throughout the weekend.
For any beleaguered Smiths who want to shed their children for an evening, Fowey Hall is the ideal retreat. The friendly staff really don’t mind if your toddler drops their dinner, and the house feels uncluttered and calm, despite the proliferation of children running around. As we pat Millie for the very last time, Mr Smith and I notice some of the other parents are already rebooking for half term. ‘Da!’ said Baby Smith. We think that means she wants to come back sometime.