London escapes in under an hour: The Grove, Hertfordshire

2018 was a great year for travel for my partner and I – we were lucky enough to spend time in Thailand, Corsica and Mykonos. This year we’re going to be more time-poor, so we have set ourselves the challenge of finding the best London escapes in under an hour.

January’s choice was The Grove, a 215-room country mansion set in a 300-acre estate in Hertfordshire; my other half, who works in films, already knew of it as it is often chosen as a base for visiting actors and a prime location for industry get-togethers.

The Grove sits on some illustrious history; some of the earliest pottery made in Britain during the Bronze Age (circa 3,000BC) has been unearthed at the site by archaeologists.  The land was first surveyed in the 13th Century by one John de Brittewell and the first house was built in the 1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Some other historical highlights:  In the late 18th Century Captain Cook visited and presented one of the Earls with a sapling of the then newly-discovered Black Walnut Tree, which today towers over the Terrace; it was popular weekend getaway spot for Queen Victoria; the property’s many secrets include hidden stairways used by servants, and during WW2 it was requisitioned as a wartime HQ for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway.  But by 1996 it had fallen into a ruinous (e)state until it was rescued by a group of trustees who, with the help of architects, interior designers, landscape gardeners and golfers (it’s also home to a championship golf course), restored The Grove to its former glory.

But enough history!  It was Saturday afternoon and we were in dire need of some luxury.  The drivetime from W10 was around 40 minutes, so well within the hour limit.  Once inside the grounds, the approach to the hotel is imposing – you glide through a period drama landscape, past a lake or two and up to the house, where staff are on hand to whisk away your luggage and park your car.

Our bedroom was fab – and most importantly (for me, at any rate) the bed itself (four-poster) was perfect; not too hard, not too soft, super king size and replete with soft pillows.  The ensuite bathroom housed a free-standing bathroom and there were more than enough lotions and potions provided to keep herself happy.

The walls of the corridors on our floor were subtly lit and decorated with rich, dark drapes, giving the space a decadent feel.  The renovation successfully carries off the difficult trick of sympathetically preserving the age-old history of the house while complementing it with modern touches.

Dining was in the Colette’s Pop-Up restaurant, which will be closing in April, but then The Glasshouse, which is currently undergoing renovations, will open at the end of the month. Staff were genuinely enthused about the love and effort Chef Ross Bott has invested in the food; the proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, and I’m glad to say the proof was there not only in the puddings (and we ordered six between us, so trust me on that) but right through this inspired menu.

It was recommended that we choose four to five mains each, coming as they did in tapas-style scale.  My other half plumped mainly for fish: the turbot ‘en papillote’ (looks like filo pastry, actually wafer-thin paper – don’t eat that) with brown shrimp beurre noisette and charred leeks (£15), Grove Beer mackerel tartar with roasted beetroot (£9), seared mullet with chicory, langoustine sauce and sea herbs (£14) and grilled sardines (her favourite – “succulent, flavourful and decent-sized”) with ‘Cafe de Paris’ puree and lemon (£11).   Everything was, she declared, “beautifully presented, cooked to perfection and bursting with flavour”.  We shared a serving of the Walled Garden salad (£5), featuring vegetables of the day (the Swiss Chard was particularly fresh and tasty) picked from the titular garden on the estate.

I chose one fish dish, flaked salmon rilettes with pickled cucumber, wasabi gazpacho and dill (£8), which was piquant and almost thirst-quenchingly refreshing, before moving onto the meat selection:  200g aged ribeye with pickled mushroom and watercress (£20 for a roundly generous plateful), chicken liver parfait with pear chutney and toasted brioche (£9, an extraordinary, almost ice-cream mouthfeel), terrine of roast chicken, picked shallots and bread sauce (£7, cool, extremely more-ish, left me wondering if Chef – staff told me he prefers, disarmingly, to be referred to as Ross – has a Christmas lunch speciality up his sleeve) and a chunky serving of triple-cooked chips with béarnaise sauce (£5 – ideal accompaniment to the ribeye).

Because we couldn’t agree over desserts, we selflessly took the choice of ordering all six – and they were six of the best:  treacle tart with Earl Grey ice cream (£7.50, yes, the ice cream DID taste of Earl Grey – another Bott masterstroke – and yes, it was delicious), baked marshmallow with cranberry compote (£7.50), apple tarte tatin with salted caramel ice cream (£7.50, crisp and sweet), chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream (£7.50, delicious, trigger of first fork fight of the evening),  coconut panna cotta with fresh coconut and spiced mango (£7.50, as good as it sounded) and a great selection of cheese with home-made crackers and chutney (£10). Ooft!

After an unsurprisingly thumping good sleep, we drifted back down for breakfast, which was buffet-style and all-encompassing:  all the components you’d ever need for a full English, or full vegan, fruit or French – my highlight was a full honeycomb dripping with honey which diners were invited to scoop up with a spoon.

We requested a late checkout and took advantage of a bright morning to stroll through the grounds, looking for Instagram opportunities (there were many).  It was difficult to believe we were just half an hour or so from the capital as we wandered over bridges over streams and explored the banks of the Grand Union Canal, which borders the estate.  There is a heated indoor pool and an extremely popular spa, which we weren’t able to secure treatments in because we booked late and all appointments had been snapped up, but we were more than happy to roam around the grounds.

A real tonic, a rare treat and a fantastic first choice for our year of getting away from it all.

By Jay Williams

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