If in doubt, head south-west
South west UK road trip is not something I imagined I’d type into Google when it came to planning a holiday. Think of the freedom and thrills of the open road and what springs to mind is Route 66 in the U.S, or Bolivia’s Death Road, or Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. It isn’t the M4, via M25, but still, here we are.
Thanks to an unprecedented heatwave, the UK in 2018 was dubbed a ‘staycation nation’, with more than half of us choosing to holiday on home turf. With childhood memories of draughty caravans and taking shelter from the rain beneath the nearest pier or wind-breaker, I’m keen to see if I can combine good old-fashioned nostalgia with my now slightly more refined adult tastes (my camping days are officially over). And so we’re off on a south west UK road trip.
Typically, the Lake District or the Cotswolds are my go-to for a rural mini-break – walking, pubs, cottages, bliss – but I’m determined to get the best of all worlds and take in as much of this beautiful corner of the country as one can in five nights. So my husband and I pack up the car, strap in our three-year-old, and hit the road with only one ill-advised stop at Chieveley services (limp ham sandwich, anyone?), before arriving on the outskirts of Bath.
The first rule of the south west UK road trip is much the same as for any road trip – roughly pre-plan your route in advance and book ahead if you have your eye on a particular hotel, but it also pays to follow your nose and see what cute B&Bs or quirky accommodation you might stumble across en route. Specifically, we’re going in search of boutique lodgings, gourmet food and Great British beaches. All whilst simultaneously avoiding traffic jams and keeping the kid entertained. Wish us luck.
Where to stay in Bath
First stop: Wiltshire’s Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa, in Colerne, Chippenham (rooms start from £295 per night), just 20 minutes drive from the historic city of Bath. Sitting majestically at the end of a mile-long, driveway, lined with four hundred lime and beech trees planted in 1927, is the eighteenth century main house. The three-year-old called it when he said ‘Wow, look at that castle!’ Set in 500 acres of listed parkland and boasting an equestrian centre, luxury spa (all polished wood, marble and glass) and the most beautiful English country rose gardens to get lost in, it does feel as though we fell down a rabbit hole and ended up in some kind of wonderland.
For dinner, if you’re after an unforgettable foodie experience, executive chef Hywel Jones has held a Michelin star at the on-site restaurant Hywel Jones by Lucknam Park. Frankly, it looked far too elegant for us to tie a crisp white napkin around my son’s neck while he asked for ‘tomato pasta’ but I almost feel I could recommend it on smell alone. Instead, we dined in the more informal Brasserie where the simple, seasonal dishes are all locally-sourced and ridiculously tasty. The fillet of Stokes Marsh Farm Beef (£32) was insanely tender and tasty, while the Cornish day boat fish (on our visit, cod) was fresh and firm, served with crushed peas and tartare sauce (priced daily). I hear the tomato pasta was good too.
The suites are in keeping with a country manor hotel – heavy baroque curtains, four-poster beds and free-standing bath tubs. The place has an air of old English formality about it that makes it feel like a treat just to wander the corridors and gardens. For the grown-ups, the spa is well worth a visit – after the long drive I treat myself to a 90-minute ESPA Mindful Massage (£157), which was a surprising combination of guided visualisation, breathing techniques and full-body massage, concentrating on the shoulders and feet. I have no idea how it works – there was some mention of warm rose quartz crystals – but it definitely works.
For kids, there’s an outdoor playground and a hideout stacked with train sets, dressing-up boxes, a mini library, shop and Post Office that could keep them occupied for hours. This place doesn’t flaunt itself as a ‘family spa’ because on the surface it feels much more elegant and refined than that, but they do cleverly and quietly make sure the whims of all family members are catered to. It’s a real hidden gem for those of us who don’t want to compromise on a little slice of luxury even with small people in tow.
‘We sit on the rocks eating vinegar-soaked chips straight from the paper’
But all good things must come to an end and before we know it we’re loaded back into the car and heading south towards Devon. Next stop: the seaside. Do not head to this part of the world without stopping off to walk the South West Coastal Path from Beer to Branscombe for unspoilt views of the Jurassic Coast, and just half an hour along the coast from West Bay, where Broadchurch was filmed. We don’t have time (or sturdy enough boots) to take in this gorgeous spot this time around, so we go old-school with a trip to the pebble beach of Sidmouth. The salty air and slightly faded round the edges seafront cafes and B&Bs bring that happy dose of nostalgia, while the russet clay-edged cliffs are as dramatic as they are beautiful. We hit the sunshine jackpot and sit on the rocks eating chips sodden with vinegar straight from the paper. Bliss.
