Our visit to the Whitehouse in South Devon was part of our latest obsession: eating our way around Blighty. At least, as often as our busy lives and burgeoning sense of thrift allows. My beloved Mrs Smith wasn’t always so prosaically monikered; her maiden name betrays Spanish origins. Yet 10 years in the UK has had her fall in love with this land. The only thing hampering the regularity of these special ‘England’s way to our heart is through our stomachs’ trips is the fact we insist on crisp white cotton sheets and access to decent Chablis and brandy. So I’m afraid camping just won’t cut it. As for our favoured staff – we prefer those who walk that fine line between tending to your every need and leaving you alone in peace and quiet. Tall order? Perhaps – but the Whitehouse suited us nicely.
Just a short meander from the South Devon shoreline, hidden away in the little village of Chillington, the Whitehouse is the perfect getaway for style-seasoned city types hankering for a rustic rest-stop. It is the opposite of a big, soulless corporate hotel. The people that work there are seldom enough and sufficiently sweet to make it impossible to distinguish between proprietor and employee. Its owners are in fact three friends, clearly passionate about their property, each playing a hands-on role in hotel operations, and all happy to address guests’ requirements personally. One of them, Ally, is the gifted chef behind the restaurant’s fresh and hearty platters (available on request), and frequently opens the kitchen to show off her Aga, with wine-tasting evenings frequently appearing on the event schedule. But more on that later.
There are only six individual rooms, and I speak only for the one we stayed in, the Attic. I assume the priorities are the same – ample space, comfortable pillow-laden beds, a showerhead comparable to the steering wheel of an articulated truck, and a colour scheme that echoes the name of the hotel. Make no mistake: this isn’t an escape aimed at hippy types who favour singsongs round open fires over a few modcons; the extras in our room included a kettle, Nespresso machine, flatscreen TV with all the Sky and DVD trimmings, a DAB radio, a DVD player and a well stocked mini-bar. You see why we just can’t get excited about a tent in a wet field?
Perhaps a guest more versed in design might point out the most exciting style features to shout about. (Mrs Smith tells me there are plenty of modern quirks that are pleasing on the eye such as an old-meets-new medley of funky, chunky furniture). What grabbed me was the abundance of sofas and roaring fires that make every room a perfect place to kick back with a book or the Sunday papers after a coastal stroll. We did venture to the Beachhouse (the Whitehouse's seaside restaurant), which adhered to my most beloved cooking philosophy – take great ingredients, and do as little as possible to mess them up. From the just-baked scones, loaded with clotted cream and local jam that were presented to us, through to the mussels and lobster delivered to the restaurant an hour and a half before supper – the fresh, mostly local ingredients were always excellent. Thank you, Ally and co.
To this pair on an eating-around-Britain mission, Devon may not have the same obvious foodie allure of Cornwall. But it made my Iberian Mrs Smith’s most-posed culinary question most salient: ‘Why is it so hard to get decent fish on these shores?’ The answer is varied and represented in full in Devon. a) You can if you try. (You just have to know where to look. Try the Seahorse in nearby Dartmouth). b) We don’t cook fish that well. (Although the aforementioned fish restaurant was without question the best I’ve been to in England). c) Because quality here is unappreciated: the majority of exceptional fish caught off Devon’s coast is exported to Spain and Italy, who pay better for excellence.
As you can imagine, these fish-lovers spent much of their weekend seeking out the perfect crustacea. So if crab, scallop or lobster floats your boat, I’d urge you do the same. But if being piscivorous isn’t your thing, you could stay put and play croquet on the lawn of the hotel (darling), or catch a film in the screening rooms. If wanderlust gets the better of you, hours spent driving or walking through the winding country lanes will be well spent.
Rather than a common-or-garden fancy hotel, staying at the Whitehouse feels like spending the weekend with stylish, hospitable (and significantly better off) friends. Its appearance is the result of the owners’ good taste rather than the work of an interior designer, and it’s more a place to feel comfortable in than marvel at. These Georgian buildings have been a doctor’s surgery, a residence for GIs, and a private home in their time, but today they’ve finally found their true calling as one of Devon’s most welcoming and intimate boutique hotels. Sure there was the occasional slip-up, but to moan about a forgotten dish, say, would be missing the point. We were looking for something quintessentially English. And we were lucky enough to find a homely, eccentric hideaway in the middle of a splendid county that is showcasing its food and drink heritage better than ever. And don't let its American-presidential-abode name distract: this hip hotel makes you feel truly patriotic. Rule Britannia, indeed.