Review by Fiona Duncan, published 23rd July 2007.
Sometimes less is more. "No, there's no spa at Hambleton Hall," says Tim Hart, the hotel's proprietor, "and nor will there be. Why would we want a spa, when we've got Rutland Water?"
The late Victorian house takes in the scene - south-facing terrace, flower-filled formal garden, field and trees, water - with views that catch the breath
Tim and his wife, Stefa, opened Hambleton Hall in 1980. Four years earlier, Rutland Water had transformed the landscape into one of the most beautiful in the Midlands.
The late Victorian house takes in the scene - south-facing terrace, flower-filled formal garden, field and trees, water - with views that catch the breath. There's a swimming pool, a tennis court and a very fine chef in the kitchen, and that's it. No mini bars, no DVD list, no pillow menu, and certainly no spa.
"I did feel the need to do something different recently," says Tim, "but I knew it would be a mistake to make Hambleton Hall something it wasn't, so instead, I opened a contemporary hotel, Hart's, in Nottingham".
That's the clever bit: knowing when to leave well alone. And now that Chewton Glen has become a glorified leisure centre, Gidleigh Park has undergone a multi-million pound makeover, and Sharrow Bay has joined the von Essen stable, Hambleton Hall stands at the forefront of that dying breed of quintessential, personally run, unmucked-about luxury country-house hotels.
I had the perfect companion: my neighbour from heaven, a quintessentially English rose (which happens to be her name). We kicked off in style, sipping Champagne in the inviting, elegant drawing room, where conversation flows easily, and were given prettily illustrated menus to study (why don't more restaurateurs make an effort with their menus?).
A basket of morels, picked in the woods that day, was produced for our inspection before the genius in the kitchen, Aaron Patterson, set to work on them. Aaron began here as a 16-year-old sous chef, left to train elsewhere, and returned in 1993 as head chef. Good hotels retain their staff.
As testified by the mushrooms, that hackneyed phrase "locally sourced" takes on its true meaning with Aaron. The morels were returned to me stuffed with a light chicken mousse, for which Dominique, the sommelier, suggested a fine Mâcon, while Rose's divine langoustines were matched with a crisp Loire Sauvignon. Next came poached and roast pigeon for me and loin of veal for Rose, both of which tasted as good as they looked.
In one of those agonising sacrifices we girls make in the interests of remaining pencil-thin, we skipped pudding - a decision that, in hindsight, I bitterly regret. I should have eaten everything I could get my hands on in that place.
The next morning, in our soothing, newly redecorated room with a view (Stefa is the designer, instructed by Tim to create a contemporary feel but on no account to "do a Babington"), we studied the booklet provided on things to do in the area. But why move when you've got Rutland Water to walk round? We strolled and chatted, watched the fishermen bobbing about in their boats and stumbled on a throng of sedge warblers busily mimicking the bird song of other species.
Back at Hambleton Hall, we sat down with Tim. "I've got a thing about bread," he told us. "So I've decided to open a bakery. Yes," he mused, "a wonderful specialist bakery. That will be my spa."
Hambleton, Oakham (01572 756991; www.hambletonhall.com).
Doubles from £200 to £365 per night, including breakfast.