Who needs Route 66 when you're behind the wheel of a Bentley Flying Spur on a thousand-mile road trip around Britain’s most iconic hotels?
There was no suggestion of meandering on the second week of our UK summer sojourn. For our journey around the north of Britain, we enlisted the help of Abercrombie & Kent, which, like many other top tour operators, has expanded its post-lockdown portfolio to include staycation itineraries such as its Best of British tour – an excitable thousand-mile romp around some of the UK’s most treasured country houses.
The arrival of a Bentley Flying Spur (the third generation of its luxury four-door Grand Tourer) immediately set the tone, ramping up the energy, and the anticipated enjoyment of our road weary souls. Pulling up at a luxury hotel behind its supercharged wheel would certainly be more fitting than in our trusty, beat-up old Land Rover. But as the rest of the family cooed over the smooth lines, intelligent tech (“It’s got everything to stop you crashing,” said the husband, over and over…), back-seat tablets linked to the infotainment system and retractable Flying B mascot (yes, really), I was focused on a more pressing concern: would all of our luggage fit in the boot?
The answer was, yes, just not in the sophisticated configuration I’d planned. So with walking boots and swimwear decanted into carrier bags (not classy, but at least recycled), my nervous anxiety dissipated only to be replaced with fear every time the husband accelerated. I subsequently spent the first hour with my foot pressed down flat on an imaginary brake. “Sit back and enjoy the ride!” he urged. “What are you going to be like when it’s your turn to drive?” I bit back my instinctive response – “a bag of nerves” – and instead luxuriated in not having to constantly hand out nibbles, thanks to one of the unforeseen upsides of the plush interiors… a new “no snacks in the back” rule.
Our first destination, Beaverbrook in Surrey, was a study in warm, post-Covid welcome. Testing on arrival (albeit your temperature, not a swab) gave the management enough confidence to allow a mask-free environment for everyone but waiting staff, resulting in the perfect balance of uber-cool ambience with impeccable attention to detail. This equated to the most assured and relaxing hotel experience in the two weeks we spent travelling around the UK, and here, all the better to absorb the acute sense of living history that the very walls exude.
I defy anyone to stroll through the rooms frequented by former host-with-the-most Lord Beaverbrook and his constant procession of impeccably placed and notorious guests without sensing yesteryear’s elusive shadows in the corridors, and catching the whispers of long-gone secret assignations behind heavy panelled doors. The sumptuously sympathetic restoration is only enhanced by rows of framed photographs, an art collection featuring works from contemporary stained-glass artist Brian Clarke to Gerhard Richter and Jean Cocteau and beautifully appointed rooms named after former inhabitants (a “Guest Book” detailing the life stories of the most famous, including Winston Churchill, the Duchess of Windsor and Rudyard Kipling, is gifted to all today’s residents to take away). Today’s celebrity guests are of a very different class of A-lister, and one wonders how long it will take current national treasure and Beaverbrook golf club member Peter Crouch to get an entry too.
We arrived in time for lunch and a dip in the outdoor pool and then, with the arrival of a heavy storm, its indoor counterpart. The original ornate outdoor pool built by Beaverbrook himself is now a pond, but as I gazed on it, backlit by a real life sunburst filter from within immaculately manicured formal gardens, it didn’t take much to transport myself back to a time when one might discover Wallis having a dip, hair and make up immaculately intact.
An evening buggy ride took us to the Garden House restaurant for dinner, a glamorously earthy hub of organic gastro bliss. Back at the hotel, we left the kids enjoying upstairs, revelling in their bedroom independence whilst we had a cheeky amaretto sour in the opulent art deco bar downstairs. Well, when at Beaverbrook...
The next morning as I finally got behind the wheel of the Bentley, I was overly grateful for the long private estate road to practice on. Of course, as soon as we hit the motorway the heavens opened and the M25 became a crawling, spray splattered mess of torrential rain.
The theme continued to the Lake District where, skies finally clearing, we arrived to unparalleled views across Lake Windermere from Holbeck Ghyll. Sadly, the hotel’s highfalutin past is long gone, but its present tired and dated reality was saved by the warmth and hospitality of its small and perfectly multitasking team led by Mari and super concierge Greg. And anyway, this was the Lakes, home to many previous family holidays, and we wanted to get out and about and revisit favourite haunts.
The breathtaking A591 took us along the very highest tops, through misty clouds, scrubby moorland, and winding lanes so narrow we instinctively breathed in to get through (of course, it was once again my turn to drive) down into verdant vales of bubbling becks, and a long-awaited return to the bucolic surrounds of Askham and Lowther Castle, our first since the latter’s horticultural overhaul by Dan Pearson and a lesson in how to infuse personality and progress in a stately home. National Trust take note.
