Arriving at Ascot station on a soaking Saturday was not the ideal start. In a crush of punters with cans of Magners heading for the races, we inched forward with our bags. Suddenly, out of nowhere, materialised a smiling young man, dressed in brown tweed and carrying an umbrella. It was David, the Coworth Park driver, who had arrived in a big BMW to take us away from all this.
Though just a few miles down the road – and 40 minutes from London – Coworth Park is really another planet. The hotel – a Georgian mansion recently converted by the Dorchester group – has the full costume-drama exterior. Inside, however, it’s all MacBooks, underfloor heating and modern art. The staff may be in country tweed but they all wear earpieces, co-ordinating their movements across the 240-acre estate. Downton Abbey meets Homeland, we decided.
It was still battering with rain. Our room was in a cluster of buildings called Stables and Cottages, but more resembling exclusive little starter homes. The Homeland team summoned a golf buggy to take us there.
The room turned out to be a whole cottage: a beautifully furnished mini-house with the same quirky artistic touches as the mansion (theme in this case: ironic equestrian). There was a copper-plated bath tub in the bedroom – like a third bed – as well as the walk-in shower. We were impressed. After unpacking, playing with the lighting consoles and photographing the bath, it was spa time.
The Spa is a glass building scooped into the ground behind the mansion. Dale, the front-of-house manager, called it the hotel’s “cherry on the top”. It’s quite a cherry: 18m pool with underwater music, eight treatment rooms, steam rooms, gym, “experience” showers, a herb garden on the roof. And … the Spatisserie, its own restaurant, which promises bite-sized cakes and pastries on the basis that a bit of what you fancy is good for you.
The Spa was last year named Britain’s top hotel spa in two separate polls, and I’m not surprised. I don’t know much about the state of spa art, but I’m ready to believe this was it. Our facials, massage and swims were truly fabulous. The only disappointment was that the Spatisserie seemed to have run out of mini-cakes. (This was the extent of our dissatisfaction.)
Later, as we sat in the restaurant, eating local venison (the chef, who previously oversaw The Grill at The Dorchester, is brilliant), we looked around at our fellow diners and wondered who they all were. Wealthy, obviously, but also relaxed. An elegant man with a ponytail. A few Russians. We were told our table was favoured by the Queen when she visits (well, it’s near Windsor, and William and Harry play polo here). But there was something else.
Next to our cottage was a luxurious wooden cabin, which we called the “Clooney house”. George Clooney not only stayed here, but the door was knocked down to get his running machine inside. Sadly George had long gone, but next morning on our stroll in the grounds we bumped into Natalie Portman.
A touch of Hollywood glamour in the Downton/Homeland mix.
Blacknest Road, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7SE
Doubles from £258
Coworth Park is 22 miles from central London. Sunningdale station is a mile away. Trains from Waterloo: 47 minutes
Hot holidays: Winter adventures
An active winter holiday doesn’t have to mean skiing or snowboarding. Until mid-March, Nature Travels is running long-weekend “wild-skating” trips to Sweden, where exploring frozen lakes, rivers and coastline on skates is a national obsession. Holidays are based in the Stockholm area, with a guide to find the best conditions (and to skate in front checking ice thickness).
From £699 for 3 nights, www.naturetravels.co.uk
Keen ice-sailors say that speeding silently over frozen lakes creates a sensation close to flying. In experienced hands the one-person, 12ft-long “boats” can reach speeds of up to 80mph. With reliable ice conditions, and enthusiastic locals, Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, is a good place to try the sport, and has a vibrant cultural life to boot.
From £398 for 3 nights, www.balticholidays.com
The Chamonix valley, Europe’s de-facto capital of extreme skiing and serious mountaineering, is also an excellent place to try the gentler sport of snowshoeing. KE Adventure’s week-long group trip is ideal for hikers keen to explore the Alps in winter. A highlight is an expedition to the Grand St Bernard monastery, where monks bred the rescue dogs.
From £895 for 7 nights, www.keadventure.com