The front door opens straight into the bar and here we were welcomed like long-awaited friends by people as unknown to us as we were to them. A painter from the local village of Dittisham told us his life stories in two minutes; an elderly chap full of whisky and good cheer was, we learned in the next minute, a local inventor; and then there was the couple who market disposable nappies telling us that this is the only hotel they dare bring their lively young children to stay.
Sociability is what Fingal's is about and, as the owner, Richard Johnson, is the first to say, it's not the place for those in search of privacy deux. True, the bedrooms are blissfully peaceful with all the sounds you expect to be able to hear in the heart of the country: birds chortling, cows mooing, the murmur of a river running alongside. But the accent is definitely on conviviality. Within minutes of being taken to our room - lots of stripped wood, tasteful furnishings, a sizeable en-suite bathroom, and view of the gardens - we were invited downstairs to join the dinner party.
Everyone (with the exception of the occasional horrified refusenik who is granted solitude in another room) sits for dinner around a vast round table in the centre of the dining room. The idea evolved from a smaller version of the round table which Richard had at the restaurant he ran in Fulham, west London, before decamping to Devon. He found it became a focal point and those around it seemed to have the most fun. At Fingal's it makes even more sense because Richard's aim is to create the feel of a country-house weekend with friends. "People are out and about in the countryside all day, perhaps surfing and sailing on the river or in the sea," he explains. "Then they come back to a sociable meal. It means the day ends with an event.
"There's nothing like sharing food and drink to break the ice and get people talking - really talking - to each other. Guests who, when they arrive, are too shy to go into the sitting room if anyone else is there get involved in passionate conversation when they find themselves next to strangers around the table, and suddenly they are completely at home."
It is not quite so haphazard as this might seem. Richard asks a few pertinent questions as he takes bookings and puts considerable thought into who he will seat next to whom. Occasionally it backfires, as on the evening when he had two people side by side with very different views on South Africa. But to balance such incidents are evenings which end with great bonhomie, or with lasting friendships being forged.
It was thanks to Richard's grand design that I found myself sitting between agony aunt Clare Rayner and her artist husband, Des, who were effusive in their friendliness. My partner was flanked by a glamorous film-making duo from Hampstead. Further round, but joining in the conversation with gusto, was an estate agent from the shires, while a single woman, who declined to say what she did, brought some deliciously razor-edged wit to the conversation. Children, who had eaten earlier, darted in and out from another room equipped with video and the kind of films you feel relaxed about them watching, or from the pool table.
And all this as we ate our way through a menu that began with parsley souffl or smoked salmon, asparagus and Russian caviar. Next came beef en croute or duck in orange sauce. And finally puddings which had us all resolving to mortify the flesh next day: tiramisu, praline chocolate cake or guava sorbet. For those with space left there was a plate of varied British and French cheeses.
The food is mostly prepared by Richard from ingredients which come in fresh every day and much of it is local produce. There are always turbot and scallops, he says, and whatever else the fishermen catch, as well as local wild salmon and cheeses. Richard prides himself on creating an all-in menu (excluding drinks) for £25 per head, which would cost twice in London, and feels faintly disappointed if people choose to eat at one of the other nearby pubs or restaurants. His wines are half New World, half European and don't go beyond the £10-£14 bracket.
Waking next morning to a bright high sun and a mild breeze was reason enough to plan a long walk across the undulatating countryside, through tiny villages like East Cornworthy where, in true picture postcard-style, roses cascade over doorways and weathered grey stone churches sit in the middle of fields of grazing sheep and horses. We followed the River Dart from which gentle hills rose into the hazy beam of the sun, looking air- brushed against the sky. We took a pile of the maps Richard keeps ready for visitors, a pair of wellington boots lent by his partner, Sheila, who had guffawed at the sight of the shoes I planned to walk in, and the Fingal's dog Tess who acts as a guide.
Arriving back weary at the end of the day we made for the swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna complex to give the bodies a re-charge before braving the round table again.
On Sunday the weather had changed to a light, misty rain against an opal- grey sky. We headed for the nearest beach, about 15 minutes away, and strode for two hours along pale, soft sand backed by dunes. It is a favourite spot for all kinds of water activities - so much so that Richard has been known to disappear early on a particularly lovely day, leaving a note for guests pinned to the fridge door: "Gone sailing - help yourself to breakfast."
