Since my childhood I have had a devotion to England’s Royal Martyr. King Charles the First certainly made mistakes, and sometimes let down his friends, but he died bravely and full of faith. Indeed, had he been willing to compromise that faith, he would probably not have had to endure the executioner’s axe outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. So, when I learnt that the hotel for which I was heading had once been the King’s temporary prison, the prospect of the visit provided a real frisson of excitement. It meant more to me than the knowledge that, on the 18th green of the famous golf course which surrounds the hotel, Auric Goldfinger had been defeated by his nemesis, agent 007. But what finally occurred to me, as the Royce wafted me through the 350 acres of parkland, was that Blessed Charles had stayed here a century and a half before the present building was erected, whereas – in the film Goldfinger – James Bond knew the very pile at which the Silver Cloud and I drew to our stately halt.
Stoke Park – which became a country club in 1908 – is, indeed, a place for history of the grandest sort. The estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book and was once owned by the Virgin Queen. Again, of course, Elizabeth’s tenure was long before the present Palladian structure was erected. But the handsome palace we see today – designed by James Wyatt at the end of the 18th century – has its own story to tell. Much of the £130,000 compensation received by John Penn from the new government of the United States – for his family’s 26 million acres in Pennsylvania – went to build this house and to arrange its gardens. And, as you would expect, only the very best gentlemen worked on the landscape – ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton.
I skipped up the steps and went into the handsome entrance hall, but was then directed to the Pavilion. This is the modern part of the hotel, built in a decent post-modern style and a short walk from the mansion house. (The latter has 21 bedrooms; the Pavilion has 28.) Here I was shown up to room 102 on the first floor. This was a ‘Pavilion Junior Suite’ and therefore £464 a night, bed and breakfast for two. At once I liked the hall corridor. In its bookcases were books, about 120 of them. And among the books – and this must be a first for such libraries offered to guests by hotels – were quite a few worth reading, like The Biography of London by Peter Ackroyd. At the end of the corridor there was even somewhere to read these tomes – a small office (pictured), with a modern desk, an internet connection and a telephone.
In the bed-sitting room – a rectangle which measured about 12 feet by 20 feet – were hints of Art-Deco, like the two circular ‘port-hole’ mirrors. A touch of the Baronial came with the two brown leather armchairs and the four-poster bed, and the Modern joined in with the bright Andy Warhol prints. The style, then, was eclectic: but it worked. The screen of the television was flat and large, the shades of the six table lamps were silvered and the ten overhead spotlights were dimmable. Within the mirrored doors of the fitted wardrobe was a private safe, and the air-conditioning was quiet and effective.
Regular readers will know that I am much given to unhurried ablutions. My bathroom here (pictured) was just what I wanted – spacious and covered with unpolished marble of a golden hue. Its seven spotlights shone down and its under-floor heating drifted up. Its shower was of the walk-in variety and its tub was long and capacious. Toiletries by the White Company and a pair of wash basins completed the facilities of this fine chamber, in which I was able to prepare for dinner at my usual leisurely pace.
On my way back to the mansion house, I went for an evening stroll around the grounds near my billet. Various folk were completing their exertions, for Stoke Park offers facilities not only for golf, but also for swimming, tennis, football, gymnastics and many other activities which involve physical jerks. And these facilities are well used. By the time I sat down for dinner I had, by means of observing so many calories being burnt all around, built up quite an appetite.
The Dining Room is the most formal of the restaurants at Stoke Park. In white, with touches of gold, it is a space of some grandeur. I recommend that you occupy, as I did, table number 35. Then you will enjoy a near-perfect picture of what the English countryside should be. My view included an elegant balustrade, a lake, a stone bridge and a mediaeval church – all surrounded by mellow greenery. Within, I sat upon a good armchair with a supportive cushion. Upon the white tablecloth were Riedel glasses (of the Restaurant range, I think). I noted with approval that the waiter in his black waistcoat replaced the napkin of a fellow diner who left the table for a moment.
This room, like all the hotel’s restaurants, is under the direction of Mr Howard Davis. Mr Davis is from St Andrew’s, another place famous for its golf. I warmed to him immediately when, at my request, he hurried off to extinguish the canned music. Thereafter, in the civilized calm, he proved a most friendly and efficient host, and ensured that my meal proceeded at a proper pace, neither too quick nor too slow. He also recommended to me an excellent bottle of red Rhone. This Crozes-Hermitage was wonderfully jammy and oozing with redcurrants and blackberries (Etienne Pochon, 2006 - £31.50). Thank you, Mr Davis.
Chef Chris Wheeler offers a three-course dinner for £39.50, although supplements for my first two courses pushed the price up to £51. His ingredients are of high quality and his culinary skill is clear. My first dish was the best: pan-fried scallops with celeriac purée, crispy pancetta, caviar and a port reduction. This was well-conceived, properly executed and pretty to behold. The luscious sweetness of the dish was set off very well by the slight asperity of the caviar. My main course was an ‘open’ Beef Wellington, of supremely good meat, seared foie gras, wild mushrooms, puff pastry and truffle sauce. For my palate, it would have been improved had there been no cherry tomatoes on the plate. They introduced disharmony rather than balance. I concluded with an enjoyable lemon and lime chiffon pie with caramelized hazelnuts and raspberry granité.
The wine list is short, with just 69 offerings, although helpful tasting notes are provided for each wine, and I was pleased to see at least one dry German Riesling (Maximin Grünhauser Abstberg riesling kabinett, von Schubert, 2006 - £33). Prices range from the red and white house wines (both vins de pays d’Oc - £19.75) to £110 for 2000 Chateau Laforge and £250 for Cristal champagne. Apart from the red chosen by Mr Davis, I tried a sauvignon blanc from Chile (Ochagavia 1851, 2008 - £20.50). No pussy cat and gooseberries, as we usually expect from this grape, but – as the notes in the list put it accurately – “citrus aromas and soft tropical notes of pineapple and mango”.
For breakfast I had a decision to make. Should I trot just along the corridor in the Pavilion to the dining room overlooking the swimming pool, or should I wander back to the mansion house? I set off for the former, but was stopped in my tracks by the sound I always dread in the mornings: the wailing of a little darling who does not like the look of his corn flakes. I fled to the palace. And I was glad I did, for at the Orangery – a less formal eatery, adjacent to the Dining Room – I had a fine time. Installed at a table next to the bronze statue of Mercury – Stoke Park is full of such happy pieces – I looked out over the carefully tended lawns and tucked into bacon and mushrooms, fresh apple juice, prosciutto and melon and croissants with raspberry compote, all washed down – since the weather was warm – with pots of iced coffee. £22 for so many good things seemed excellent value.
When Charles the First stayed at Stoke Park, he was a prisoner. When I stayed at Stoke Park, I was a pampered guest. I thought of the Royal Martyr during my visit and hoped that he had been treated kindly here. I certainly was.
Park Road, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire SL2 4PG, England.
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