And then... bonny Scotland beckoned. On yet another leg behind the wheel, as we entered Scotland on the M74, the road opened up into four lanes and the sun suddenly appeared from behind the threatening wall of clouds. As the rest of the family slept, at the wheel this felt akin to “real” road trip territory and I allowed the engine to open up a little. Reader, I may even have hit the speed limit.
Gleneagles is less hotel and more micro world (complete, it seems, with its own micro climate), and on arrival we were still taken aback at its immensity. Despite thorough research, it seemed both the husband and I had harboured expectations of a hunting lodge ambience complete with armchair-imbued corners to cosy away in. Instead the building is epic in proportion, a maze of restaurants, resort-style boutique stores and a never-ending extent of pristine grounds and activities therein. It didn’t take long to realise there’d have been no time to enjoy them anyway. Gleneagles excels in its self-styled position as “the glorious playground”, with the energy to match – everything happens here, except naps in sleepy nooks.
Fortunately, there is the hospitality team to support this. After a summer of furloughs across the nation, the sheer number of immaculately trained and naturally personable staff took our breath away. These were real people with a genuine energy and expertise about what they’re doing – no airs, no graces, and a disarming lack of ceremony.
Our first days were bathed in August sunshine, which threw a honey-hued light across the Ochil hills beyond, the odd cloud casting deep purple shadows that danced across the heather. This was the ever-changing view from our bedroom window, (and the bath of dreams) and it was everything I could do to pull myself away from the cushioned window seat perfectly placed over the ever changing panorama. But venture out we must, for this was Gleneagles, and we had many waking moments to fill.
An evening bike ride around the golf courses presented an off-road lite experience that had all the joys of being in the hills with little of the physical toil. Following a morning tour of the immaculate stable yard, we rode out around the hotel’s cross country trail, on perfectly-schooled horses who seemed to enjoy their jaunt every bit as much as we did. A lochside picnic was accompanied in turn by Hettie the Shetland and Henry the hotel labrador, who stretched our sun-kissed idyll into the afternoon as the children played a splashy game of catch with him for hours.
In fact, whenever the kids were starting to tire of an activity, it seemed we’d turn around to find a staffer – be it animal or human – with a ready distraction. Ask our eight-year-old and he’ll emphatically tell you Gleneagles is the “best hotel in the world”.
Of course, this is Scotland, and the weather inevitably broke, but Gleneagles took it all in its stride. We met the resident falcons and put the gun dogs through their paces under glowering skies and, whilst in the wake of torrential rain the golf courses temporarily closed, our lesson at the driving range remained perfectly dry as we learned the basics from a teacher who turned out to be a golf pro at patience, as well as the game.
We left with our itinerary uncompleted, not due to the weather, but through pacing ourselves and wanting to enjoy our surrounds. Tennis and archery will have to wait until next time – of which there will be one, have no doubt.
And so it was, all nursing various golfing ailments (yes, even the eight-year-old), that we arrived at Grantley Hall – itself something of an anomaly – a grand, restored Palladian mansion in an archetypically picturesque Dales setting, on the banks of the rushing River Skell. It’s 18th-century grandeur is now swathed in a shiny new kind of glamour – landscaped gardens, contemporary art installations, a Japanese water garden and decadent thermal spa and pool (props go to the management for successfully reopening the sauna and steam rooms as well as the pool – the only hotel on our travels to do so).
Like its planting schemes, its multi-million pound makeover needs time to bed down, although you’d be forgiven for noticing this on arrival thanks to the parade of supercars parked outside the front. The tone is thus set: this is where people go to spend and make sure people know they are spending. It’s flashy, funky and fun. It’s probably the kind of place where footballers go to propose. It’s certainly set up for super-charged partying, with the clubby vibes of self-contained stylish bar and restaurant EightyEight (elsewhere there is all-day dining at Fletchers, and the refined surrounds of Shaun Rankin at Grantley Hall).
The hotel’s heart lies in the down-to-earth team – many local – who welcome you, and the successful balance of warmth and flamboyance in the individually designed reception rooms that beckon you. Here, there are stunning nooks aplenty, and thoughtfully chosen books to enjoy in them. Owner Valeria’s carefully curated art collection is full of fun and talk-about factor – one set even inspiring an international art hunt for a copy on our return.
Not en route home, of course – all available space within the Flying Spur was given over to enjoying it’s spoiling excess for the last time. For the short time I was awake, that is. My goodbye road trip gift to the husband – so he got to floor it all the way home.