Post builders, having argued with the plumber, the woman on crossing duty at my kidÕs school whoÕs auditioning for the Nazi Mother Corps, all of the children, and my publisherÕs answer phone, I needed a rest. Well that or a week in a padded cell. Where better then than the rural seclusion of Gidleigh Park, miles up a single-track road and cocooned in birch woods on the edge of Dartmoor. ThereÕs a distinctly secretive, other-worldliness about the hotel and its beautifully remote setting. Those who have been will know exactly what I mean. Those who havenÕt are presumably waiting for a large cash injection, because Gidleigh Park is not a destination for the financially challenged. At £500 a night for a double room for two, guests need to pack more than their designer wellies - though the room price does include dinner (available at £67.50 a head for non-residents) and a full-on, properly hearty breakfast. However, at the risk of sounding like the gushing river that thunders through the forty-five acre of woodland, pasture and gardens that make up the property, there is no better place to burn serious money in pursuit of lifeÕs simple pleasures.
But surely, youÕre thinking, a hotel, is a hotel, is a room with clean sheets and miniature soap. Furthermore, Gidleigh Park is not a pampering spa. With 15 rooms, there is no pool, no beauty therapist and no gym. The only mud treatment youÕre going to encounter here is walking through a puddle in pristine countryside on your way up to Dartmoor - a one hour hike up a sheer woodland path Š though since I usually take escalators I may not be a reliable source on the trailÕs true gradient. My climbing is confined to stairs, and only then because itÕs naff to ride the lift in Gucci. But the simplicity is the point of the place. ItÕs a real, comfortable, country house hotel with muddy boots at the door, crackling log fires, crocket on the lawn and surroundavision nature. Yes, the mock-Tudor timbered house is uglier than Acton, but inside thereÕs a squishy abundance of chintz, snoozing cats, 2 Michelin starred cooking and vodka martinis and mere waft of the hand away.
With The Mister overseas, lacking a lover, I went alone; planning on spending the afternoon in bed with, at the very least, a good book. Dinner alone was not hotly anticipated but luckily the owner, Paul Henderson, took pity on my spinsterishness and invited me to join him. The word Titanic and lifeboat springs to mind as I readily agreed and found myself between an ex-Marine (Mr H) and a Hollywood screenwriter in one of the attractive wood-panelled dining rooms, lit by tall candles. You might think that good manners would inhibit my critical faculties. They wouldnÕt - but there was nothing to criticise. Food was outstanding from the first bite of a post-hike sandwich served in lieu of lunch (pillowy white bread thicker than even the thickest Spice girl stuffed with nursery-rich egg mayonnaise and accompanied by home made, 100% butter biscuits in fat girl portions), to the delicate canapˇs served in the bar before dinner. The menu is heavily reliant on local produce, featuring dishes such as saddle of local lamb stuffed with lambÕs sweetbreads with roast garlic; and organically reared local beef fillet with roast shallots and red wine sauce. ItÕs also stuffed to the gills with fish Š red mullet with olives, tomato and fennel; roast brill with lemon grass, orange, ginger and more fennel; or roast sea bas with even more fennel, this time pureed.
I started with roast langoustines with frogÕs legs and a few spears of penne pasta dotted with truffle cream. It was droolingly delicious as well as elegantly presented in a spare fashion, without any unnecessary frilly bits (unlike the interior design which is frilly central but pleasantly so). This made even more sense when the chef, Michael Caines (donÕt be ridiculous Š obviously, NO relation) later told me that he grew up eating cheap cuts of meat in a large family. Subsequently he wanted to cook food that was easy to eat and which you didnÕt have to fiddle around with. I assure you Š absolutely no fiddling took place. My main course was pigeon; perfectly pink and beautifully arranged atop a plump rosti like the segments of a TerryÕs chocolate orange- and if the plate had sported a pattern, I would have ingested it.
Dessert was even more of a challenge than the uphill hike to Dartmoor. I shared a smooth, orange parfait in a candied mandarin peel with various other little tarlets and sorbets, all refreshingly citrussy. All this, the phone lines out of order, no signal on my mobile and a late. Alcoholic night with handsome chef. So, you donÕt need to die to go to heaven after all. Just as well. I definitely donÕt have a reservation.