Freshly brewed tea and scones served with clotted cream await guests beside the fire in the library at Stapleford Park, a stately country house outside London. I will forever judge “tea” by this experience, I realize, then sink deeper into my leather chair and ponder what the weekend will hold. Tennis? Golf? Archery? Or perhaps just relaxing in the comfortable elegance of the historic estate, set on 4,500 private acres near Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire, and overlooking woodlands and a tranquil lake.
My room, called “Campion Bell,” contrasts that tranquility with its cheeriness – the bright pink walls are the handiwork of local artist Jenny Bell. In fact, each of the 51 guest rooms has been individually conceived by a different designer – the Tumbull and Asser room, for instance, has walls clad in shirt material as a tribute to the premier English shirtmakers.
But it’s hard to stay indoors with so much to explore. I soon find myself at the Stapleford School of Falconry, watching the most aristocratic field sport in the world. Little had I ever dreamed that I would actually get to handle one of these majestic birds of prey. But with some coaching – and nudging – from my personal falconer, I do: Chip, a large lanner falcon, flies overhead, alights on my gloved hand, then rises once more to fly to the roof.Instead of fear, I feel exhilaration.
As I stroll through the home’s magical walled gardens later, my nerves calm and I remember a passage from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, where the main character stumbles upon a mysterious garden. “She could see the tops of the trees above the wall, and when she stood still, she saw a bird with a bright red breast sitting on the topmost branch of one of them, and suddenly he burst into his winter song – almost as if he had caught sight of her and was calling to her.” If there is a modern-day equivalent of enchantment, it can be found here on these peaceful grounds.
Stapleford Park Country House Hotel, Spa, Golf & Sporting Estate
Location: One hour by train or two by car from London, it’s near Leicester, England’s large covered market, plus antique shops and country pubs.
Pampering: You’ll feel like an indulged houseguest in the Edwardian era, only with 21st-century conveniences like the adjoining Carnegie Clarins Spa.
Weather: Typical Britain. Temperatures stay in the 50s and 60s F (10-20 C), and it can be rainy or damp.
Gear: Comfortable sweaters and casual wear for day. Casual elegance for dinner. That means jacket and/or tie for men.
Money: Room rates, with breakfast, start at £210 (US $296). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £585 (US $825) per couple for a two-night weekend.