Whatley Manor, Malmesbury
PUBLISHED: 18:03 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:47 20 February 2013
Life with best-selling cotswold writer Jane Bailey reached a landmark birthday. A surprise treat was needed - but where do you take a romantic novelist for a romantic weekend...
A big birthday was looming, where 'big' prompts a sharp intake of breath. The sort of birthday that encourages people to organise parties of seismic proportions. The sort that some women relish (women who unselfconsciously don leather trousers and love anything by Sister Sledge or Gloria Gaynor), and at which others positively pale at the thought. 'Others' includes Jane, my wife, whose make-do-and-mend nature makes her embarrassed about being spoilt. So, a party is out. But I wanted to do something special for her and get it just right.
It would need planning and considerable attention to detail. The thing is, I like to be spontaneous. I'm not really one for spending months planning the big event which might turn out to be disappointing. Moreover, I'm so busy with work that I simply don't have the time for complicated arrangements (I convince myself).
I asked friends who made the usual suggestions. Air balloon ride? No, images of Enduring Love ruled that out. Weekend in New York? Too far/expensive. Paris? Too obvious. I drew up a list of things to avoid: anything sporty, abroad (which for Jane really includes anywhere outside Gloucestershire), lots of people, camping (or anything without proper plumbing), ultra-modern hotels. What would Jane really like? I know what she'd say if I asked: just you, me and the girls, a country walk, a cosy afternoon by the fire watching a Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy or something. She's easy to please.
She's also a bit of a romantic. Her latest two novels (Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven and Mad Joy) are both wartime mysteries in which the characters find themselves falling in love in beautiful Cotswold settings: murder, abduction, wild flower meadows, lambs trotting about in early evening sunlight, that sort of thing. And Jane (Bailey, not Austen) looks ravishing in an Elizabeth Bennett short-bodied dress - the sort of anti-functional garment that's useless for walking through mud.
So, back to the list, things she might enjoy: a bucolic Cotswold setting, log fires, cosy arm chairs, somewhere old fashioned but not a barn, indoor loos. And, to make it special, an enormous bed, a candle-lit bathroom, meals to die for, and warm-hearted staff attending to your every whim.
When I eventually found Whatley Manor, it seemed perfect. My only fear was Jane's reaction to such luxury (think what we could have bought for the price of this! and so forth). And as we bundled along the resplendent driveway in our battered old car, I too was a touch apprehensive. But then two giant oak doors opened before us and we had our first sight of Whatley.
We seemed to have slipped into another century (first box ticked) but, instead of a footman, a delightfully smiling young man took our car away (frankly he was welcome to it). At first we thought he must have been smiling at our car but we were soon disabused: we were welcomed with more friendly smiles everywhere we looked.
As soon as our luggage had been whisked away, we were given a little tour of the premises. Jane was very taken with the statues in the courtyard - life-size donkeys - whilst I was wondering how I could persuade her to spend two of our precious romantic-mini-break hours in the perfectly appointed cinema.
Our room was tucked away down one of the many rabbit warren corridors which meant losing Jane every time she left the room, spacial awareness not being one of her strengths. The room itself was the size of a small starter home. The bathroom about four times the size of our own at home and, yes, music, flowers and candles provided. The bed easily big enough for us to both jump up and down on it in our excitement (come on, we all do it). Although when using the reading lamps later we would have to communicate with each other by semaphore.
We decided to try everything, starting with coffee and homemade biscuits on the longest sofa in front of the vast medieval stone fireplace with logs blazing. We had lunch in Le Mazot, their beautiful Swiss-style bistro: the food was prompt and delicious and the service exceptionally friendly but not intrusive, allowing us ample privacy for the whispering of sweet nothings (another box ticked).
One thing led to another and, throughout the course of the afternoon, several more boxes were ticked, including a visit to their 40-seater cinema (ha!), which exceeded expectation with a waiter appearing laden with nibbles and aperitifs (memo to Cineworld).
We then approached unknown territory: dinner. Meals at home are wholesome and simple. Rare meals out are much the same and generally don't start with quails eggs and foie gras and a well-known TV personality sitting at the adjacent table. Having selected the wine without too much embarrassment, we held hands tightly and followed the sommelier into the Michelin-starred dining room.
Once again, the food was exquisite and beautifully presented, even if it was difficult to tell whether the current dish was the main course or one of the many amuse-bouche. Jane suddenly realised how much each mouthful was worth and couldn't help totting up how many pairs of shoes for the girls / tiles for the bathroom / ink cartridges she was eating away. The a la carte menu, which we chose, was not cheap at 60 per head, but this was no ordinary meal. Between the principal courses (I had loins of hare and venison, Jane something less carnal), we were feted with a plethora of delicacies to tempt our taste buds: blood orange and soda sucked through a vanilla stick straw, pumpkin and cheese souffl, and other tingling appetizers sporting foam, gel, lattice and reductions. We were amuse-bouched to the limit, (although the garlic ice cream experiment was not so amusing for me). Yet again, the service was superb. This meal provided an excellent balance with Le Mazot earlier: Jane preferred the simplicity of their bistro at lunchtime, I enjoyed the theatre of the dining room.
We couldn't leave the following morning without sampling Whatley Manor's wonderous spa. What a treat! Jane was content to swim and float decorously whilst I had to scamper around every room in the building: saunas and steam rooms, aromatherapy dream rooms, salt scrub showers, tropical rain showers - the works!
Usually it takes us days to settle into a place away from home, but both Jane and I had felt relaxed from the moment Whatley welcomed us in. Jane had stopped berating me about spoiling her and we were almost surprised to see the same car returned to us and that replacing it hadn't been part of the service. We were touched, however, as we drove away in our trusty old banger to notice a sprig of lavender hanging from the rear-view mirror with 'a little bit of Whatley' written on the label. It still hangs there to remind us of an unforgettable stay.