If it’s chocolate box west-country that you’re after, take a road trip stop-off in Laycock – the picturesque village where they filmed scenes from Harry Potter (Laycock Abbey doubled up as some of the Hogwarts interiors) and 1995’s Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. We stop for tea and scones (naturally) at the National Trust Stables Cafe before wandering around and marvelling at the Sylvanian Families-like proportions of the local bakery, school and churchyard.
A foodie find in Devon
Now, if you’re familiar with The Pig hotel chain, you’ll know exactly why I wanted to make sure we stopped off in at least one Pig hotel while we’re in this neck of the woods, so we book in to The Pig at Combe, Devon. Plot all the Pig hotels on a map and you’ll see they were designed with townies like me in mind, as all are within a motorway hop from London. There are Pigs in the New Forest, near Bath, in Dorset, Somerset and Southampton, as well as this one in Devon, and two more scheduled for opening in Sussex and Kent in 2019 (watch this space) and they have all bottled that magical formula of informal rustic décor, garden-to-plate dining (unfussy but exceptional) and ridiculously Instagrammable interiors. In short, The Pig is my happy place.
The welcome, as always, is warm from the minute you push open the heavy wooden double doors. Rows of (admittedly spotless) Hunter wellies line the hallway, a roaring fire has been lit in the cocktail bar even though it’s only September (tip: The Pig is for life, not just for Christmas, but autumn and winter are when this place really comes into its own for maximum hygge).
The hotel itself is in an Elizabethan manor atop the lush, rolling Devonshire hills and framed by enormous cedar trees. The floors are reclaimed wood and framed taxidermy lines the walls alongside heavy, beautiful antique furniture. The Pig chain was founded by hospitality supremo and one of the UK’s most celebrated hoteliers, Robin Hutson (who also founded the Hotel du Vin chain and was a board member for Soho House Group) who, along with his interior designer wife Judy – who clearly has an exceptional eye and has beautifully combined the new with the old. They source their antiques in rural France and nearby Honiton.
Where to eat in Devon
Nothing is off-kilter style-wise. It’s no wonder that The Pig has played host to Kate Moss, Alexa Chung, Guy Ritchie et al. Now though, they’re hosting my husband and I with our tiny tearaway – who they charmingly serve a sorbet dessert complete with a biscuit emblazoned with his name. Day made. For us, it’s the signature ham hock eggs to start (it is imperative that you try them at any Pig) followed by Devonshire Partridge ravioli in a red wine sauce for me (£9) and Buckhouse Farm Lamb with salt baked celeriac (£18.50), that the sommelier pairs with one of the most delicious (and lightest) Malbecs I’ve tasted. The food is exceptionally good value.
The best is still to come though because tonight we’re bedding down in The Horsebox (£290 per night), a converted stable complete with his n hers sinks, a freestanding bath and miniature SMEG fridge. It’s a real treat and a wonderful alternative to your average hotel room. As always, the Pig is not an easy place to wave goodbye to.
From one pig to another, we head east towards Romsey in Hampshire and to Paulton’s Family Theme Park – home of Peppa Pig World (tickets start from £29.25 when booked in advance online). Disclaimer: theme parks are not my idea of relaxation but alas, they are part of the parenting deal and I am as delighted as I am surprised to discover that this place is an utter joy. It’s clean, and calm (note: we went outside of school holidays which I cannot recommend enough), and genuinely more fun than you can shake a bright pink piglet at. If Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig are a much underrated comedy double-act (which, for what it’s worth, I think they are) then this technicolour adventure land on the edge of the New Forest is similarly worth more than a wry smile. It has over 70 rides and attractions (including Lost Kingdom dinosaur park and the mini zoo in Little Africa, as well as Peppa Pig World), but because it is vastly spread out and broken up with pretty gardens, picnic areas and a zoo, it feels less frenetic and so much more charming than your average theme park. We eat hot dogs, ride in Grandpa Pig’s boat, stop by Grampy Rabbit’s Sailing Club, and generally live our best life until the park closes. Who knew?
