Massage or Meringue? The Ellenborough Park Hotel
You know you’re having a good massage when it becomes difficult to think about anything at all – except how good your massage is. My mind attempted to latch on to any deep, involved thought, from profundity to crisis, alighting on nothing, always drifting back to the ministrations of the masseuse. Within an hour of lying on the table, knowing only warm aromatic oils, soft classical music and gentle hands, every single one of my worries and plans had been smoothed over.
Although having spent 24 hours in one of the UK’s best country house hotels already, I wasn’t exactly stressed. The only difficult part of my stay so far was attempting to decide whether to finish off my evening meal with cheese or dark chocolate fondant. Tricky.
And aside from that one momentary dilemma, it had been ease all the way, from the moment my family and I had rolled down the long drive, gawped at the vista of turrets, towers and bells that top Ellenborough Park’s surprisingly large complex of buildings, to when the porter had stepped up to my car and shepherded me into the stately lobby, under the shelter of an expensive-looking umbrella. There’s something instantly comforting about a good country house hotel, especially when it’s cold and wet outside. The wood panelling and gigantic fireplaces in Ellenborough Park spoke of centuries keeping good cheer inside and successfully keeping the elements out.
Once our bags had been whisked off to our room, we were taken for a tour. “The Great Hall is actually from the 15th Century,” said the receptionist. “It’s very old,” she added, somewhat unnecessarily. Even if I hadn’t been able to do the maths, there were plenty of other clues about the room’s antiquity. Like the fact that it had a minstrels’ gallery, and, leading up to a cushion-lined snug, a winding stone staircase, steps rubbed smooth by generations of feet.
This is a hotel with history. Thomas Goodman started the complex just over five centuries ago and it played host to King George III in 1788 during his long stay in Cheltenham. It seems to have been steadily growing ever since. Many of the additions (such as a rather lovely garden pagoda) date from the mid-nineteenth century, when it was home to the Earl of Ellenborough, a Governor General of India and one of the four husbands of the extraordinary Jane Digby – a woman who absolutely merits a digression. As well as all those husbands, she also bedded King Ludwig of Bavaria, his son King Otto of Greece, an Albanian brigand general called Hadji Christo and a Thessalian general called Hristodulos Hadzipetros, whose own brigand army she helped lead – while living in a cave. She ended up in Syria, spending half the year in a tent, married to a Sheikh who was 20 years younger than her. How’s that for girl power?
Where was I? Oh, yes. Here. The building also did time as a private girls’ school, before it was converted into a hotel in the 1970s and finally bought by the present owners in 2008, who spent a not insubstantial £15 million modernising, renovating and prettifying with tasteful and mercifully chintz-free interior decoration by Nina Campbell. We were in one of the newer rooms and while they maybe lacked the atmosphere and grandeur of some of the suites in the old building, there was no complaining about the four-poster hypnos bed, or the huge bathroom complete with roll-top bath.
There was also no complaining once we moved onto dinner. One could try to grumble slightly about the now de rigeuer spiel on the menu about “natural flavours” and making the best of “local produce”. It was also a shame they managed to add an extra “e” to the end of the word “potato”. Perhaps this dish should be heroically renamed ‘Pomme de terre a la Dan Quayle’.
Such quibbling was banished upon tucking in. My scallops were bursting with flavour and my beef chateaubriand (always a good test of a chef’s mettle) was done to perfection. But it was the pudding that was really extraordinary.
Note ‘the’, not alas ‘mine’ (insert frowny emoticon here). I went for cheese and in normal circumstances I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It was delicious from the wonderfully fresh young goats cheese to an admirably well-aired and stinky stilton. But my better half easily topped it. She ordered baked Alaska, which seemed like a brave decision, until it arrived. Suddenly, it all made sense, transformed from a showy nothing, a pointless mix of hot and cold, into a genuine showstopper, packed with the most exquisite raspberry sorbet, fortified with brandy and every mouthful sensational. In more primitive times, they would have raised altars to this dish. I would have considered building one myself if it hadn’t been so at odds with the quiet comfort of the wood-lined dining room.
So it’s a credit to my masseuse that this extraordinary baked Alaska wasn’t even the highlight of my stay. It was that hour and a half in the spa, getting kneaded into a state of near bliss, my mind growing steadily blanker and happier. Pressed, rubbed and unknotted, the masseuse asked how I was feeling. This was a question I could answer. If she’d wanted to know who I was, or the name of the prime minister, I’d have struggled. As it was I knew exactly what to say. “I feel great,” I said.
For more information on the Ellenborough Park Hotel visit www.ellenboroughpark.com