Country-house hotel breaks are always expensive. Therefore, addressing the question of what one's country-house weekend is for - romance? relaxation? haute cuisine? mindless drinking? sex or other exercise? - is of key importance prior to booking. For while you would imagine most of these establishments would offer the same sort of thing: lovely quiet room in lovely historic house in loveIy landscaped park with high-class food and wine, horrific variants can be poised to wreck one's expensive fantasy.
I'm thinking of a particular weekend at Nidd Hall near Harrogate here, where it transpired that the place was entirely taken over by a horrible wedding at which we were the only non-guests, and the food was so uninspiring that my dining companion sent a main course back complaining that it tasted "like something that's come out of the sink".
The small owner-run establishment is also one to watch out for. "Mavis and Godfrey Alderbury have been welcoming guests to their elegant home for 15 years" is brochurese for a weekend where the lines between formality and informality are agonisingly unclear, where you risk being bored beyond endurance by Godfrey every time you walk past the bar, terrified it will get back to Mavis that you left a condom under the bed, and intimidated by other guests who seem to be getting on much better with Godfrey and Mavis than you are.
The bedroom is of vital importance, even if - in fact, especially if - you hate your companion, which is why one must remember that old country-house adage: beware of the annexe. At Lords of the Manor in Gloucestershire, our pounds 233 night was centred on a modern annexe room with a view of a road, the kitchen and a Brookside-style courtyard. We awoke to the sound of low-flying jets, the clatter of breakfast dishes, the beep of a reversing lorry and the excitable cries of what my companion decided was probably the Annual General Meeting of the Bouncy Castle Association.
No matter how alluring the picture of the Princesses Fergiana, Beatrice and Eugenie Suite is in the brochure, it is vital to ask if all the rooms are in the main house, what are the different views and sizes on offer, and how many of them adjoin motorways. Some hotels, if you ask nicely, will upgrade you to the next category, or even to a suite, if the hotel isn't full - which is one very good reason for mini-breaking midweek, or in the grungiest months of the winter.
When choosing the hotel itself, it's worth remembering that price doesn't always signify the best and, if you've decided to seriously shell out, it's worth doing some cross-referencing: a top haunt should have at least a three for cooking in the Good Food Guide combined with a Michelin star and Red House symbol. Scour the brochure for worrying signs, like over- emphasis on the conference facilities, carvery or trouser presses. Check there are no Child Support Agency conferences going on. Check on the number of rooms and facilities - Chewton Glen in Hampshire has all the accoutrements, but do you want a 40-room establishment with leisure facilities so extensive as to verge on the health farm? Then again, is 15 rooms in the secluded Hambleton Hall just too intimate for words if you don't want to be noticed? Gidleigh Park is famed for its food, but is Devon too far and how much will you miss a pool in the summer? Gravetye Manor in East Grinstead is famously gorgeous and Elizabethan - but currently has no Michelin star, and how much do you want somewhere nearby other than Crawley to visit?
After a frenzy of research, we decided that Lucknam Park, a late-Georgian mansion near Bath, set in 500 acres of grounds, represented Cross-Referencing Heaven: Michelin star and a four-peaked Red House symbol, a three-star rating in the Good Food Guide and just off the M4, less than two hours from London and 15 minutes from Bath. It's also surrounded by ancient, pretty villages, has an indoor pool and gym, beauty salon, horses, snooker and croquet. There was a scare when we discovered that Lucknam Park is the venue for John Birt's BBC Management Encounter Group Mini-breaks, coughed up for by the licence payer. Visions of foam-strewn John Birt popping up in the Jacuzzi, or emerging radiant from a Clarins facial, or finding Alan Yentob and Marmaduke Hussey enacting a psychodrama in the swimming pool, were quashed by the news that Lucknam doesn't take conferences or weddings at weekends.
The excitement of a Friday night arrival was whipped up to a frenzy as the road skirted the edge of the estate following a series of green signs promising the ever more imminent appearance of the entrance to Lucknam Park. The approach is a spectacular mile-long, tree-lined drive which, alas, rather loses its appeal in pitch blackness. An elegant Palladian mansion, Lucknam sits in gracious, if flat, wooded grounds. Immediately behind the house is an attractive courtyard - with the former stables and outbuildings converted into extra rooms and leisure facilities.
The hotel had been forewarned of our late arrival at 9.45pm - 45 minutes after official last orders for dinner, but there was no air of rush or disapproval. The staff were outside to greet and fetch bags before we'd got out of the car and we were shown straight to our "room" - actually one of their Park Suites which was really sumptuous and cosy - almost like having your own country cottage. There was a separate sitting room with French windows opening onto the croquet lawn, and comfy sofas and armchairs. Everything was top notch: fine sheets, new furnishings, fresh flowers, an extremely comfortable, well-designed bathroom complete with fluffy towels and bathrobes and, best of all, a full range of new magazines. And, of course, as is traditional in the smarter hotel, it was completely impossible to work out how to turn all the lights off.