Such informality doesn't suit everyone, but it suits so many that in summer you usually need to book fairly well in advance. For my money - the weekend cost under £300 for the two of us - it's the informality that makes the place special. Guests help themselves to drinks at the bar, keeping their own tab, and there is always a bowl of fruit to pick from. The sitting room with its deep sofas, open fire and piles of newspapers and magazines, is a lovely place to sit and chat, have afternoon tea and put your feet up. Richard and Sheila make you feel like an old friend rather than a paying guest but somehow they manage not to make it seem an affront when the bill is presented.
! Fingal's, Old Coombe Manor, Dittisham, near Dartmouth, Devon (01803 722398); double rooms £70-£95 b&b; dinner £25.
In high society
"CLOSED", said the notice at the gate. But below, a much smaller sign said "House Guests", and an arrow directed us in. This was winter and it was the National Trust grounds that were shut, not the house.
The drive meandered through a wet and wooded landscape to a preposterous Italian fountain. I turned left and there it was, 500 yards of crunchy grey gravel away: Cliveden.
The idea was to have a weekend of maximum luxury with minimum travel, and this was a very good start. We were less than an hour from London but the real world already seemed far away beyond the gates and even from a distance the house is a jewel.
If they do not call it a hotel, it is not just from pretension. With only 37 rooms Cliveden is small, and it is genuinely intimate rather than grand. The old Astor home has not been pulled apart to accommodate the paying guests and although some concessions have been made - our sumptuous bathroom was certainly modern - I guess that Nancy would still know her way around.
A uniformed footman rushed to the car with a golf umbrella to escort us through the rain into the Great Hall, a wood-panelled cave of a room with roaring fire, suits of armour and huge arrangements of pungent lillies.
From there to our own room, the Garibaldi: he stayed in the house once. This was in the east wing, along a corridor where, somehow reassuringly, a drip from the ceiling was falling into a champagne bucket in the middle of the floor. I had feared a certain snootiness about the place, but there was none. The bed was huge and the room wasn't, but it was all extremely comfortable and the array of bottles and decanters softened us up nicely. For the next 24 hours we floated on a cushion of good service, good food and wonderful facilities.
We had lunch in the terrace dining room, at the window overlooking the ornamental garden and the Thames Valley beyond, with the financier Sir James Goldsmith at the next table. We had dinner at Waldo's restaurant downstairs, a slightly brothelish dcor with a tragic drawing of Christine Keeler on the wall. And we had breakfast in "the finest 18th-century panelled room outside France". Every plateful was worthy of a still life and every mouthful - even of the English breakfast -- was sublime.
The outdoor pool, where Profumo struck up his unwise acquaintance, was being retiled, and in any case it would have been much too cold, so we swam in the indoor pool which was like bathing in warm Evian: no chemical smell and plenty of elbow-room. You can lounge on loungers, take a sauna or have a coffee in the Pavilion restaurant. We had booked too late for a massage or one of the other fancy treatments, but we did not miss them. There is plenty to do, and doing nothing is made very easy.
On Sunday morning the sun shone and we got lost in the grounds, which were then ankle-deep mud in every direction with hardly a soul to be seen. London seemed light years away.
Cliveden is beautiful and the food is fabulous, but the house's greatest asset is the staff, who are obliging to a fault and charming beyond compare. "Where would you like your coffee, sir?" one asked, and when we hesitated said, "Don't worry, we'll find you." Sure enough, no sooner were we settled into a soft armchair in the library than a tall German waiter was at our side with a cafetire of delicious coffee and just the right amount of chat.
They make you pay for this; that's for sure. If you think of it as a Home Counties hotel, Cliveden is expensive by any standards short of Sir James's. Then again, at £480 for the two of us it was no more expensive than a weekend in Paris; and if it is less cultural it is also far more restful. What's more, there is no shopping.
I had just one gripe. I intended it as a surprise for my wife, but my booking was promptly answered with a letter in an envelope marked "Cliveden", which rather gave it away. Perhaps I should have told them, but then again they think of everything else.
! Cliveden, Taplow, Berks SL6 0JF (01628 668561). Double rooms from £235-£395, suites £395, single £210; dinner around £50 each.Reuse content