A country break in the South West – my perfect holiday. There is nothing better than waking up to the sounds of cockerels crowing and watching the first frost roll over the moors. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Somerset, spending summers and winters in Dunster since I was seven so this Christmas my family and I decided to take a day trip and explore one of Devon’s secret gems, Bovey Castle, the five star luxury country house hotel and spa.
Having a snoop at the Bovey Castle website on our drive over, I felt I was in for a real treat. The website oozes elegance and luxury – exactly what you want on a relaxing break. Photos of the rooms to the swimming pool and spa facilities are flawless but do they give you a representative view of what could be hiding behind those doors? I was about to find out!
Bovey Castle, the archetypal English country house, sits proudly at the end of a long driveway taking twists and turns through their 18 hole golf course leading to a central fountain outside the large oak doors. It is home to 64 rooms and 14 self catering ‘Lodges’ available to hire throughout the season and sleep up to six people. The main house was originally built in 1907 as a retreat for the heir to the WH Smith fortune and most recently renovated by hospitality entrepreneur, Peter de Savary.
There is no mistaking that this venue is extremely impressive. I particularly liked the towering grey stone walls and Jacobean period features – a little austere but they add to the character of the property. It was great to see the hotel’s doormen dressed in smart country attire, think plus fours, waistcoats, barbour jackets and hunter wellies – perfect for setting the scene. There is even a little owl perched on reception to add to the country atmosphere – here he is below.
Food was the first thing on my mind, so we headed to the Castle Bistro for a late lunch. Bovey Castle has two main dining areas, the informal setting of the newly renovated Castle Bistro and the fine dining area, the Edwardian Grill – mainly used for residents breakfasts’ and dinner.
First opinions on the bistro, a nice a simple menu of English faves such as burgers, hearty sandwiches, fish and chips and the odd pasta dish together with a relaxed and informal atmosphere. However, it really is very modern and sticks out like a sore thumb as an ‘add-on’ to the main building, mainly due to the open canteen-style kitchen and modern décor. We decided on a starter of homemade bread with a variety of oils and I went for the mushroom ragout topped with poached duck egg starter. M&D went for the fish and chips and the French goat’s cheese salad.
The service was speedy and the quality of the food was delicious – to be expected when starters and mains come in at £6-7 and £12-13 respectively. Beware, the portion sizes are on the generous side so if you are planning on sampling Bovey’s afternoon tea, keep this in mind. My starter was very tasty indeed – albeit jam packed with garlic! It was a simple dish made up of diced button and chestnut mushrooms served in a thick garlic cream sauce complete with a poached duck egg and several sprigs of thyme on top. The egg was cooked to perfection with a runny yolk and bouncy egg white – ‘eggs’actly how I like it! I’ve a feeling the secret ingredient was a smattering of water chestnuts which gave the dish a bit of bite and added some more depth. Our side of bread to start came in useful wiping up the sauce from my plate.
Next we headed to the Sundari Spa on the 1st floor of the hotel for a spot of pampering. As Sundari’s flagship branch, Bovey Castle has six treatment rooms offering everything from massages and manicures to facials and make-up application. They also offer a relaxation room for spa guests to use before and after treatments. The large indoor swimming pool, steam room and sauna are a real treat but do come at an extra charge of £25pp for non-residents.
Afternoon tea is served between 3 – 5.30pm in one of the three drawing rooms or on the terrace during the summer months. It has been tipped by Red magazine as one of the top places for afternoon tea in the UK. If it’s not the afternoon tea you are going for, it should certainly be the outstanding views over Dartmoor sat in front of the roaring fire in the grand Cathedral Room. We were lucky that the hotel’s Christmas decorations were still in place as the 13ft Christmas tree was a serious showstopper. It is advisable to book your place for afternoon tea as it is very popular!
Stereotypical it may be, but afternoon tea is my favourite civilised treat. Bovey Castle’s did not disappoint. We ordered three full afternoon teas made up of a selection of crust-less sandwiches; egg and cress, ham and mustard, beef and horseradish and salmon and cucumber, fruit and plain scones with accompanying clotted cream and raspberry jam and some mini specialty cakes and pastries raspberry tartlet with apple crisp slice, double chocolate muffin with orange cream filling, chocolate éclair with hazelnut cream and finally, my favourite, the mini afternoon tea in a shot glass – a earl grey and chocolate flavoured mousse with raspberry coulis bottom and shortbread crumble with popping candy top. The full afternoon tea comes with a pot of loose leaf tea for one or if you are feeling flush, there is the option to order a glass of champagne too.
Bovey Castle’s staff are a credit to them, everyone we encountered along the way were pleasant and happy to go out of their way to make our visit the best it could be – even when trying to prepare for a large wedding party. Free wifi is available throughout the hotel for all guests and non-guests to use, which I thought was a nice touch.
There were a few inconsistencies, for example some of the tables not being as spotlessly clean as we would have hoped and grubby finger prints showing up on some of the windows.
We would certainly return to Bovey Castle, perhaps to try some of the great outdoor activities that the hotel offers – clay pigeon shooting competitions, horse riding through Dartmoor or a round of golf – although definitely outside of school holidays as there were too many “rugrats” knocking around for our liking.
Make sure you book an afternoon tea, if nothing else! The scones were by far the best I’ve ever had. Thumbs up to our young waiter, Christopher, for being super excellent, attentive and re-filling our teapot before we had to ask 🙂