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Country House break(ages)

In belated celebration of my latest ‘big’ birthday and my daughter’s slightly more recent (and much smaller!) birthday, the two of us had booked a couple of nights in a manor house hotel in deepest Kent. In fact, ‘deepest Kent’ conveniently also contains Ashford International rail station, so that we were able to rendezvous there at a civilised time on Sunday; me in the car, Daughter Jillings on the train (an unusual combo for us, considering my usual affiliation to train travel and her strong preference for Uber), and drive the final few miles together.

My arrival at Ashford was almost unbelievably timely and, with no more than 3 minutes to wait, we were re-setting the Sat-nav for our stately destination and congratulating ourselves for our successful getaway. Also chuckling that each of us had almost rushed up to greet the wrong person in the arrivals hall – ridiculous, given that we saw each other no more than three weeks ago and should have more than a vague idea what the other one looks like.

We found the hotel without difficulty, but finding our way inside proved altogether trickier. Deciding (thank goodness!) to leave our bags in the car for now, we pottered elegantly towards what we thought must be the hotel entrance in an attractive courtyard. Confusingly, however, there were a couple of wedding cars parked jauntily outside the unmarked (and closed) main door and we decided this must be a private wedding party. Better potter round to the other side and try there.

Ten minutes later, and having discovered no other obvious entrance, and pottering with increasing unease and decreasing elegance, we were back in the courtyard in a more reckless frame of mind – hunger and thirst winning out over timidity. We did, after all, have a date with Afternoon Tea which we were not prepared to compromise. Through that unmarked door – a wood-smoke-scented reception hall with comfy sofas and a couple of desks manned by smart-looking staff. Hurrah! Our mini-break could commence in earnest.

We were given a window seat in a wood-panelled room, overlooking the grounds (and one of the many footpaths along which we had recently pottered) and our order taken. I refrained from taking the champagne option, but Daughter J was on good form and gamely selected a pink version with which to launch our two days of indulgence. She is so much better at this than I am. Initially I thought the bubbles might have gone to her head rather too rapidly though, as she suddenly appeared horrified at something on the window-ledge beside me and started jabbering about headless chessmen. But this was no hallucination – indeed the decorative chess-set beside me, on closer inspection, had mainly been decapitated. How odd! This was in fact the first of several breakages we were to discover (or possibly instigate) over the course of our stay.

I could now proceed to give a blow-by-blow account of the next two days, but I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that, although we declined to avail ourselves of the spa facilities at what was apparently the original Champney’s site, we spoiled ourselves at the hotel with room-service, full English breakfasts and a slap-up restaurant dinner, and enjoyed a bracing and sunny day out visiting the beaches at Whitstable and Margate. It was weird for me to be the one doing the driving on this kind of excursion. Mr J usually does all that and this modus operandi has suited us very well over the years. It was liberating in a way though. (Except when I couldn’t find my way out of the hotel car-park – but I think Daughter J was over-critical of this even if I did almost repeat the error on the second morning. After all, I did then manage to get us all the way through Tube-stricken London to her flat with only one very minor inadvertent diversion which was most definitely the fault of the Sat-nav).

The offending sofa, after it had been mended.

It was a wonderful birthday present. Daughter J had said to me on my actual birthday that she thought what I probably wanted most was to spend time with her, which may sound odd but is in fact entirely perceptive and accurate. We had a laugh together – particularly when she fell sideways off the sofa in my room as the elderly rope-and-ball fastening gave way and the hinged arm fell to the floor. We had only just started the wine by then. It’s moments like that which are so precious: a shared ridiculous experience with a sofa, a beheaded chess-set, a disguised entrance or a confused greeting of the wrong person. We tried, in vain, to mend the sofa but it was quite clear that the original breakage was not of our doing, and after finishing the bottle we decided there really was no point practising our joinery without the correct tools. This is something else I would normally rely on Mr J to undertake. I’m sure he would have given it a go, even after – or particularly after – a shandy or two. Housekeeping managed to lash it all back together somehow whilst we were at the beach, and we chose to sit in the bar on our second evening sampling cocktails instead of negotiating soft-furnishing hazards.

A very satisfyingly empty room-service tray, in the morning sunlight

Aside from the enjoyment of time spent with my daughter, this getaway gave me added confidence in driving (at least retrospectively) and a reminder that I really do like to be away from home more often than has been possible these last two years. At a small friends’ reunion before my trip, one of our number – a recent retiree – was telling me he has been overseas several times in the past three months and was about to set off again. My own timid response that it is all a bit too difficult these days was met with “You should just get on and do it. Honestly, it’s not really that difficult and it’s absolutely worth it. Go for it!”  So, it was good to be reminded of how much I enjoy being somewhere new, and I do feel that a new era of travel bookings may be imminent. 

By the way, I noted a few negative comments on Tripadvisor for the hotel and had determined to ignore them before we arrived. It has probably seen better days, ’tis true, although the public rooms, the staff and the food/drink were properly excellent. From our perspective, we just wanted something different and luxurious. We had booked two of their best rooms and were delighted that they were located side by side with glorious views across the grounds, with tons of space, large four-poster beds, huge bathrooms which were slightly old-fashioned but clean and functional (allowing Daughter J to have a bath overlooking the grounds whilst apparently also eating Turkish Delight and half-watching a movie on her laptop – there’s decadent for you. I told you she was better at this stuff than I am. Although I successfully polished off all the free biscuits in my room for a pre-breakfast. Does that count?).

Yes, we could criticise the WiFi coverage, the fact that my TV remote didn’t work (but I could borrow Daughter’s because what self-respecting 27-year-old ever watches yer actual telly these days anyway?), the delicate sofa and the lack of a mini-bar. I might have complained about these (apart from the mini-bar which I honestly only ever raid for over-priced water in dodgy overseas locations) if I was on a work trip, or paying an astronomical price for a private trip. But compared to London prices, this was an absolute bargain.

And as an experience together it was completely priceless.

Mother and daughter shadows in Margate.

Now I’ve eulogised too much. Better get onto the websites and book the next adventure.







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