There comes a time in every youngish man’s life when the one-bedroom flat he calls home starts to feel a bit poky. For me, that moment came when Mrs Smith moved in… and started unpacking her clothes. Five years on, she’s still unpacking. Then a certain Master Smith arrived bringing his own spatial requirements and suddenly [deep sigh] we’re househunting. Problem is, estate agents will only show us places I can afford, not places I think would suit me. It’s a dispiriting tour of crushed dreams and views over railways.
A restorative break is in order, and while a sun-drenched drive through rolling English countryside is a tonic, it’s not until Lucknam Park Hotel’s gates open to reveal a mile-long double avenue of 400 lime and beech trees that I feel fully restored. The avenue – so capacious that the RAF hid planes along it during the war – leads to an elegant, honey-coloured country house set in 500 acres of glorious parkland. Harry the managing director is there to meet us, and charms us instantly by greeting infant Master Smith by name. That’s pretty classy. And so is our room, located in the former stables across a picture-perfect courtyard of Oxbridge college-grade lawn and spectacular flowers. If you crave modernist minimalism in your interiors, keep walking – but only as far as the stunning new spa building behind – because the bedrooms at Lucknam Park are studies in comfort and restrained luxury. Patterned fabrics, wallpapers and hand-woven carpets cohabit in sumptuously good taste.
My eye settles on a welcome plate of strawberries, chocolates and a half-bottle of iced champagne which I’m about to pop when Mrs Smith drops the bombshell that she has booked us a session at the hotel’s Equestrian Centre. Fine for her, she’s a proper horsewoman; I can only stop by falling off. Nevertheless, after half an hour’s expert tuition in the ‘lunge arena’ my hands-free rising trot is looking sharp, and my charming instructor and I set off on a hack round the estate. By the end I’m cantering through stunning woodland, ducking to avoid low branches, euphorically channelling my inner Errol Flynn. (Memo to estate agents: in future only show me properties with stables.)
Afterwards, I take a creaky-thighed stroll through the hotel’s exquisite gardens. Each corner reveals a new delight, from a traditional English walled garden with broad floral borders, to a modish Oriental style sub-tropical garden, all linked by a pathway of pleached trees. The wide lawns beyond gently slope away to far horizons of perfect Wiltshire countryside. It’s heavenly.
For our first evening we opt for a quiet night in with room service and a DVD, so next morning we are up bright, early and ravenous. An exemplary full English Breakfast is a hearty start, but happily I find room for some pastries, and oh wow: the orange and chocolate muffin is the lightest, most ethereal mouthful of sweet loveliness I’ve ever eaten.
Next stop, the spa, where I’ve bravely plumped for the 90-minute Deep Clean Detox Facial. I say bravely because the last facial I had was in a Taiwanese salon in New York where the pore ‘extraction’ was so fierce that the therapist practically knelt on my throat to get purchase. Today’s experience is something else entirely. Wonderful, fragrant Anne Semonin potions dabbed on and massaged in, an ice-cold mask slathered over then peeled off (I retrieve it from the bin afterwards and use it to spook Mrs Smith for the rest of our stay) and an extraction as light-touched and pleasurable as can be. Better yet, I look about 14 afterwards.
During Mrs Smith’s treatments I explore the other facilities at this world-class spa. The pool is perfect for notching up lengths, or for idlers like me just to laze on the shallow steps. But I’m spoiled for choice for lazing locations: there are loungers everywhere, heated ceramic beds in the Tepidarium, an open-air saltwater plunge pool in the terraced gardens that melt seamlessly into the surrounding grounds, an indoor-outdoor hydrotherapy pool with jets and nozzles a-go-go, and thermal cabins that run the gamut from steam to sauna via Japanese salt and amethyst rooms. (There’s also a state-of-the-art gym. Apparently.)
The afternoon teas at Lucknam Park are legendary, but we have grand plans for supper so instead we drive off to the Georgian glory of Bath, 15 minutes away, and the biscuit-tin Cotswold villages of Castle Combe (so quaint it hurts) and Lacock, filming location for everything from Cranford to Harry Potter.
Back to Lucknam Park for an eagerly awaited supper at their Michelin-starred restaurant. The hotel arranges a delightful babysitter, allowing us to dress up and repair to the library for pre-prandial champagne cocktails. Evening sunlight streams in, bathing the whole place in the golden hue it deserves. We choose the Gourmet Menu, and it’s a fabulous meal. Seven courses begin with mini ice-cream cones of salmon, take in superb loin of local Wiltshire lamb with white asparagus and morels, and end with a show-stopping pudding of banana tart, salted caramel ice-cream and popcorn foam. The waiters have something in common with everyone working at Lucknam Park: that indefinable essence that epitomises exceptional service. Nothing is too much trouble, every request is met with ease, and most wondrous of all you just really like them. That’s rare in individuals, but to find it in an entire staff must be almost unique.
Leaving Lucknam Park is a genuine wrench, and on checkout day we cling on in the spa as long as we decently can. A delicious, healthy lunch in the brasserie keeps the dream alive a little longer but we are only delaying the inevitable. Back to London, and back to the drawing board with the estate agents. If I can’t have a mile-long drive, a dovecote, a croquet lawn and an arboretum, I’m not moving at all.