And so to Devon, and the final leg of our West Country road trip. Partly in the jaunty, relaxed spirit of a classic road trip, and partly to avoid the traffic jams that had been angrily reported during our few days in Cornwall, we meandered across Dartmoor National Park to a destination that has long lingered on my UK must-visit list: Bovey Castle.
The predicted traffic jams were as scarce as the rain that promised to break the oppressive heatwave (big tick on both counts), and as we drove through Bovey’s immaculate parkland and golf course (note: we don’t play, but it sure looked pretty), the building gradually appeared, timelessly arresting and yet oddly soft and welcoming.
Its impressive entrance is enhanced by elaborately tweed-clad porters, and the ubiquitous array of top-of-the-range 4x4s, presumably belonging to fellow guests. Our beat-up old Land Rover at least matched up to the latter and it was to the porter’s credit that he didn’t show a flicker of relief that valet parking remains out of Covid action for the time being.
Inside, Bovey is both old-school grand and welcoming – its formal reception rooms and lounges decorated in classy shades of silvery grey and which muffle noise in a manner not unlike freshly fallen snow. It’s both calming and relaxing, and manages to avoid stuffiness – there’s not much worse in a hotel than an inviting lounge in which you can’t sit down without ordering a drink/full afternoon tea/a second mortgage.
The hotel’s 60 bedrooms (there are also 22 spacious and contemporary self-catering lodges for those seeking a ‘bubble’ retreat) bedrooms have the same high-ceilinged grandeur, with quirky attention to detail that adds a personable charm – our suite featured a literal bath room leading on from the bedroom, for example, then opening on to the shower room. We gratefully switched on the super-powered Dyson fan that had been provided to assuage the heatwave – however in a blow for tech, it turned out the classic standing rotary fan in the children’s room actually had a greater effect. And if in the unprecedented temperatures, the lead shot windows were having little ambient effect, they sure delivered on the aesthetics, with views out over the grounds below and across the rolling pine forests, deer park and farmland beyond. It was a verdant rainbow of greens, crisscrossed with bubbling brooks, and a scene that was crying out to be explored.
We didn’t have to wait long, with our pre-booked deer park tour starting just half an hour after arriving and taking us across the grounds into the sun-dappled woodland beyond, making our way alongside the gurgling river Bovey. Here the crystal-clear water runs along a pebble bed, and is, in most parts, fairly shallow; our travel-weary toes cried out to be stripped of walking shoes for a zingy dip. But there was to be no dilly dallying – the mainly fallow deer, our guide and their guardian, Victoria, explained, as she introduced us to the deer lifecycle, and how they fit into the Castle’s conservation model, have a routine, and were expecting us. Or expecting lunch, at any rate.
To call the following hour a ‘tour’ is to somewhat underplay it. It’s less guided walk, more 360-degree immersive experience. As you enter into a small corner of their lush acreage and progress carefully through the assembled herd (they are there through their own free will) you feel not just an onlooker, but almost part of the herd. As you reach the fenced-off enclosure and quietly watch them eating their lunch with synchronised tail wags, mothers gently cleaning or feeding their fawns, stag having an idle ruck, and then the whole group basking in the sun for an afternoon nap, it is with a sense of acute privilege. Also: of starring in your own Bambi movie.
As if the four-legged wow factor couldn’t get any greater, on our return we encountered the enormous forms of Ben and Rocky, resident shire horses, clip-clopping their way along the drive, brasses glinting in the sunshine and carriage in tow. Also owned and cared for by Victoria and husband Paul, this characterful pair take guests to and from nearby North Bovey on prebooked trips. We signed up immediately for the next day, and it managed to eclipse even the deer.
Even with a very subtle and effective Covid screen between us and the drivers’ cab, the gentle rocking of the carriage and the proximity to them as they went about their work in time honoured serenity, wending their way along ancient country roads, responding to vocal commands as well as their harnesses, created the impression of an intoxicating bond with them. Combined with the ever-compelling commentary by our conservationist hosts, we were almost sad to get to the bucolic thatched village of North Bovey and the whitewashed (and, yes, thatched) Ring O Bells pub for a late morning pint. (In the event, unable to resist the idyllic surrounds and a mouthwateringly contemporary menu, we were back there two hours later for lunch).
The afternoon seemed to dissolve into rural idyll as we dallied at the river, said hi to the deer again, and then took a leisurely stroll around the castle grounds, stopping for a drink on the impressive terrace. It’s a location quite unlike any other, its olde-worldliness reminding of a time before and speaking to a time after the current virus; a centuries-old perspective on the world’s current predicament.
Inside, however, no one seemed to have told the staff this. The hotel’s Covid policy is on the strict side, but it is clear and consistently enforced, and therefore reassuring – in the main. However, some decisions border on bonkers. While in current climes no one can – or should – embark on a hotel stay without having huge empathy for a team that has presumably spent most of the year furloughed in fear of their jobs, one can hope that lockdown was spent thinking about, if not administering, staff training.
Beyond the slick, efficient and personable reception staff, and a tireless head of housekeeping, no one else really seemed to have a clue what was going on. When we asked where we’d find the swimming pool, an exasperated staffer told us they had no idea, on account of the fact they had “only worked here two weeks”. (In the event the superbly grand, spacious and unmissable Art Deco pool was well worth the search, and its guest rota smoothly and unobtrusively administrated).
The hotel’s renowned fine dining restaurant Great Western currently remains closed, we assumed for staffing and not protocol because what is fine dining, after all, if not socially distanced? On further investigation, it transpired it was an experimental group-wide business decision – the upshot is however that the only place is Smith’s Brasserie, a ‘19th hole’-style bistro with a wide-ranging menu of eminently forgettable culinary platitudes, beer on tap but sadly (when we were there, anyway) not good service.
On the hottest night of the year, we were seated by a French door rammed closed with a fire extinguisher while the tables outside on the grand, formal balustraded terrace in the balmy (presumably corona-free) evening air remained unset and unseated. Our request to move was greeted with consternation, but ultimately granted. It was only half an hour or so later, as the sun began to set, that light dawned. Or didn’t, since no one had thought to light the terrace or bring us a candle. The following evening, as we sat again at the table by the French doors, we focussed on the funny side rather than finding a new spot. Covid times, after all, require a little more ‘live and let live’ than even luxury travel might once have asked for.
Anyway, these won’t be the memories that linger from Bovey. And as we took our last stroll around the orchard, waved for the last time at Rocky and Ben on their hilly pasture, and finally swept back out down the drive, it was the very intoxicating essence of Bovey Castle itself that left with us. And a jaunty air, of course.
Bovey Castle i(01647 445 007) is part of the Eden Hotel Collection and a member of Pride of Britain Hotels. An overnight stay with breakfast is from £219 per room (two sharing) or from £359 in a family room (up to two adults and two children sharing). The Deer Park Tour is priced at £30 pp; Shire Horse Carriage Ride from £70 pp.
Read the full review: Bovey Castle