When Mrs Smith and I excitedly wheel our suitcases into Hope House in Woodstock and get shown to our suite, exchanging secret ‘result!’ faces while trying in vain to appear cool, there’s a jug of Pimm’s waiting. As we pour ourselves two generous glasses (rude not to) and chink ‘Happy weekend!’, our host Paul Hageman warns us with a twinkle that it’s deceptively strong: ‘We had a lovely old Canadian lady stay recently and she didn’t realise it was alcoholic, thought it was just fruit punch. She drank the lot and didn’t make it to dinner. We had to rescue her from a bench on the high street and help her back here. She thought she was dying.’ We chink glasses again, this time raising a respectful toast to the lovely old Canadian lady.
Stealth-lethal booze aside, the reason we exchanged ‘result!’ faces behind owner Paul’s back was the size and sheer swishyness of our temporary home. The Churchill Suite (named after the wartime PM, not the nodding insurance dog) is decorated in chichi monochrome and deliciously scented with vanilla oil sticks. The bed’s a handsome sleigh-style beast with Beltrami linen, Mulberry silk duvets and three choices of pillow. J-Lo or Mariah-type divas would find little to stamp their tiny feet about in here.
The lounge? Squishy French sofas, flock wallpaper, stone fireplace and goody-stuffed Smeg fridge. The bathroom boasts a heated marble floor, roll-top bath and monsoon shower. We primped and pampered ourselves with Bulgari potions and aromatherapy unguents while watching the LCD bathroom TV with Sky and Netflix, generally being smug.
Think Woodstock and you think peace, love and flower power. But swap Sly Stone for limestone, the Catskills for the Cotswolds and muddy hippies for muddy wellies and you’ve got the tiny market town that shares its name with the legendary 1969 festival. Perched between Oxford and the rolling hills, it’s handy for Henley Regatta or Silverstone (should you enjoy watching modes of transports masquerading as sport) and Bicester Village (should you enjoy designer clothes masquerading as not-that-expensive-honest). Woodstock is all almshouses, cobbles, postcard Englishness and ooh Mr Darcy, the perfect place to film period dramas.
Slap bang in the centre sits Hope House: a listed 300-year-old ancestral home, lovingly restored, with original oak panelling and three capacious suites taking up an entire floor apiece. We had the first-floor Churchill but honeymooners (plus the two Bills, Clinton and Nighy) tend to go for the ground-floor Blenheim Suite, with its four-poster bed and double bath. The second-floor Marlborough is all oak beams, green silks and gilt furnishings. Hope House is the little sister of Blenheim Palace next door, built with the same stone. Paul can tell you the story of every brick, which should be boring but isn’t – he’s infectiously passionate and proudly shows us quirky carvings left behind by his ancestors. (Note for anti-social Londoners: he’s equally happy to leave you well alone.)
Breakfast is served in a dinky dining room with bay windows overlooking Woodstock High Street, where frightfully nice residents go about their business in Barbours and Boden. Me and Mrs S got our days off to a belt-straining start with one of the finest breakfasts since fasts were first broken. All locally sourced organic fare, naturellement: two sorts of bacon from nearby oinkers, sausages hand-made to the family’s own recipe, home-baked breads and pastries, locally churned butter and eggs laid by Hope House’s four free-range Lavender Blue hens (Lily, Clementine, Sarah and Henrietta, since you ask – they sound like a Sloaney girlband). The chronically indecisive could have a ‘nervo’ here, because the choice is dizzying: 12 teas, three coffees, seven juices, six sorts of honey, countless jams made by an eccentric ex-ballerina who forages fruit from the village hedgerows.
Breakfast is the only meal served here, although for groups of six or more, Hope House does offer a bespoke seven-course tasting menu, cooked by Raymond Blanc protégé Stephen Bulmer, with wines and brandy, at £195 a head. Couples without fat wallets and four hungry chums in tow, though, have to explore dining options nearby. Luckily, there are loads. Woodstock village is more foodie than Nigella Lawson with salted caramel crumbs down her cleavage.
There are five restaurants within 100 yards’ staggering distance and another 10 within 500 yards. Our favourite was Brothertons Brasserie, an old-school Italian with a buzzy-but-laid-back vibe. It has a schmancy standalone Birra Moretti pump, and maître d’ Dimitri spent a minute explaining the mechanics of it to me, before dismissing it as ‘probably bullsheet’ with a giggle and handing me a frosty, frothy glassful.
Daylesford Organics and Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons are but half an hour away. You can also venture back into Oxford or out into the proper countryside, which is dotted with inviting pubs. No American Werewolf In London scenes round here. We rambled round the country lanes and antique shops a bit – mainly, it must be said, to fill time and ease guilt before the next meal.
Blenheim Palace is a stone’s throw away. Or more pertinently, a scone’s throw. We did one of those ‘visitor experience’ virtual tours with moving waxworks and thesps’ voices, which some Americans adored but we couldn’t help sniggering like naughty schoolkids. We pulled ourselves together with afternoon tea on the terrace, overlooking Capability Brown’s manicured gardens and Local Waterboard’s gushing fountains.
Our undoubted gastro highlight was Sunday lunch at the Nut Tree in Murcott – a 15th-century thatched-roof inn with a Michelin-starred restaurant tucked inside. It’s a tad tricky to find but came strongly recommended by Paul and not for the first time, we were grateful to him. The mere thought of the roast Charolais-Angus beef sirloin, Yorkshire puds and roast potatoes is making me drool. We had to return to the Churchill Suite for a post-prandial lie-down, making V-for-victory signs at each other like Winston himself. Never in the field of human conflict was so much scoffed by so few. How long until the next meal again?