I get by with a little help from my friends. For me, it’s the Joe Cocker version that lands hardest. The immediacy in those opening bars, the strength of Jimmy Page’s guitar solos. It’s indicative of a sound from a different era. That’s what I needed: to escape to a different era. The nights had gotten long and daylight was fast becoming a distant memory to my work-embattled mind. I needed respite: doctor-ordered cultural sustenance and recuperation, if you will. The sort of salt-of-the-earth, good clean fun that only seems to come from the WI. No, I needed a country house hotel with enough old-world charm to coddle me into restful submission.
Only a two-hour drive from the Cotswolds and an extra 30 minutes from London, you’ll find The Eastbury seated in the market town of Sherborne. It’s a 26 bedroomed country house hotel built as a private residence in 1740. Originally it was embedded within 27 acres, and what a masterful site it must have been to behold on the unspoilt Dorset countryside. Not that it isn’t still effortlessly charming, with two castles, an abbey, medieval almshouses, and that’s without mentioning Sherborne school, an educational establishment that helped nurture the likes of John Le Mesurier, Nick Greenstock, Sir Richard Eyre and Tom Bradby. Not to mention Alan Turing. The same year that Turing matriculated to Sherborne, the dress code for pupils was as follows: ‘All coats and waistcoats must be black, or plain dark grey or dark blue. Pullovers, if worn, must be plain and inconspicuous. Grey flannel suits, not lighter than the regulation colour, are allowed on weekdays. Black ties only are allowed with ordinary clothes.’ ‘Those were the days’. Apparently.
Having agreed upon a countryside route to get to The Eastbury for our long weekend sojourn, we set off in Rolls-Royce’s new Ghost. A five-metre long, 2.5-tonne land yacht of friend-chauffeured escapism. There was a time when I couldn’t relinquish the steering wheel of anything that bore the Spirit of Ecstacy to anyone. Even with the proper paperwork and a psychiatric test, it was just too much to bear. But if you surround yourself with good company, you’ll eventually find someone you trust with a £300,000 luxury barge, loaned to you by the people that hand-built it. I decided, though, that I should at least do the first leg of the short drive through the North Downs to fully demonstrate the vehicle’s various bells and whistles. This, at one stage, involved being served Waitrose sushi at 60 miles an hour. That’s going to leave an incredible stain on the upholstery, I thought, as I inhaled my third tokujo maki. If only it were mine. As the car was well loaded with both nibbles and champagne, there was little to do but join the ladies in the back seat who had already started their break in the previous county.
We arrived outside The Eastbury a little before sundown. Despite a sizeable parking area to the rear, we moored outside a row of very up-together cottages that flank the country house. The rather timeless and traditional interiors of the Grade II main house were curated by designer Kathleen Fraser and include a full refurbishment of all the hotel’s guest rooms, in addition to the resident’s areas and a very smart snooker room.
As expected, the Covid protocols in place had us checked in safely within a matter of minutes, followed by a walk into Eastbury Cottage. Rather conveniently, we’d managed to park the Ghost outside the door of our seventeenth-century cottage adjoining the main house.
As expected, our first order of business was a short discussion about who would take the master, with its raised Victorian-style bathtub and incredible layout, or the king-size bedroom, with the sitting area in the eaves of the house. There was no doubt that any of the three well-appointed rooms would have been a worthy place to lay one’s addled head. If you must bring children (this means below drinking age as far as I’m concerned), the cottage has an external den-style bedroom, perfect for stowing the brood.
The interiors are an exemplary lesson in how to tastefully and respectfully appoint a countryside abode. From the grand Inglenook fireplace in the living room with its period record player and ornate desk to the dining room with solid oak table, musket and enough fine china stocked in the cabinet to cater for a table of six heavily-refreshed guests. Yes, Eastbury Cottage was certainly everything I had been looking for in a weekend country retreat.
The next order of business was supper. We’d opted to dine at the main house’s two-Rosette restaurant, Seasons, headed by executive chef Matthew Street. Of course, we could have ordered any manner of delectable dishes from the hotel and had them buttled to the dining table, but we rather fancied faring for ourselves. After all, one doesn’t book a cottage in rural Dorset to greet the maddening festive crowds head-on.
After an evening stroll to Waitrose, admiring the architecture of the ornate village, we returned to base with enough port to flood the Douro Valley. I shan’t bore you with the menu, other than to say Oli cooked up a storm, before we all piled into the wood-heated hot-tub in the garden. Being Cotswold folk, we might have gone a little overboard on stocking the tub’s fire, though, and heated the old girl up to a level that would have certainly needed a cold dip pool. Though a few paddles of cold water and you’ll find the perfect balance for a soak. In the warmer months, you can sit on the walled-garden’s terrace with friends and be social – if that’s your thing.
There was little left to do with our evening other than don dressing gowns, stack the front room’s open fire, and stride into the cheese course knowing all was well in the world. It was all rather cathartic.
