Even for the most blasé traveller, arriving at Stapleford Park cannot fail to impress. Pulling off the public road on to the estate’s long drive, our taxi passes thatched cottages and a gothic chapel in the woods, before parking between ornamental box hedges in front of the imposing 17th-century façade. The huge front door swings open and we find ourselves in a beautiful reception room – polished parquet floor, ceilings that must be 15ft high, extravagantly carved plasterwork. There’s a smell of woodsmoke and fresh flowers. The wallpaper is not just hand-painted but hand-embroidered in silk.
It’s Downton, Brideshead, Mansfield Park – as magnificent as any stately home you’ve ever read about or walked around, except here there are no National Trust wardens standing in the corner ready to scold you for touching the antiques. It takes a moment to adjust to the fact that we are actually allowed to eat, drink, sleep in such surroundings. The travel industry is so obsessed with the new and the fashionable that it’s easy to forget that places like this exist – grand, old-fashioned, unchanging (and almost certainly unprofitable), the unhip hotels that are part of our cultural heritage.
The oldest part of the building dates from the 14th century, the main house from 1670. It was the home of the Sherard family for 484 years and was turned into a hotel in 1988 by Bob Payton, the US restaurateur credited with bringing the deep pan pizza to Britain. Today, the ownership is opaque – bizarrely, the hotel refuses to name its proprietor, though Companies House records show it is ultimately controlled through a British Virgin Islands company by Mariam Aziz, former wife of the Sultan of Brunei.
Beyond the reception, the public rooms get grander still. In one of two great halls, the stuffed heads of an eland, a moose and others peer from the wood-panelled walls, two swordfish bills poke up from the mantlepiece. A pianist plays “All You Need is Love” – slightly naff but not as bad as the photos of celebrity former guests which scatter most available surfaces. Beneath the large oil painting of Lady Floyd, daughter of the first Baron Gretton, is a snap of Pamela Anderson; across the room is a grinning David Hasselhoff.
As I say, it’s not hip but it is supremely comfortable. Within moments of arriving in our bedroom (which comes complete with complimentary decanter of sloe gin), a housekeeper has knocked on the door to offer a hot-water bottle. Dinner is in the “Grinling Gibbons Fine Dining Restaurant”, named after the master wood carver whose garlands of flowers and fruit adorn Hampton Court, St Paul’s Cathedral and the walls and ceiling of this very room.
In the morning there is a commotion – the local hunt is here. We watch as the hounds rush between the horses’ legs and staff serve port and fruitcake to riders in red and black coats. I’m just deciding this is the perfect place for a citydweller to indulge their fantasies about aristocratic rural life when Malcolm Davison, the jovial director of country pursuits, suggests we head off into the estate to shoot a few clays.
Nr Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire LE14 2ER. 01572 787000; www.staplefordpark.com. Doubles from £140
Stapleford Park is 12 miles south of Grantham. Trains from London King’s Cross to Grantham take an hour
Hot holidays: Urban boating
For a spring city break, why not swap a hotel for a pied-à-terre on the water? Onefinestay, the company that rents out private flats and houses in London and New York, has a glorious Thames houseboat moored near the King’s Road on Chelsea Embankment. It sleeps two in style, with a wood-burning stove, fully equipped kitchen and freestanding bath.
From £225 per night; www.onefinestay.com
Not a houseboat but a hotelboat, CPH Living is a converted barge with 12 en-suite bedrooms in stylish Christianshavn. Floor-to-ceiling windows give great views over the water. Rooms are simple and there’s a big communal outdoor deck. Catering is limited to breakfast but for gourmands (who book months ahead), Noma is a few minutes’ walk away.
Doubles from DKr1,000 (£115); www.cphliving.com
Leave the gondolas and vaporetti to the hordes and instead hire your own motor cruiser. The yard in the nearby town of Casale rents out boats that sleep up to 10 people, even to those with no experience. From there it’s a day’s sailing down the River Sile to reach Venice itself, where you can moor up either in the city or on one of the islands in the lagoon.
From £1,400 a week for four; www.leboat.co.uk