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A Weekend Retreat: Kentisbury Grange
The drive from Minehead to Kentisbury Grange is famously one of the prettiest in Britain – glorious Somerset and North Devon coastline, Porlock Hill, the deep-cut wooded valleys behind Lynton and Lynmouth. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any of it. It was the last weekend in June but the moors and cliffs were wrapped in thick coastal fog. As we drove up to the Grange, the feeling was more Wuthering Heights than Lorna Doone.
The house – late-Victorian, with gothic and Regency-style elements, surrounded by lawns and lily ponds – has an imposing front door which was firmly shut. We stood in the gloom and rang the bell. The door opened slowly and we were greeted not by a grizzled retainer but by the Grange’s smiling PR person.
Kentisbury Grange is a boutique hotel, newly converted by Mark Cushway, a businessman who has ambitious plans for it. The house is Grade II listed, with 11 bedrooms reached via an elegant staircase with enormous stained-glass windows. Our room was the bridal suite so we weren’t surprised to see a giant bed, lots of tactile furnishings (much crushed velvet and cashmere), a chaise longue and a roll-top bath, but all the rooms are decorated in the same plush style.
We dried off and hurried to the restaurant in the Coach House behind the hotel, panicking in case we were too late for dinner. We weren’t – which was good news because the food is the Grange’s outstanding feature.
Cushway has managed to entice Thomas Carr to Kentisbury. Carr is a young chef formerly of Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant in Rock, Cornwall, and we found him serving up locally caught bream, mackerel and crab, delicate smoked pigeon, asparagus with Devon blue cheese, and West Country lamb and beef. It was exceptional.
Next morning we opened our curtains to a completely different scene. The fog was gone and we were looking out at Exmoor in the near distance. We could also see much more clearly than in the evening murk that in the grounds of the hotel were a number of small wooden buildings that looked like Scandinavian-style chalets.
A short walk around with the hotel manager Armand Chaudhary revealed the master plan for Kentisbury Grange. These self-catering “lodges” are expensively furnished and for sale at £257,000 each (eventually there will be 24 of them); the hotel books them out for their owners at £215 a night. The hotel proprietor had spotted a gap in the luxury holiday market, Chaudhary said.
Maybe so, though it might feel pretty crowded when the hotel and lodges are all full. But you can’t deny that the location is wonderful – we drove inland to Simonsbath village and walked eight miles across heart-stopping Exmoor scenery.
The meal on the second night was as brilliant as the first. We had a chat with Carr, who said he thinks about his menus all the time. He described his next new dish. It sounded amazing.
The hotel/lodges set-up may or may not be the next big thing in hospitality, but if Kentisbury Grange can hang on to its chef, it will make a name for itself anyway.
Kentisbury, Barnstaple, North Devon, EX31 4NL; 01271 882 295; www.kentisburygrange.co.uk; Doubles from £155
Kentisbury is eight miles north of Barnstaple. Direct trains from Exeter to Barnstaple take an hour and 10 minutes
Hot holidays: September in Sicily
Monaci delle Terre Nere
In August, Sicily can feel swamped by Italian tourists but, come September, the island breathes a collective sigh of relief. On the slopes of Mount Etna, this newly opened eight-room hotel is ideal for a late-summer escape. Owner Guido Coffa has spent five years restoring the main house, which dates from 1800. Doubles from €180; www.monacidelleterrenere.it
Palermo is one of Europe’s most compelling city-break destinations, with grand gothic and baroque churches seemingly on every corner, vibrant markets, wonderful food, and beaches within easy reach. BB22 is a good base from which to explore – a stylish bed-and-breakfast in a restored 15th-century palazzo in the heart of the historic centre. Doubles from €110; www.bb22.it
A new airport opened earlier this summer at Comiso, in southeast Sicily, bringing the stunning baroque towns of Modica, Noto and Syracuse within easy reach. In Modica, seek out Casa Talìa, not a conventional hotel but 10 rooms inside a collection of restored stone cottages arranged around a hidden garden on a hillside overlooking the historic heart of the town. Doubles from €130; www.casatalia.it