For more than 30 years I have, in my job as a hotel reviewer, led a double life. One minute I am basking in the utmost luxury as if I were born to it; the next I’m back home with a bump to Lidl and leftovers, parsimony and Primark.
I am, let’s face it, when rocking up to gorgeous hotels and checking in to splendid suites, an imposter and there’s no more obvious giveaway than my car. How many times have I swept up to some prestigious gaff in my tiny, 10-year old two-door mobile dustbin to be greeted with looks of disbelief by a phalanx of expectant staff, told that a VIP is arriving. Never has my car remained on the forecourt with the smart shiny ones; it has always been hastily removed to the car park by an obliging porter who wishes he were wearing a hazmat suit.
Not this time. Not at Middleton Lodge where I arrived at the wheel of a brand new Bentley Bentayga. While my friend Geraldine and I reclined in front seats that delivered an array of massages at the touch of a button, the car pretty much drove itself from the New Forest to North Yorkshire in five blissful hours of smooth and silent serenity. Why I was at the wheel of a Bentley is another story; suffice to say that, as per the rest of the luxury side of my life, I had to give it back. Swapping it for the mobile dustbin – now that was hard.
Our beautiful Bentley was apparently an eco-minded hybrid, which was fitting for Middleton Lodge, itself admirably and actively engaged in sustainability wherever possible. As you drive in, graceful wildflower meadows set the scene.
The changes that have taken place here since I last visited soon after it opened as a hotel in 2013 are immense, but they have happened “organically; as and when” as owner Rebecca Allison puts it, so that it feels natural and has soul. I was right when I wrote then that something new and exciting had appeared on the hotel scene and that it would make waves. Rebecca and her husband James have more than lived up to my hunch about them.
Step back in time
Middleton Lodge, close to lovely Richmond with its castle, cobbled marketplace and enchanting 18th-century theatre, is a perfect Georgian estate, with 17-bedroom main house, stables, walled garden, cricket pitch and woodland walks. In 1980 it became the somewhat dilapidated family home of Jeffrey and Prue Allison. It was their son James who decided to bring the estate’s lovely but derelict buildings back to life and in 2005, having read engineering at Oxford and building skills at Darlington tech, he set about restoring the main house and making it pay its way with weddings. Once, when a key new member of staff came to meet him for the first time, they found him abseiling down the beautiful façade, having repaired a top-floor window.
Apart from the main house, reserved for weddings, the estate now divides into four areas, each with rooms for hotel guests in stone-built accommodation, many with private terraces, some with tin hot tubs. In hues of cream and grey, they are very natural (I could do with a more colourful palette but I get the point), with oak doors and beams, plaster walls, linen curtains hung on iron poles. In a lovely orchard are three charming shepherd huts.
The main hub is the converted Coach House, with reception, tented courtyard, bar, Coach House restaurant, shop and sitting room. Across the meadow, there’s the former estate farmhouse and dairy, now sensitively enlarged and converted to provide bedrooms and a fine dining restaurant, Forge. Here too, the new Forest Spa is taking shape, with a lovely pool, sauna, whirlpool and cabin treatment rooms. My Aromatherapy Associates massage made me float on gossamer wings in a way that no Bentley massage seat could hope to emulate.
Joined for dinner by a local, my dear friend Vanessa, we ate very well, choosing dishes ‘From the Garden’ that looked as pretty as they tasted fresh and home grown, from roasted courgettes to nettle pasta. When it comes to gardens, Middleton Lodge, awash everywhere with roses and lavender, has a very special secret: its historic two-acre Walled Garden, now restored and designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. It is beyond beautiful, filled with flowers, grasses, fruit and vegetables, with four arbours and one of Stuart-Smith’s signature prairie gardens. It makes, like the main house, a romantic venue for weddings and a wonderful place for hotel guests to wander, and it sets this fine hotel apart.
How to do it: Doubles at Middleton Lodge (01325 377977, middletonlodge.co.uk) start from £270 per night, including breakfast.