Review by Fiona Duncan, published 12th September 2005.
I approached with trepidation. In a world of hyped-up, talked-about hotels, Endsleigh is the most talked about of the year, heavily booked by eager wannabe guests for months to come long before it opened just over two weeks ago.
Leaving it almost too late, I managed to secure one night during the hotel’s second week of trading, determined to try out this newborn star as soon as possible, and now I was immersed in the deep, twisting lanes of Devon, closing on my quarry at the edge of Dartmoor. What’s unusual about Endsleigh is that the hotel’s owners themselves have done nothing to generate the buzz.
With commendable understatement it slipped into existence without fanfare: no pushy pre-publicity, no launch party, no misty-lensed photo shoots in glossy magazines, just a modest brochure and website and a clear understanding that it’s quality that makes a hotel successful, not ephemeral publicity. And how do they know? Because this diminutive Devon bolthole is the offspring of the most glamourous hotel outside London, the brilliant Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall.
Like Endsleigh, Tresanton also refrained from trumpeting its arrival when it opened seven summers ago, but word of its charms soon spread and Olga Polizzi, sister of Rocco Forte, had a major hit on her hands. Tresanton is both effortlessly elegant and – crucially – unpretentious. Unlike many of its try-hard, oh-so-hip rivals, it manages to impart to everyone, young and old, starry and staid, a frisson of pleasure simply at being there. It’s admirers of Tresanton that have cottoned on to the advent of Endsleigh, created the buzz and given it such a positive start. But will it live up to expectations and to the high standards set by its parent? Will mother be proud of her daughter (Alex Polizzi, who is running Endsleigh). I really hoped so.
Well, they’ve got a head start, I thought, as I turned on to Endsleigh’s almost mile-long private drive and began the descent into what feels like a secret valley. Location, location, location they say, and this hotel has one of the loveliest I’ve seen in 20 years of inspecting and writing about beautifully sited hotels. The sixth Duke of Bedford did the groundwork: though he owned a huge swathe of Devon, this was the spot on which he chose to build a private retreat for himself and his wife Georgiana. Here they would come, just once a year, along with children, servants, silver and animals. It was 1812. The 16-bedroom fishing and shooting lodge was designed by Jeffry Wyatville as a cottage orné (Grade 1-listed, it’s one of the most important Regency country houses remaining) while the surrounding gardens were created by Humphrey Repton. His attention to detail was legendary: favouring a human touch to his landscapes, he had a chimney built in the woods opposite the house, so that the occupants could see smoke curling prettily above the trees.
And now here was I, gazing on the same view, minus the smoke, from one of two languorous terraces, drink in hand. It was hard to hold a conversation: my eyes kept drifting back to Repton’s Yew Walk, to the river Tamar as it inched its way along the valley floor, and to the tumbling, richly coloured woods beyond. Before Olga Polizzi bought it, Endsleigh was a hotel of sorts, belonging to a fishing syndicate. Some of its former guests have returned in the last couple of weeks, Alex Polizzi tells me, and declared that hardly anything has changed. “My mother was rather upset,” she says, “but I think it’s a compliment”. So do I. Orné it may be, but Endsleigh is first and foremost a sturdy base for outdoor pursuits, with wooden floors, thick oak doors and fireplaces in bathrooms as well as bedrooms, and though Olga has redecorated – in her cool, inimitable style – the spirit of the place remains intact. There are the old pull down maps of Devon in the hall, the family crests in the dining room, the beautiful hand-painted walls in Room 8, the fire buckets and hoses in the corridors, the floor made of sheeps’ knuckles on the veranda…
The place reminds me of the endearingly old fashioned Scottish shooting lodges that have been a part of my life – the solidity, charm and homeliness is still there, but artfully blended with contemporary luxury. Bedrooms are lovely – stylish and unfussy, with original baths and basins (mine was tiny, but perfectly serviceable), old-fashioned light switches and a welcome lack of gimmickry and the sort of puzzling future-proof technology on which so many new hotels seem to rely. There’s a flat-screen TV and DVD player in each room, but you are far more likely to spend time pouring over the absorbing collection of books – from Kafka to Harry Potter and James Joyce to Zadie Smith plus the complete works of Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse and Ben Elton, to name but three – with which Alex Polizzi has stocked the library.
Otherwise there’s little to do, other than to fish (salmon stocks are sadly depleted in the Tamar these days, though a ghillie is on hand to assist), walk and picnic in the Picturesque grounds, a fantasy of dells and grottoes, cascades and crags. Be sure to ask for the key to the enchanting Dairy, it’s marble and ivy-leaf tiled interior intact.
The problem for new hotels is that they can’t open slowly, and there are very often teething troubles at the expense of guests; Tresanton was no exception. With the same ethos that eschews PR hype and unnecessary extras, the Polizzis prefer to employ locals as staff, and, though smiling and very willing, they need time to get things right. No problems with the chef, Nick Shapland, also a local who has transferred from the Arundel Arms in Lifton, where he built a fine reputation: dinner was faultless. And so was breakfast on the terrace next morning, again with that view, in sparkling sunshine (though be warned: rainfall is particularly high around Dartmoor).
Not long afterwards I reluctantly made my way back along Endsleigh’s smartly resurfaced drive, vowing to return. As to whether it will live up to Tresanton, my guess is yes, easily – given time to bed in and a few slouchy sofas for rainy days. You’ll get a frisson of pleasure simply at being there too. Hotel Endsleigh, Milton Abbot, Tavistock, Devon PL19 0PQ (01822 870000; www. hotelendsleigh.com). Double rooms from £210 to £350 per night including breakfast.