It was a small detail, but my daughter was supposed to be asleep. We had planned the drive to the Cotswolds from our home in Cambridgeshire carefully to coincide with Ebbi’s nap, but as sure as night follows day our 15-month-old did not play ball. So as we wound our way through the lush, green lanes of Wiltshire, I was too distracted by her flip flop between drowsy and furious to enjoy the scenery. This trip is going to be a nightmare, I thought.
As it was, she didn’t sleep, but then passed out as soon as we dumped her in the pram when we arrived. This trip is going to be a dream, I thought.
It was our – my wife and I – first holiday away with our daughter, born two days before the world shut up shop, and we had finally made it to Woolley Grange Hotel, three lockdown-induced postponements and nine months later than intended.
Ebbi being our first child, we had nothing for comparison, but I believe the Covid crisis has not altogether enhanced the parenting experience. So a trip to a real life hotel with her felt significant, like the first indulgence of normality, but also one of normality’s first challenges. Woolley Grange being not only family focussed, but baby focussed, was ideal to ease us into pretending to be functioning parents.
Woolley Grange does a lot of the heavy lifting before arrival, ensuring you have whatever kit is needed to make your stay as stress-free as possible, which in baby terms, means making the little one’s bedroom as much like home as possible: travel cot, bottle warmer, nappy bin all provided. And of course, the holy grail of parenting items, the video monitor.
That’s what we’re really here for, aren’t we? To get through to the end of the day so that we can plonk our cherubs down in a cot, watched over by the digital eye of Sauron, and go downstairs to a bona fide restaurant and enjoy a proper meal with real drinks, maybe even a cocktail, before hitting the hay as if it were the days of old. But more on that later.
Woolley Grange is beautiful. I wondered aloud to my wife why it decided to pursue the niche of a luxury family hotel when it would happily succeed as simply a luxury hotel. She replied that to cater to families was not to its detriment. Right. Of course. Stood on the edge of the Cotswolds, a stone’s throw from Bradford on Avon and not far from Bath, the hotel is a Jacobean manor set on an old farm, in 14 acres of woodland and gardens. Even by Cotswoldian standards, it is very pretty.
That is one of Woolley Grange’s appeals. It is not ostensibly baby-centric. It could be a normal adult hotel, removing the feeling that you are on holiday in a creche (though there is a creche).
Anyway, my wife dropped our bags in our large, connected rooms, while I wandered a sleeping Ebbi around the hotel’s walled garden. The air bristled with aromatic herbs and flora, while from the ground grew vegetables and salads too many to name. It was incredibly calming. For me, at least; I glanced up to see a herd of Indian running ducks fleeing a stumbling pre-schooler. They handled the grassy corridors well and were quickly out of sight of the toddler.
Once awake, our refreshed daughter was treated to a session in the hotel’s “sensory room”. To the uninitiated, sensory, when relating to babies, is just lots of fun stuff: flashing lights, lava lamps, coloured spaghetti, marbles; anything a wee one can touch and feel and gaze and wonder. Ebbi is a seasoned sensory class attendee, but still found joy in Woolley’s offering, replete as it was like a disco lighting shop.
Next, and this was what I enjoyed the most about Woolley Grange, we just ambled about. Aside from the planned activities and defined play areas, the grounds are full of little quirks and entertainment, from the Hamley’s worth of toys and sports equipment that litter the front lawn, as well as a much-loved trampoline, to the little wild flower gardens with hidden “fairies”. It has a maze-like quality that gives children, and no doubt, parents, too, a tingle of discovery with every turn. Ebbi was slightly too young to appreciate much of it, but it was an invigorating change of scenery, killed two hours, and was in no way arduous for us.
We were blessed with glorious weather on our visit, which certainly aided our enjoyment, but meant that slots at the outdoor pool were all booked up. Ebbi is fairly new to swimming so I think a session at the hotel’s indoor pool (part of the spa facility which offers child-less escapes) worked better. As is her style, she saw out her time in the pool thrashing between agony and ecstasy; the former peaked when we dunked her underwater for the first time, the latter when the running ducks appeared at the window.
Now, to meal times. Ebbi’s was a rarity in its positivity. She dined with an unprecedented enthusiasm, taking cues from the other children in the room and savouring her first chips, while taking in the general buzz. Parents enjoyed their first unwinding drinks, relaxed in the knowledge that however badly their offspring was behaving, someone else’s was probably worse. I dread to think what it must be like eating with a baby in a typical Cotswolds hotel restaurant.
Then, as the clock chimed seven, a strange hush descended on the hotel, followed by a series of startling cries, and then, for the lucky ones, a longer, deeper hush. The children were being put to bed: Ebbi went down like a treat, allaying our fears that the different environment would scupper her routine, leaving my wife and I, dressed up to an effortful level, to creep out the door with the faithful monitor. As we tip-toed downstairs to the restaurant we joined a silent conga line of victorious parents bound for dinner.
On the terrace, the sun was sneaking west. Woolley Grange’s raised position means the views stretch out for miles, taking in the 50 shades of green of the verdant south-west. At dinner we treated ourselves: cocktails, starters, sides and the chateaubriand. The whole shebang. And fortunately, Woolley Grange puts as much effort into its food as it does its family offerings, with tomatoes popping with flavour from its own garden, thick, fresh asparagus and a beautifully cooked cut of beef.
Our daughter did not make a peep and so it was with a blend of sympathy and smugness that we watched a few other parents dart upstairs to handle a situation alerted to the restaurant by the monitor. We finished our dinner and retired to the lounge for a night cap, the mid-summer sun now put to bed. After another negroni and a whisky each, we snuck back upstairs, ready to parent again the next day, but happy we had had our night just the two of us, just like old times.