The Best Room in the House – Dogmersfield House, Hampshire
I looked out of my room, down on to the turning circle in front of the hotel and witnessed an eternal moment of fatherhood. A man, a little bow-shouldered, stands waiting to go home, back to real life, while his two children run round and round him, going faster and faster, giggling louder and louder, while he waits there, his only role at this moment, to be witness and the silent, central locus of their world.
One row back, the doorman, tucked neatly into his frock coat, smiled. And a little further back still, the maids crisscrossed the marble hall and, at the end of the hall, past the concierge on the phone, the girls behind the desk flicked pages and scribbled bookings and rubbed out reservations.
And half a mile in every direction around them all, past the horses and the ducks and the geese, there was nothing much else but the green grass bending in the wind.
Dogmersfield House was originally intended as a country retreat, visited at one time by the future Henry VIII. (And if ever there was a man who deserved a break from city life, it was him: Harry, Harry. It’s only Gods representative on Earth, don’t let him get you down. And Catherine? Pah! Plenty more where she came from. Whats that? It’s Anne now? Well, my point exactly. Come on down for the weekend and forget all about it.) But since being given for all eternity to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, it has become instead, a school (twice), a wartime billet, a Catholic Noviciate, the bailout fund for a breacher of marriage promise and was also snapped up by an American computer corporation that itself had to be bailed out, in the end. Hard times come and hard times go and so, over time, the house has also become a promise that, one way or another, life goes on.
Appropriately, the original house has gone. What you see when you turn onto the long drive is the 18th century re-do. Unfortunately a fire in 1981 destroyed part of that house unfortunately because it didn’t take the rest of the plain and boring old building down with it. Things got worse in the 90s when architects grafted on a wing in a sympathetic style but, as if to ensure that the world knew they were only being informed by the plain simplicity of the original rather than slaves to it, they stuccoed the pediments and parapets and edged them in heavy stone, providing a dislocated example of, what I like to think of, as the M4 corridor vernacular. It made my wife wince when we drove up.
But turn your back to the hotel and you know what the point of the place is; the space around it. The house sits in 500 acres and I don’t remember seeing another building in the 360.
In one direction, there are some idle shooting traps. In another direction, there is a modest stable yard which is positioned, with a touch of genius, halfway to the hotels horizon – not quite far enough to drive but far enough into the fields to tempt you to pull on a pair of Hunters and amble slowly down there. When you get there, there are a couple of well-fed horses, whose diet one suspects might even include a couple of Nytol. Fat ducks waddle through the yard. Fresh air abounds.
Over the first hill is a rustic fishing lodge, one of the best places at the hotel simply because it looks like they forgot to do anything with it. Branches have fallen carelessly into the water’s edge, there’s a boggy area in front of the balcony and there’s no heating inside.
Its gentle countryside here, not dramatic like the Cotswolds or rugged like Scotland. The Basingstoke Canal was diverted to run through the grounds and the Four Seasons has commissioned a new longboat to float you from one end of the loop to the other.
After a while here, the word that seeped into my head was recuperation. I realised we were in some kind of corporate high-flyers convalescent home: the unimposing decor, the short walk to the lazy horses, the gentle bobbing along a short stretch of canal. Just fifty minutes out of London, it’s a place to come and reconnect with yourself and if you’re still talking to them, your nearest and dearest.
Unfortunately, coming here for 24 hours could cost you £1,000. It’s worth it, that’s not the problem. It’s just that coming here now feels like attending a party organised by a couple, a few months before the husband died. It’s all good, I just couldn’t get over the feeling that it all seems a touch inappropriate now.
If you’d come here a year ago, there would have been a table of corporate lawyers on an off-site, letting down what remained of their hair; there’d be a beer-fed Creative Director pouring Champagne into his secretary, there may even have been a Radio 1 DJ. They’re all still here, the tables aren’t empty, but everyone’s quieter now and without the effervescence of boom times to fill the dining room, it looks cavernous. At breakfast, everyone seemed to have three children. I know you can’t give Little Johnny back but doesn’t he seem just a little bit extravagant now?
When I walked out of the spa, I heard a lady asking the receptionist whether her friend who was visiting, and standing next to her, could come in as her guest. Of course the receptionist replied, we have a day pass. Good, said our lady, how much? Eighty-five pounds.
An uncomfortable silence settled in the lobby.
It’s great service that you come to the Four Seasons for and there are smiles and efficiency all round; there’s no second asking required for anything, what you ask for is what you get. The Concierge understands exactly what you’re trying to achieve rather than just what you asked for. The Four Seasons has seen hard times come and hard times go and it knows there will always be a market for what it does best.
The Best Room is probably the St John Suite. There is a more extrovert Presidential Suite over in the new wing with hand-painted silk wallpaper, more bathrooms than bedrooms and a chefs kitchen but the St John Suite is in the original building and runs from above the entrance to around the corner, so you have light coming in from two directions through floor-to-ceiling windows and there are views (fortunately away from the carbuncle wing) out over the fields. The decor is elegant, a kind of North American corporate version of Country House, with just enough elegance to let you know you’re staying somewhere special but just short of the guilt that’d make you feel you could be accused of extravagance. A few more things might make the room feel more homely and less corporate.
Even though it’s a suite, a little bit of the Manhattan two-step is required around the room furniture, should you, for example, both decide to pass between the end of the grand bed and the TV, at the same time. The sitting room is big enough for a sofa and a couple of large chairs and an alcove houses a dining table deux.
The bathroom is marble and presents a slight and intractable problem. Since you’re located above the hotels entrance and the door to the bathroom is right in front of another floor-to-ceiling window, you’re required to live with the appropriate curtains closed all day or be an exhibitionist every time you come out of the bathroom.
But since you’re here, and doing your bit to spend the world back into the good times, you’ll probably opt for the latter, adding a little wave to the daddies standing downstairs on the turning circle, waiting for us all to get back to real life.