Bovey Castle is just the spot for twanging a bow, swinging a club and generally relaxing in high country-house style, says Penelope Bennett
ON THE DAY I pull into the mile-long driveway of one of Britain’s last great sporting estates and enjoy the sight of its lush, award-winning golf course saluting us from either side of our speed-limit-abiding, Guest Relations-dispatched Land Rover, a newspaper headline reads ‘Mother Hit by Golf Ball Dies’. Whoever said, ‘I always turn to the sports page first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s misery,’ was spot on.
Man’s accomplishments in golf terms certainly deserve a nod. And just as deserving, I feel, is man’s accomplishment in leaving 368 square miles of moorland alone: that property developers haven’t yet and won’t ever get their hands on Dartmoor National Park is cause for breaking into song.
Bovey Castle, the aforementioned estate, and Dartmoor, in which it sits, both belong firmly in the ‘uplifting’ section of any paper. Dramatic in their beauty, calming in their mighty expanse. When I needed a break that called for more than a Kit-Kat, it was to this that I fled: proper green expanse beyond what the average cookie-cutter countryside profile can offer, and the promise from Bovey’s owners that the ‘built for pleasure’ estate wouldn’t offer any less of the great hospitality, excellent food, fine wine and true house party spirit than it was bound to by time-weathered tradition.
Both my partner and I needed something stronger than the Cotswolds but gentler than a fitness boot camp to kick our systems back into ‘I Love Life’ mode, and Exeter — a two-hour train ride from London — proved close enough to warrant a weekend jaunt but still far enough to feel like we were leaving something (ie worries) behind.
Off the train and into the Land Rover, which coasted us down hills, around rivers and past homey chalk-on-slate signs (‘CIDER’) nailed to roadside trees, tranquillity began dripping into my system and it all went uphill from there. I’m loath to sound like a desk-bound zero (‘this looks like a screensaver!’), but one stretch of road we took wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Audi advert.
On arrival, we stood still in the front hall of Bovey Castle, taking it all in. Built in 1907 by the son of WH Smith founder William Henry Smith, the manor house was used as a convalescent home in World War I and as a military hospital in World War II before reopening as a hotel, changing owners again and undergoing several expansions, including the addition of a spa and pool last year.
Out of one room trotts a well-groomed, uniformed waiter moving in sync with a piano playing in the distance. ‘This is the Oak Room’ — a bar-cum-old-boys’-reading-room replete with more whiskeys, cognacs and armagnacs than you can politely drink in a year — ‘and here we have the library’, its papers and magazines sitting tidily fanned out on an age-old mahogany table, the lot lit by the last of the day’s light creeping in through leaded panes. We’re buggied down to our lodge, which is decidedly more modern than the main manor and really more of a house than a lodge in terms of size (three en-suites over three floors).
‘Interesting,’ says my other half.
‘Well, it’s not like we’re entertaining.’
‘No, I mean no signal. Mobile doesn’t work.’
THE IRONY HERE is that we want to get away from things but still want the option of communicating with those things, so not having that option makes us fret. Fret, that is, until we reach the Edwardian Grill for dinner, where the maitre d’, the sommelier and the beef Wellington, in that order, kick all negative flow right back where it came from. Su-perb.
The next morning we wake up to rain (very cosy), enjoy a breakfast we don’t deserve and, on leaving the dining room, dodge an owl — with a 6ft wingspan — gliding low through the corridor. The outdoor falconry display has been called off due to the weather, so the owl obliges indoors. Swooping past us once more it quietly lands by reception, where I half expect it to ask for a room key ‘and a wake-up call at 7am’.
The rain is welcome, frankly. We spend two hours doing almost nothing save observe ducks from our wooden porch before braving the mud for North Bovey’s Ring of Bells pub, a short walk, several fields and a few indignant cattle away.
Bellies filled, it’s on to archery and pistol shooting with the wonderful Geoff, a maverick born to entertain target-hitting newbies. ‘We had a [politician who will remain nameless here] target once — that one got massacred,’ he says as he deftly clicks an arrow into place and launches it into the distance. He educates us on the origins of the country-wide village green (meant for archery practice after church) and makes a case for the English longbow rivalling the Japanese samurai sword as the mightiest weapon known to man. The more he talks, the more I want to know.
After sending some 20 arrows nowhere near the board I hit a bullseye. ‘Time for a drink,’ says Geoff triumphantly. Cider-making wasn’t on our schedule but Geoff, who drives ‘stretch’ (a golf buggy with six seats instead of four) faster than its makers intended it to go, says we deserve it, so it’s over to the cider hut we go, guns blazing, spirits high.
Inside the shack, which is insulated with dozens of bottles of cider and sloe gin in the making, we listen wide-eyed and mouths awash with one vintage after another as Geoff talks us through the finer points of real cider. ‘It’s a great laxative,’ he says. ‘It tickles the bottom of your colon.’ Good to know.
My ‘Bovey Bliss’ treatment (a body scrub followed by hot stone therapy) which follows at the in-house Elemis spa is incredibly enjoyable, which is saying something given that I don’t, on the whole — ever — enjoy being massaged. ‘You look different,’ says my partner when I join him in the pool afterwards. I feel different. I feel whole, I feel better, eased and calm. We swim a while, my limbs enjoying new-found agility, my blood rushing, not flowing, around my body.
I CHECK MY phone again — still no reception. I couldn’t care less, and don’t know why I checked in the first place. We whistle as we dress for dinner, which this time round is a little busier with a group celebrating someone’s birthday and one resembling a wedding committee in plotting mode, but then that’s the nature of the hospitality beast: the more you offer, the bigger the crowd you’ll pull in.
Does Bovey deserve applause for delivering on the action and the R&R front as it does? YES. The Canadian in me wanted so much to go canoeing (no time) but maybe I’ll unleash my paddle power on the Thames some day over lunch, shut my eyes and picture myself on Devon’s river Dart.
I’d sandwich that between a morning art class and a candlelit wine-tasting session in Bovey Castle’s cellars. I wouldn’t stress, rush, or fail to soak up the pleasurable minutes and hours of life in the countryside. I would just celebrate the moment, and rid misery from memory.