By Sarah Ivens, Editor-at-Large
It is a truth universally acknowledged that on a pretty summer’s day there is nowhere better to be than in an English country garden. Waves of bluebells dance in a honeysuckle breeze as butterflies glide from glittering stream to ancient oak tree. And, of course, there’s always a chance you’ll spot Peter Rabbit in the vegetable patch, or Winnie the Pooh taking a nap on a bed of nettles.
Many travelers are so drawn to the bright lights and big sights of London that the English countryside is lost for them. As a born and bred Londoner who finds herself able to breathe deeply during a flora and fauna-tactic escape past the suburbs and into the green patchworks of her homeland, I can’t impress on anyone what a mistake this is. It is beautiful, historic, literary and charming – all those things foreigners love about Downton Abbey wrapped up in a village cream tea and a meander down a cobbled street.
The Four Seasons have done a very clever thing, opening a resort a one hour drive away from their two city hotels, making it the perfect add-on for the culture vulture, theatre lover or weary business traveller. Leaving London behind, on a road that takes you past the old (the 1,000 year old Windsor Castle, the Queen’s favorite palace) and the new (fancy a ride on a space shuttle at Legoland, anyone?), you arrive at The Four Seasons Hampshire.
Your jaw will drop.
Dating back to 1728, the heritage-listed manor house around which the Hotel is built is much documented in historical texts throughout the centuries. With spectacular views over the Hampshire countryside, the Hotel’s resort-like facilities place the countryside’s finest pursuits on its doorstep. On-site facilities include a 14-horse stable, fishing lakes, clay pigeon shooting, narrowboating, nature rambles and tennis. Add to this, the manor’s ancient association with high society – and in Henry VIII’s case, a royal scandal – and guests can experience a taste of Hampshire’s historical and cultural wealth before they even leave the Hotel grounds. You’ll feel very Lord and Lady Grantham, without the need for a corset.
If you can tear yourself away from the spa and outdoor vitality pool, the picturesque surroundings will keep you very busy. In fact there’s so much to see you’ll wish you’d doubled the length of your stay. Just 30 minutes away lies Winchester, a traditional cathedral city with impressive boutiques and numerous museums and art galleries. Boasting a 1300 year unbroken succession of bishops, Winchester is home to the legendary ‘Arthurian’ Round Table, situated in the Great Hall of the old castle. The ancient capital of England has been inspiring visitors for centuries, including Keats, who wrote his Ode to Autumn, while staying here.
Hampshire is also littered with a wide range of beautiful historic houses that are open to the public. Stratfield Saye is the estate purchased by a jubilant Duke of Wellington at the bequest of an adoring nation upon his return from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The house is still the home of the present Duke and Duchess of Wellington and exhibitions in the Hall and original stable block document the 1st Duke of Wellington’s life and triumphs.
Charles Dickens’ birthplace can be visited in Portsmouth, and having inspired writers for centuries, it is no surprise to discover that Jane Austen penned her literary classics Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense & Sensibility in the tiny Hampshire village of Chawton, a pretty fifteen minute drive from the hotel. Now a museum documenting her life and works, many of the rooms in her 17th Century house have been preserved in their original state. You can see the desk and chair where she wrote, taking in the view from the window that inspired her. I mean, come on… How awesome.
And as 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice, there is no better time to grab your beloved and get your Elizabeth and Darcy on over a romantic feast of English fare (try the divine if pant-bursting Hampshire Farmers’ Market Lunch every Sunday at the Four Seasons – a refined, edible exploration of Hampshire’s famous Farmers’ Markets) before burying yourself into a classic novel by the fire in the hotel ‘s library, and perhaps a sneaky doze, dreaming of Lords, Ladies and clotted cream.
Sarah Ivens, Editor-at-Large for Jaunt Magazine, is the founding editor in chief of OK! magazine in the US and a bestselling author in her native UK. Her writing has been seen in Marie Claire, Glamour, In Style and GQ. A born and bred Londoner, she currently resides in Los Angeles.