“We certainly won’t be going back to the way we were,” said Fjona Hill, one of the Hill family, who own and run the Hampton Manor.
Over the first lockdown, Hampton Manor imaginatively reinvented itself as the Foodie Estate and started offering two-night gourmet breaks (Tuesday to Thursday or Friday to Sunday), ensuring that the country house escape was back with gusto.
Social distancing isn’t too much of a problem when you’ve got 45 acres and a 26-room mansion in the leafy glades of Hampton-in-Arden. Although the postal address is Solihull, Birmingham this is Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, a magical and mystical woodland, where people flee from weary urban life to recover and renew themselves.
“We realised that we ought to make more use of our grounds, show guests the estate too,” explains Frazer Hill. At Hampton Manor it seems that not too much has changed over the last four centuries.
Remarkably, even with appropriate distancing, the Hills have created a highly social experience. Guests chat over pre-prandial drinks and board games in The Parlour, bond as they toast marshmallows over the fire pit, compare notes as they taste wines and whiskies, and laugh as they knead dough on the bread-making course.
Robert Peel, once Britain’s Prime Minister, bought the plot of land. Soon afterwards he fell from his horse and died, and it was his son, Frederick, who worked with architects in the 1850s to design what could be seen as a rather serious Neo-Gothic pile. Fjona, who also runs an interior design business, has eased the mood with light designer wallpapers and ample contemporary lighting.
Our spacious room, Lord Mowbray, gives a nod to one of the estate’s former owners and tranquilly looks out over lawns and woodlands. Brer Rabbit wallpaper, by William Morris, recalls the arts and crafts movement of the mansion’s early decades, yet an outsized geometric headboard introduces a modern ambience.
History echoes through the centuries. Morris and his contemporaries railed against industrialisation and characterless mass production, now the Hills champion slower, artisan living. How symbolic is it that there is a hand grinder in every room, for guests to lovingly grind their coffee beans? And there are hand-made cookies to go with the tea and coffee too.
Every room is equipped with Fjona’s illustrated map of the grounds and beyond for country walks and there is also the ‘Journal’, a quarterly newspaper telling the story of the ethos and people of Hampton Manor.
Food is taken seriously at Hampton Manor, every now and then Michel Roux drops by to run a masterclass, but the ‘house rules’ stress informality and relaxation. Make yourself right at home, ditch the stiff upper lip, don’t act your age. There is a dress code too: wear what makes you happy. This is a place to switch off your phone and pretend that the 21st century no longer exists.
On the first night guests dine in the greenhouse, and no, that is not a misprint. Mid-pandemic the Hills decided to convert the building housing the old furnace, for heating the greenhouse, into a kitchen. With hanging lights and a central row of tomato plants this greenhouse restaurant, simply named Smoke, is enchantingly magical. Though gardener Steve was slightly disgruntled as he already had 60 plants ready for planting in the greenhouse.
Chef Rob Palmer creates a three-course set menu for Smoke, though there are also vegan, fish and chicken options available. Our carnivorous feast began with a carrot soup decorated with carrot top pesto – it’s part of the Hills’ ethos that nothing is wasted. Then it was neck of lamb, Dijon potatoes and baked cabbage, followed by dessert, which had a touch of Heston Blumenthal out-of-the-box thinking with artichoke ice cream tempering the heat of a ginger sponge.
On the second evening, guests stay in the main house for a five-course tasting menu at the Michelin starred Peel’s restaurant with the option of a paired wine flight too. It is a menu that celebrates the Hills’ desire for local authentic sourcing, though in land-locked Hampton-in-Arden, the superlative lobster has to travel a little further. Palmer makes the most of humble ingredients, such as beetroot with goats’ cheese and potato raised to new heights by an XO sauce. At the heart of the menu, guests choose between wild duck and a regal partnership of turbot and champagne.
Most guests simply park their cars for the weekend and enjoy the estate, though if you plan to explore Shakespeare country, Warwick Castle or perhaps the local countryside, there are two Lexus cars available for guests to borrow.
After dinner at Smoke and back in the main house, Frazer, who is something of a whisky guru, gets out his collection of whiskies and gives guests a tour of the whisky world. James Hill, a committed advocate for regenerative farming, runs cider or wine-tasting sessions dependent upon the season, and guests can take a bread course with local baker, Dom. Everyone bakes a loaf and departs with their own sourdough starter.
In a nutshell
An inclusive and welcoming house party for serious foodies with an eco-conscience. Even the house gin, Wasted, is distilled from coffee bean husks. Keep an eye on the website as the Hills devise yet more innovative ways to make the most of the estate.
Two-day packages, including breakfasts and dinners, can be booked from £365 per person. Hampton Manor is a mere 10 minutes’ drive from the M42.
Address: Shadowbrook Lane, Hampton in Arden, Solihull, B92 0EN
Phone: 01675 446080