I had a good look round the other rooms for future reference. Standard rooms really are quite small, so it's worth paying the extra for a deluxe if you can. "Cottages" are courtyard rooms approached from the outside. Our favourite deluxes were "Periwinkle" - warm and cosy - and "Geranium" - with a good view and a four-poster. The nicest standard, I thought, was "Rose" - pretty with a double aspect, but still very small.
Almost always in country-house dining rooms there is that ghastly silence filled only by the chink ... chink ... chink of cutlery and embarrassed, low voices. The dining room here, however, despite being the house's former ballroom and extremely grand, felt cheerful and relaxed. There are huge windows giving onto the park, a soft green and gold colour scheme, crisp, white linen and sparkling glassware. On Friday night, the room was full which certainly helped. Apparently, a large proportion of the clientele are weekenders from London, and there were lots of thirtysomething couples and foursomes who seemed entirely relaxed and high-spirited. The room's acoustics are good and helped by thick carpets and curtains so, even at lunchtimes when the dining room was totally empty, it was possible to talk in a normal voice without feeling weird. The public rooms too - entrance hall, library and drawing room - though grand and very elegantly furnished, felt pretty relaxed. The one thing I would have got rid of, though, was the loudly ticking clocks. There is nothing quite like them to make you feel that you are in an Ibsen play.
Both lunch and dinner in the dining room are set menu (pounds 22 for lunch, pounds 44 for dinner) though with plenty of choice, they are basically the same every day. The wine list was as good as you'd expect but really steep. Not one white burgundy was under pounds 20, in fact nothing really tempting under pounds 20, and to drink something to match the setting you'd need to look above pounds 30 which seemed a little bit off to me.
Meals are exotic: frilled with canapes, amuse-geules and petits fours, with much emphasis on artistry and sculpture, curls of fish, twirls of thin, crisped vegetables, dainty arrangements of meat slices sitting on delicate jus reductions, sauteed foie gras with peach and Sauternes, millefeuille of scallops with tomato confit and Thai oil dressing, breast of duckling with galette of foie gras. All extremely high-class, but not, at the same time, my favourite sort of high-class. Sometimes the simplest things - perfect texture, absolute deliciousness or surprisingness of flavour - seemed sacrificed to artifice. I asked, for example, for char-grilled fillet of tuna to be charred on the outside and pink and melting in the middle. In fact, the pink and melting bit was very small indeed and the rest a bit too uniformly pale pink, which seemed a shame with such tuna. Our favourite meal was the simplest: Sunday lunch - warm home-made bread rolls with beurre d'Echire, a superb vegetable soup, perfect slices of beef with Yorkshire pudding which could hold its head up high in Batley. Bread-and-butter pudding - though a posh version - was cold, light, yet creamy with a good vanilla sauce, and faultless
Most guests, it emerged, take a light lunch around the pool where up- market sandwiches are offered alongside more serious food from the main- house kitchen (beware of the unconscionable wait for these). The pool area gives the impression of a tropical holiday haunt, with guests eating lunch on loungers round the pool, the sun streaming in from the conservatory windows. The pool, though not huge, is big enough for length swimming and there's a generous-sized Jacuzzi, steam bath and saunas. (Beware, too, of emerging from the pool into the wrong sex's changing room by mistake. It's all hideously unclear.)
Unless one is in the first throes of passion, it's nice to have a variety of activities available, and the beauty salon offers the usual treatments at normal Clarin's prices, so women can catch up on farming procedures; harvesting, fertilising, cleaning, polishing and so on, without having to travel.
As a journalist, one tends from time to time to happen upon a horse. After a series of humiliating recent incidents in which the horses refused to move at all, while I jumped up and down on them like Mandy Rice Davies, I decided a lesson might be appropriate (if not, at pounds 50, cheap). Lucknam Park has an equestrian centre with an excellent array of horses from Shetland ponies to a famous ex-racehorse called Houdini. For my beginner's lesson, I went round and round in a circle in the rain lying back flat against the horse like Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native, turning right round on top of the horse without falling off, and getting the horse not only to stop but to start. It was a very good lesson. It was also, two days later, not possible to walk.
The best thing about Lucknam Park is the atmosphere which is inseparable from the service. This is very firmly a hotel - the owners live in Greece - not a control freak's country home. OK, the reception desk is a side table, but there's an office behind and a member of staff is out at the first approach of your footsteps. There's a charming young man stationed in the hall so you're never wandering around quavering "Hello?". The attitude is pitched exactly right - staff are neither patronising, nor obsequious, just friendly and professional. The guest is in charge.
The final pitfall with such breaks, however, is the last approach to the side table masquerading as reception desk, the final admission that you are not actually an honoured guest of the lord of the manor, but a customer with a credit card. It is a moment to be prepared for prior to leaving home - taking into account the full implications of drinks, phone calls, fine wines, horses, cups of tea and service. We were fortunate enough to be guests at Lucknam Hall but, nevertheless, the bill for extras alone came to pounds 212 with a space for gratuity left blank. Our total bill for the weekend in a deluxe room would have come to just over pounds 800 plus service, which, of course, would simply mean one needed another mini-break to recover, darlings.
! Lucknam Park, Colerne, Wiltshire SN1F 8A2 (01225 742777)