The following morning, I woke early enough to sit in the front room, undisturbed, fire ablaze and early grey in hand. “Alexa, play Roots Manuva”. As our troop began to rise, one by one, I was joined in my relative silence as we all tried to caffeinate our way through the port haze. Respite wasn’t far away, though, in the form of pastry and kippers in the hotel’s main restaurant. Breakfast was, thankfully, bountiful: varied and delicious, whether from the pastry chef or the butcher. Had we not been heading for the hotel’s spa, I might have indulged a little more. At the bottom of the expansive garden, past the potting shed suites, we found a hobbit hole. The intricate hidden buildings are built from local stone and covered in sedum moss with circular doorways. The temptation to stand atop it was strong, yet inarguably impolite. Perhaps on another more salubrious occasion.
The spa has two treatment rooms, a large hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam room, exercise area and external hot tub. Having poured over the spa’s treatment menu for longer than any normal person, we had chosen from the Caudalie facials. Caudalie began in Bordeaux, in the heart of the vines at Château Smith Haut Lafitte. The estate belonged to co-founder Mathilde’s parents and, having been raised surrounded by wine culture, it has permeated. “I consider essential oils and plant oils to be the purest, most precious and natural source of beauty. Used in our Vinothérapie Spa since 1999, Caudalie has unique expertise in skincare oils extracted from fruits, flowers or leaves.”
However, on arrival, the spa manager felt that my partner’s skin was too youthful for the chosen treatment and that my beard might not suit a heavy mask-based treatment. As with all great hospitality professionals, the role is largely to anticipate and react to the needs of the guests. In this case, the spa team secured les meilleures notes.
Rested physically, I had one more thing to do in order to secure mental rest. Turn my phone off, remove the sim card and leave it in the cottage desk drawer. This, I find, is a far more straightforward way of removing the temptation to fill every moment of down time staring at your screen. It tends to leave us maligned and anxious about that which usually doesn’t have any great effect on our day-to-day lives. Sometimes unplugging means taking a hatchet to your mobile phone. God bless those who work in social media – you’re going to fund a whole generation of psychiatrists’ trust funds.
Suffice to say, I was now ready to put some distance between myself and my device. We headed out of the hotel in the 1964 leather-and-chrome Beardmore taxi, available to guests as needed. This was certainly my idea of the way things should be done.Having opted to seek out our own light lunch, we made reservations at the Plume of Feathers, opposite Sherborne Abbey. It’s a sixteenth-century pub serving Italian small plates, with all the pasta, breads and sauces made on site daily. The cocktail menu came thick and fast, and the service was impeccable.
That evening, after a well deserved nap, it became clear that we wouldn’t all be making it to the hotel’s restaurant on time. We broke into two groups, with the ladies staying to finish off their ensembles, and the men taking an aperitif in Seasons. Having been seated at the centre table, I was left by my compatriots briefly as the hotel’s owner, Peter de Savary, briefly appeared to wish everyone a pleasant evening. Before he left, he turned the lighting down to a more mellow hue. “I think that’s rather better”. And with that, he was gone. I was left pondering as the pianist played nostalgic hit after hit on the restaurant’s white piano.
Once the group had rejoined, the allure of a fine beef bourguignon was tough to turn down. And so, all but one of our group opted for the winter favourite on Matt Street’s menu. For a country house, the menu is incredibly forward-thinking, matching wasabi with the Devon crab to give it lift. You can see why the hotel has earned both its rosettes. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the delicate butter arrangements created to look like perfect strawberries. Inspired. As we all sat and ate, whilst trying to slip off the impending lockdown, we decided that dessert would be best served privately. A choice you too are welcome to make, should you opt to rent out Eastbury Cottage. Ready the open fire and another glass of whisky would you, Morpeth, there’s a good man.
One thing I had failed to secure was a handful of H.Upmann half Coronas for the trip. With hours to while away, book and glass in hand, a good stick is one of my favourite ways to take a knee. Though, sadly, I had almost emptied my humidor at a friend’s funeral earlier in the year. With little time until pudding would be served at the cottage, I decided to forgo the bar’s humidor. The evening finished very much like the night before it – with the roar of an open fire and no blue screens.
The following morning, our departure was long planned for 12pm. This left very little time to meet the man behind the mask, Peter de Savary. The famed hotelier has shepherded numerous hotels and resorts to international success over his 45 year career. In 2012, Peter was appointed by the government of Grenada as an international ambassador, with full diplomatic status. Having never visited Grenada, I feel as though I might have found my rather overqualified tour guide. PdeS works alongside his gifted wife, Lana de Savary, who has led the design ethos across the family’s portfolio. They make for a formidable team, but on this occasion, he was flying solo in his 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III Long-wheelbase. The scene was completed by a humidor he kept on the passenger seat, guarded by a small dog that slept on a blue-and-red chequed blanket. In any event, in this game of Rolls-Royce one-upmanship, PdeS was winning, and in style.
After a salubrious two nights in the warm embrace of the Eastbury team, we were all feeling a little more rested upon departure. And after all, that’s exactly what we came for: a countryside escape at our own pace.