I am continually dumfounded by people’s lack of appreciation for history. It can be forgiven of the ill-educated, but surely not anyone with a basic appreciation for England and her peerage system. Irrespective of your political alignment, we would not be the nation we are today without a fair dose of dukes, earls and barons.
Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways was the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, a British peer and Member of Parliament in the 18th century. Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, he held office for six years, gained the rank of Captain before his passing in 1802, and was succeeded by no less than nine children. I think we can all raise a glass to a life well lived. So, in my finest Lloyd Grossman voice, ‘Who’d live in a house like this?’
England has an abundance of country homes, estates and piles, many of which have now been converted into National Trust camera magnets and ‘luxury’ apartments. There are, however, a select few that are gleefully curated by a dedicated band of historically-aware hospitality specialists. In 1798, Summer Lodge was built as a dower house by the aforementioned Earl of Ilchester. It was enlarged in 1893 and became the formal home of the last Earl to live in Dorset in 1932.
Of course, it is only a matter of time before lineage is broken and assets start appearing on the open market. And in this case, if they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be able to see the property in all its glory. Private owners begat developers begat hedge funds no doubt, but none of that really matters. What is important is that the property has been kept as true to its traditional fixtures and furnishings as possible for a modern luxury hotel. You honestly will not find many who are this dedicated to the upkeep of the style and tone of the era of which they herald.
I wish I could, at this point, break with the male stereotype, but I found myself very at home in the bar area. Wood panelling, open fire, wing-backed chair, and a selection spirits that would make George Bernard Shaw sit open mouthed. He did say that “Whisky is liquid sunshine,” after all. I turned to my partner as we talked with Kevin Reid, the hotel’s fountain of knowledge. “Imagine it at Christmas”.
The whole property has a very intimate feeling that is indicative of English country houses. Also, the decor was very much to my liking; minimalist is certainly not on the agenda. Think gilt mirror, globes, fringes, fabric walls and a plethora of linen. Summer Lodge is a colonial outpost without the political alignment of the time. I like a country house to be warm and welcoming; Italian marble and electric taps are for city folk and the proletariat alike.
Having checked in, we were shown to our principal deluxe room, overlooking the magnificent gardens. Each room is decorated in its own distinctive style, country meets castle meets chateau.
An ever-replenishing supply of shortbread in the room was just enough to keep me in a sugar-induced coma on the king sized bed, until it seemed only appropriate to check in to the onsite spa for a loll around the pool. For those of you all too familiar with the vernacular of the digital age, loll means to sit, lie or stand in a lazy and relaxed fashion. It does not mean to fall to the floor and ‘laugh out loud’.
The spa is set amongst the hotel’s beautifully-appointed gardens and offers a range of treatments alongside its jacuzzi, heated pool, sauna and gym. I opted for a hot stone massage. Of course, it was only moments into the treatment that I fell into a trance. Having used all my energy to make small talk with the lovely staff, I drifted off. I awoke some time later feeling relaxed and soothed and decided the only thing to do was prop myself up in the relaxation area on a lounger with a lemon water.
It would be another hour before my lady would appear, rejuvenated and raving about the Darphin Facial. Darphin produce customised skincare products from botanicals and essential oils, by the way.
If you consider a good spa treatment to be something reserved for the fairer sex, you are somewhat misguided. I don’t carry much stress with me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t apprentice a deep tissue massage to soothe the muscles once a while.
Having purified our bodies, it only seemed appropriate we break the slumber with a stroll across the nearby Paradise Wood. The deer were in good form, strolling across the park with some of the males coming to about two metres.
Having strolled as far as we could without going rambling, I decided it might be time to return to the well-stocked bar for a libation and perhaps a cigar. With a garden as beautiful as this, it seemed rude not to sit and admire the groundkeeper’s work. The double hammocks were a nice touch and despite the weather being a little inclement that day, we did manage to spend a good few hours the following day drifting in the breeze and soaking up the sunshine.
As the sun set, we realised the pickled eggs and pork scratchings at the local Acorn Inn probably wouldn’t suffice, so decided that the hotel’s AA rosettes needed to be tested. Who can turn down a restaurant that has won Best British Cheeseboard? A staggering combination of different curds from the local area and beyond. Not to mention Dorset Restaurant of the Year.
The restaurant is a typically country affair. In terms of style, there were a couple at the back who had opted to dress in a fashion that made them blend perfectly into the upholstery on the walls. They disappeared more than a few times. One of the few things that irks me at good restaurants is, well, to be honest, other diners. I always seem to end up sat next to card-carrying members of the malign Tight-Ass Club. People that look over at me with malcontent for wanting to talk to my partner over dinner. One can only hope that over the years we do not end up passing each other cursory glares across the dining table, only to end the night sleeping in a twin room.
Our starter had arrived, so my situational awareness was suddenly struck dumb as I contemplated the crab with marinated heritage beetroot, English apple and crème fraîche. There was temporary food envy or FOMO (fear of missing out) at the scallops with artichokes, home-cured bacon and confit of garlic. Luckily, my lady and I have done our fair share of dining out, so sharing is par for the course. I wish I had the patience to cook each part of a dish as a single entity, but there is only so long I can spend preparing a dish before I absolutely have to eat it. The crab was fresh and delicate, the apple providing a nice acetous edge, and the beetroot bought back many food memories of warm summer Sunday dinners at my grandparents.
Choosing the main course was a little more challenging, though. Venison Loin, Loch Duart salmon, Ogleshield Fritters, turbot fillet – the menu was an ensemble of some of my favourite dishes. To narrow it down to one with an accurate wine paring required a little advice from Eric Zweiebel, the head sommelier. Eric was the 2004 Ruinart UK Sommelier of the Year, and as winners are unable to enter again, he is now a judge. As I am not a serious wine connoisseur (not to say that I am an amateur one), I always wonder what a sommelier is thinking when he is paring at the table. Is he aware of the gaps in my wine knowledge, or of this crushing lack of self-confidence? A-ha! A glass of Blanc de Mer, and so everything is forgotten in an instant.
Eventually, I choose the chef’s signature dish, roast loin of lamb with braised shoulder shepherd’s pie with savoy cabbage and a rosemary jus. The amount of effort that goes into producing a dish this layered –in terms of texture – is quite something. Especially when paired with a striking red from Zweiebel, whose name still makes me smile.
At this point, the restaurant was starting to empty as presumably people headed to the bar for a nightcap. Having spent so long talking with the restaurant team, we were still faced with our pudding choices. Luckily, the hotel offers ‘a taste of Summer Lodge’, thus enabling me to try every dessert on the menu and no doubt leaving the pâtissier wanting blood, as I am sure it was fairly late. This was not conveyed, of course. Zweiebel paired a lovely dessert wine as we took the five dishes to task. My only regret is that we didn’t have the space to try the award-winning cheeseboard. I say board, more like a cheese table on coasters. This does, however, give me cause to return to dine at some point in the future.
Having dined as one should at a country residence of repute, we retired onto the terrace for a brandy and Davidoff to stargaze. If you have never opted for a relaxing and rejuvenating countryside break, then you really ought to consider the former home of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester in Dorset. Countryside chic at its best.
Summer Lodge Country House & Spa Relais & Châteaux, in Evershot in Dorset, is the epitome of an idyllic English country retreat where food, wine and comfort are exceptional in equal measure. It is also rare as a luxury hotel that welcomes dogs with open arms. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit the website at: www.relaischateaux.com