Words by James Thompson
The white pony sitting in the middle of the road had the right idea. Unhurried, unflustered, refusing to move for any of the honking cars that were quickly backing up behind him. Though why should he? This little corner of the New Forest belongs to him, and things move at a decidedly different pace around here.
So, we carefully inched around our supine new friend and turned up the long driveway to the Burley Manor Hotel, where we firmly intended to follow his example and do as little as possible for the next 24 hours.
The early signs suggested we were in the right place. Inside this impressive old manor house, the atmosphere was stately and serene with guests secluding themselves in stylish, high-backed chairs to take tea, chatter discretely or immerse themselves in a paperback.
Those brave enough to take on the glare of the fierce mid-afternoon sun were on the terrace or in the garden area, both of which have panoramic views of the red deer sanctuary directly opposite the hotel. No deer yet, but on a hot day like this, any sensible stag or doe would be by the pool. We resolved to dump our bags and find out.
The building, which sits on the site of a former hunting lodge of William the Conqueror, has recently been through a major restoration. Our own lodgings were in a new annex, past the spa and near to the tastefully converted wedding barn at the back of the property.
Fortunately, no wedding tonight but a few eager aunties and uncles had decided to get a head start on festivities and arrive a day early. Some had also brought their dogs. In fact, the hotel prides itself on catering for canines and my impression was that, in this haven of tranquility, panting pets are actually more welcome than noisy children.
Our sizeable ‘garden’ room didn’t disappoint. Though some eccentric furnishings made an odd combination with the restrained antique furniture. With a Hypnos king-sized bed, a very stealable selection of Temple Spa toiletries and a lovely selection of refreshments including some delicious home-baked cookies (also available in gluten-free we were helpfully informed); the room is everything you’d expect in this price range.
The highlight though is the small private terrace these rooms have at the back, only a few steps from the stylish outdoor pool we couldn’t wait to get in.
In this beautiful countryside, walking, cycling, pony-trekking and – if you must – golf, are all available near to the hotel. But, after a sweltering drive from London, the temperate water and comfortable, cushioned loungers of the enclosed pool area were far more appealing. There were no deer to be seen, and no children. Though there was a little bell to ring for ‘refreshments’. Every home should have one.
Should you decide to stretch your legs, a short saunter into Burley offers the choice of three pubs and many more occult-themed gift shops – the village has a history of witchcraft apparently. We chose The Queen’s Head for a pre-dinner drink because of its rustic charm and notoriety for smugglers and highwaymen. Apparently, a hidden cellar was recently discovered beneath the floor of the bar, full of pistols and stolen booty. These days it’s full of the lovely local ales from the Ringwood brewery a couple of miles away.
The evening menu back at the hotel reflected the Mediterranean weather, with a range of tapas plates on offer as well as countryside staples. The cooking claims to be inspired by the bold flavours of the Spain, Greece, Turkey and Italy, Lebanon and Morocco, and with so many influences it could have been a mess.
Thankfully it works wonderfully. The menu, which is largely cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, is interesting and original, with a strong emphasis on seasonal and locally-sourced ingredients. The suppliers are all proudly listed on the menu, from the Newhaven fish to the Cobley Wood sausages that made up part of the gut-busting breakfast the next morning.
Inspired by the slow-food movement, you can taste the care and attention that have been lavished upon every dish. The service was attentive and considerate of dietary needs, the wine list eclectic and well thought out. Even better was the view.
Somewhere through our wood-roasted duck breast and Lebanese monkfish, a sputtering tractor engine led a herd of slow, shy, sun-dappled deer to their evening meal. Life was good in the deer sanctuary, and pretty special in the human one next door.
Stays at Burley Manor start from £139 per room per night on a B&B basis