Travel: UK - Join the country-house set

Stuck for a location for that special party? Don't worry - a 17th- century mansion could be yours for the weekend
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The Independent Culture
It is an obvious place to lie low, I thought, as I cowered in the priest's hole: evidence of the mansion's recusant past. From the end of the hall, I could hear Harry and Sam scampering up the spiral staircase. They must be going to hide in the loft, I thought. Suddenly I froze. Above me, I could hear 10-year-old Tom and Emily's screams from one of the third- floor attic rooms; Stuart and Andy had found them.

I could just about make out the sounds of chatting and laughter from the rest of the group downstairs in the kitchen, unaware of the mayhem up here. Well, why should they worry? It was only three of the grown-ups playing murder in the dark with the kids. Who could resist? It's not often we get the chance to indulge in this sort of play.

A birthday or an anniversary, is a great excuse to meet up with friends and family. But supposing you live in one corner of the country, and many of your potential guests live miles away. How do you get them all together?

Well, you simply entertain on a grand scale and throw a house party - hire a large country house and invite everyone to stay for a long weekend. A large group of us did just that for our friend Jane's 40th birthday. We got together at Treowen, a huge, 17th-century Grade I listed house four miles from Monmouth, in south Wales. The property is privately let by the present owners, the Wheelock family, who lived and farmed here until 1993. Their brochure promised us "panelled rooms, magnificent staircases, delightful gardens, breathtaking views, private woodland walks and a lofty position at the far end of a half-mile-long drive in one of the most beautiful corners of Wales".

No promises were broken. It was all completely true. This enormous house, built in 1627, can sleep up to 30 people in bedrooms with names such as the Cherub Bedroom, the Passage Bedroom and - a personal favourite, this - the Chamber Over the Great Chamber.

Our celebration group was made up of 17 adults and five children. And there was no need for anyone to feel forced into being sociable all of the time. You could easily escape to one of the magnificent bedrooms or drawing-rooms to nurse a hangover. Indeed, over the course of the weekend we hardly saw the five kids in the group. Treowen is a children's delight. They spent most of their time exploring outside, playing badminton and mini-snooker in the banqueting hall, or running up and down the 72 steps of the 6ft-wide solid oak staircase.

Apart from deciding whom to invite, the only other piece of organisation required was arranging the food. Jane had already planned the meals we were going to have and had phoned us all the week before to tell us what part of her shopping list each was to bring. The kitchen is more than adequately equipped to allow catering for large groups.

The birthday banquet took place in the oak-panelled dining-room. Meal over, it was upstairs to continue the celebrations with dancing to loud music in the Long Drawing Room - 34ft long, in fact. We brought our own sound system, and we played it very loud, keenly aware that there were no neighbours to disturb.

The next day, fresh air and exercise were provided by a walk to one of the two pubs within a two-mile walk of the house. For those who wish to travel a little further afield, there is the beautiful Wye Valley, the Forest of Dean and the romantic ruin of Tintern Abbey to explore.

Whatever the occasion, Treowen is different enough to provide the perfect setting for a memorable celebration. After a few hours, it felt as though we had suddenly inherited this grand old property from a long-lost relative; it was ours, to treat as our own, if only for a few days.

To find out more about Treowen, call 01600 712031. Prices range from pounds 490 to pounds 1,250 for a long weekend (Friday to Monday)

The DIY House Party

Other organisations offering country houses to rent include:

Rural Retreats (01386 701177): Bruisyard Hall in Suffolk can sleep 20. This Grade II listed 14th-century house also has a priest's hole, and large gardens. A local vineyard sells wine for your party. A phone and fax machine are available for guests who can't bear to be incommunicado. Babysitting by arrangement. Long weekend pounds 1,290-pounds 1,561. Also ask about Bellevue in Cornwall. This is a large Edwardian terraced house, sleeping 15, located in the fishing village of Port Isaac. It is situated on a clifftop, with great sea views from the bedrooms at the front. Long weekend pounds 451-pounds 692.

Helpful Holidays (01647 433593): Blagdon, near Torquay, can sleep 23. Until recently this 16th-century manor-house was a hotel, but has been converted to self-catering. The heated swimming-pool, the terraces and the lawn could make the ideal setting for a summer celebration. Catering can be arranged - anything from full dinners to small suppers. Long weekend pounds 794-pounds 1,325.

Hoseasons Country Cottages (01502 501515): Nether Ollerbrook Farm in Derbyshire is a former stone barn sleeping 24. Close to the Pennine Way, it is bookable as three self-contained cottages or as one large property. Dinner-party catering can be arranged and the owner will arrange barrel delivery for the bar. Long weekend pounds 502-pounds 1,009.

English Country Cottages (0990 851155): Hartlington Mill, near Skipton in Yorkshire, is a Grade II listed building converted into three self- contained apartments sleeping 17. The front offers panoramic views across Wharfedale. To the rear lie a millpond, a waterfall and a grassy clearing ideal for summer barbecues. Long weekend pounds 762-pounds 1,452.

Country Holidays (01282 445400): Ebenezer Chapel in Derbyshire is a converted Methodist chapel that sleeps 20-22. The 38-ft beamed and galleried lounge contains the original pulpit (for after-dinner speeches?). The old schoolroom is a great indoor playing-area for the kids, while the grown-ups relax in the sauna. Two stairlifts also make the property suitable for accompanied disabled guests. Long weekend pounds 407-pounds 798.

The Landmark Trust (01628 825925): Gargunnock House, near Stirling in Scotland, can sleep 16. Apparently, Chopin once stayed in this 18th-century house and may even have played the piano in the drawing-room. Long weekend pounds 874-pounds 1,749.