I AM sitting on a patio of Sweeton Manor looking out at landscaped gardens, rolling farm land and beyond the wild green stripe that is Dartmoor. However it is the view directly in front of me that has caught my attention and dragged it, just for an instant, from the wider panorama. Scones and jam and Devonshire cream so thick and rich it looks almost golden are laid on the teak table in front of me. There is also cake and pie and delicate china pots of tea.
This is the quintessential English country weekend with bracing walks, rides on the moor, and croquet on the lawn. All punctuated by the over-consumption of hearty country fare (all be it of the gourmet variety) summer pudding and copious jugs of Pimms.
However this is not, it has to said, a quintessentially English manor house. And that's a
good thing, believe me. Don't misunderstand, Sweeton has all the essential requirements; 15th century pedigree, thatched roof, hollyhocks and roses around the door. What it doesn't have is drafts, dog hair on the couch, bad plumbing and uncomfortable
'family furniture' which has been around since before they wrote the Doomsday Book - which is my experience of what private English country weekends are
We've driven down to Devon from London for a very special 'house party'. Until recently a private home, Sweeton Manor has just been made available for exclusive letting for 12+ guests. My advice is to round up eleven of your best friends (and they have to be your very
best friends to deserve this one believe me) and book in for a weekend as soon as you can before the word gets out. Because Sweeton is that rare thing an idyllic country home that combines all the elements of a luxurious boutique hotel with true style, extraordinary amenities and a relaxed atmosphere (not an easy combination to get right). This may well be
The Luxury Travel Bible's favourite private country house and we are not easily pleased.
Sweeton hasn't always been a 'manor' house. It is really more accurately a farm with its stone buildings made-over in grand style but it deserves its new status. Each of its six suites is individually decorated with antiques and custom made furniture. All have large en suite bathrooms, Egyptian cotton sheets, snowy feather duvets, bathrobes and L'Occitane products. There are also LCD TVs music supplied by a bedside Squeezebox internet radio and Wi-Fi internet access.
We explore up winding staircases, down stone steps, under oak beams and along quiet corridors as the house reveals its secrets satisfyingly slowly. Here we find a hand painted wall and a series of warm open fireplaces, there a boot room, then a corridor full of the owners DVDs of choice and everywhere stunning views of the surrounding Dartmoor National Park.
There is also a fully equipped business centre and conference space in the barn but I close the heavy wooden doors quietly on all that, why spoil an idyllic weekend with work?
We explore up winding staircases, down stone steps, under oak beams and along quiet corridors as the house reveals its secrets satisfyingly slowly.
As with all the most comfortable homes we gravitate to the kitchen with its traditional Aga and long country table. But there is also a more formal dining room, sitting rooms with squashy sofas and a library with over 2000 books and a beautiful Bosendorfer grand piano.
Despite all this luxury Sweeton Manor is an ideal place for families. The Manor is set in four acres of grounds so there is no fear of child-noises upsetting more slothful adults snoozing under the Sunday papers.
Thirteen year old Daniel and ten year old Alex are viewed only fleetingly during the entire weekend. "Hello darling", I yell hopelessly at the half of the pair who is our offspring as they charge by. My voice hangs in the air ... caught in their slipstream, the boys long gone. They catapult between the magnificent indoor swimming pool (although its stunning architecture and vaulted ceiling totally passes them by) and the full sized snooker table in the lower barn (the quality of its green baize also escapes them). A circuit punctuated by the odd leap off ancient stone walls, close encounters of the equestrian kind with rugged Dartmoor ponies and
boule in the back paddock.
They come to a halt for meals (and even remember their table manners) and for the private falconry demonstration on Sunday afternoon. Where wide-eyed we are all introduced to awe-inspiring hawks used for hunting since Henry VIII 's time which swoop down onto leather gloved arms and 'magnificent but stupid owls ' (there's another illusion blown).
It is hard to leave the pampered confines of Sweeton and indeed there is very little need to do so but one morning we do ride out across the moors, the temperature dropping several degrees as we ride higher. Concierge Lucy will arrange riding, falconry, picnics, carriage driving, hot air ballooning, huntin', shootin' and fishin' in season or anything else that takes your fancy. For the true equestrian, a riding arena by Martin Collins is available on the Estate. If you want to bring your own horse Sweeton also has stables and grooms are available by arrangement.
The owner of Sweeton Manor, John Lambert (see insider box below) drops around for drinks. He and his wife Isabel live at nearby Uphill Farm. A successful internet entrepreneur and business man Lambert obviously loves Dartmoor and its surrounds with a passion. He rides its wild moors every morning. "The imperative to return to our roots affects people in different ways, but for me the space, beauty and tranquillity of the rural life has always held great appeal ", he says. He also loves restoring things to their original splendour, hence the care lavished on Sweeton Manor and the obvious craftsmanship at every turn.
At the end of the weekend we negotiate our way back past high hedgerows and narrow winding roads and over the impossibly skinny Ponsworthy village bridge and Sweeton Manor is soon lost in a sea of green.
The house costs from £6,000 a week low season, £10,000 a week high season. Services of a chef, a visit from the falconer and most organised activities, (unless that simply means a walk to the local pub or over the moor) are extra.
Our luxury Insider says...
The owner of Sweeton Manor, the engaging John Lambert, is an internet entrepreneur and self styled 'essayist & musician', 'libertarian' and 'rationalist'. He is also the inventor of the Eigenharp.
Designed to bring together the world of electronic music and live performance the elegant Eigenharp is taking the musical world by storm. It looks a beautiful as a Stradivarius and plays electronically. http://www.eigenlabs.com/
Hilary Doling 23/8/10