The New Forest’s best bath? Probably
Our next bed for the night is something of a unique discovery deep in the heart of the New Forest. Lime Wood Hotel and Spa, set in a Regency Era country estate in Hampshire, surrounded by fields has been one of the most elegant country house hotels in the UK since it opened in 2009 (and London folk, it’s only an hour and half away). But the idea of this trip is to try something new and, last spring, Lime Wood opened their very first Lake Cabin (prices start at£1,150 per night), set away from the main hotel, sitting in stilts over the water with it’s own private veranda overlooking the lake, it is a hideaway like no other. A wood and glass cube, it almost disappears between the trees but, once inside, it has the feel of an eighteenth century hunting lodge. Bottle green velvet sofas, wood paneled cupboards, graphic floor tiles, gold bathroom fixtures and bamboo chandeliers, it is a remarkably peaceful (and stylish) place to wake up in. And the best bit? A 6ft free-standing tin bath out on the deck, overlooking the lake for an uninterrupted al fresco dip. There are gimmicks, and then there are classy touches that take a place from unique to ridiculously special. That’s how it feels to spend the night in the Lake Cabin.
We couldn’t leave Lime Wood without checking out the restaurant, Hartnett, Holder and Co (Angela Hartnett and Lime Wood’s Luke Holder – there’s also a cookery school for aspiring Masterchefs). Our beach picnic of soggy chips a distant memory and perhaps getting carried away with our new ludicrously luxe surroundings, my husband and I order the tasting menu with paired wines because we’re feeling fancy. Unlike some tasting menus that can feel like an assault on the senses and leave you wide awake with indigestion until the early hours, this was a remarkable gourmet feat. The five courses (£95 per person, with paired wines – special mention to head sommelier Chris whose passion for wine could surly be surpassed by none) ranged from marinated burrata with fennel, to salt baked bream with truffle clams, and venison with celeriac and pickled walnuts. It was an exquisite meal. What a special place.
‘We make sandcastles and look across to the Isle of Wight’
But it’s time to come to get back in the car, and back down to earth – fine dining and fancy formality is great, but the British seaside is calling and so for our last night, we make a beeline for the traditional, sleepy coastal village of Milford-On-Sea. The sun is out, as is the tide, so we head for the beach which has views all the way across to the Isle of Wight. We make sandcastles and eat ice cream and then the heavens open – because its the UK in September – so we sprint to the nearest café to baton down the hatches with ham, egg, chips and a mug of builder’s tea. Proving that joy doesn’t always come in the shape of a Michelin star.
Come nightfall, we check in to Grade II listed The Beach House (part of the Hall and Woodhouse family). Built in 1897 for Alexander Siemens, the man who created the world’s first public electricity supply, and was formerly known as Westover Hall, it is now a charming B&B that has hearteningly retained much of its original wood-pannelled walls, parquet flooring and art deco windows with an epic sea-view. There’s something to be said for taking the quiet path and during a stroll along the sea wall we see hardly any other people. It’s like having the coastline to yourself. We’re staying in the nautical-themed Lancelot room (£160-£175 per night B&B depending on the season), its all seashells and beach hut-pastel walls and it has a wonderfully homely vibe. ‘I could quite happily retire here,’ I tell my husband between mouthfuls of Badger Beer Battered Fish and Chips (£13.25). And I mean it.
Next stop: home. And as road trips go, this has been a memorable one. It turns out you can in fact combine rustic charm with epic fabulousness if you do your research. I had no idea that the foodie scene cornered originally by Rick Stein in Cornwall had spread to the surrounding areas, quietly serving up a feast on their own terms, turning Devon, Dorset and Hampshire into gourmet destinations in their own rights. During our road trip, I discovered a route where ‘family-friendly’ doesn’t have to mean cutting corners and sacrificing that little taste of luxury. It meant not having to choose between a spa break, a romantic getaway, a beach trip or a country ramble because you can have the lot. And still throw in a family of cartoon pigs to keep everyone happy. It may not be Route 66 but, for me, the south west has it all, practically on your doorstep.