Even if we stay at a hotel in Britain, you can be sure that its owners will not want a hound checking in with us. Unless of course it's one of those places run by animal lovers where dogs are more welcome than their owners. But these establishments always have such off-putting names (The Dog House, Rover's Return), and their adverts conjure up images of sofas covered in dog hair and too many yelping pooches for even me to find tolerable.
So when we saw that Stapleford Park, a country-house hotel in Leicestershire, took guests and "well-behaved" dogs, we jumped with joy and wagged our tails. Well, Millie did.
You approach the house along a winding gravel driveway which takes you past banks of snowdrops, a deconsecrated church, and the old estate hospital where hundreds of soldiers were cared for during the First World War. It also took us away from our very fresh memories of three-and-a-half hours of Friday-night traffic jams, motorway service-station snack stops and Mark Thatcheresque map reading: even The Dog House would have seemed like nirvana after this schlep. While we arrived at the front door in a state of high tension and near why-did-we-ever-leave-London? fury, Millie was beside herself with excitement, at last understanding where we went when she was abandoned at my parents.
The first Stapleford house was built in the 14th century - although you'd probably need a spade and an archaeology degree to prove that - but the oldest parts that you see today date back to the 1600s, and the last additions to just a few months ago (a spa and indoor swimming pool).
All the bedrooms have been kitted out by sponsors of varying suitability: there are rooms by swish design firms such as Lady Jane Churchill, Lindka Cierach, David Hicks and Mulberry. Then there are the odder choices such as a Coca Cola Room designed "around the style of the Coca Cola bottle logo ... this room comes with a fridge full of Coca Cola," and a Pirelli room displaying the motor company's pin-up calendars.
Luckily we were in the room sponsored by Noblus Fontan, which I am told is a design firm famed for its outstanding French fabrics, wallpapers and trimmings. While we oohed and aahed over the bed large enough to accommodate an elephant, Millie inspected with an excited sniff the welcoming plate of dog biscuits tied together with a red ribbon (humans get cookies baked in the Park's kitchens), bowls for food and water, and a letter addressed to her from the house's hound, Angus. The doggy missive welcomed her to Stapleford and revealed a few house rules: wear a lead in the public rooms; don't let "your parents leave you in the bedroom unattended"; and "the furniture is only for the two-legged variety of animals. I even get yelled at."
When we went to dinner Millie was dogsat by the reception staff, where she also got to meet the house cat Abigail. When we had lunch or afternoon tea in the bar or drawing room, Millie came with us and sat at our feet while we read our books and knocked back the wine.
Outside, free of her lead, she ran frantically across fields stopping every now and then to marvel at the incredible variety of sticks to fetch (there's something of a stick shortage in our local London park). Her presence also meant that we made more of our stay and got our lungs thoroughly cleansed by the ridiculously clean air. We had no intention of leaving the house and its vast estate during our weekend break, but without her we would have found it hard even getting out of bed (and not just because it was so high that you needed to conjure up some Chris Bonington spirit every time you climbed in or out of it). Millie made us take several short walks on the Saturday but on the Sunday she went on strike while some distance from the house because she had worn a paw sore the previous day. We were forced to carry her home. Now Millie is a Border Collie and English Sheepdog mix - ie a bit of a lump - so by the time we had lugged her back, we were gasping for breath - and tea and cakes.
Stapleford Park copes so well with dogs because, despite its English country-house pretensions, it is very laid-back. People dressed for dinner, but apart from that there was a wonderful lack of formality, and a general recognition that you were there to relax.
Stapleford, however, is more than tea, walks and afternoon naps. It offers horse riding, clay-pigeon shooting, tennis, archery, a spa where you can have all those treatments that men still have to pretend to find embarrassing while their wives and girlfriends get massaged and manicured into shape, and a stunning indoor pool, sauna and streamroom.
The Park also has a falconry and you can go with Pete Sibson the resident falconer, for a walk around the grounds. We tagged along with him and a Harris Hawk called 'Arry who followed us through the woods, flying from tree to tree, and swooping down whenever Pete took a scrap of meat from his bag. We also got to wear one of those fancy gauntlets and, feeling like an extra from Carry on Henry, were allowed to feed 'Arry too. It was the highlight of our stay.
Millie wisely opted to remain with the reception staff after Pete warned us that one of his birds had taken to landing on a Jack Russell which often came for walks through the park. "Does it hurt it?" we asked. "No, no," Pete assured us. "It just punctures a few holes in its head."
t Stapleford Park, Near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, LE14 2FF (01572 787522). Rooms from pounds 193 to pounds 581. Prices include breakfast.
t If you don't have a dog, but fancy the idea of taking a pooch for a stroll in the country, Ettington Park, near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, offers weekend visitors the opportunity to take the hotel's Labradors, Snoopy and Digby, for walkies. (Tel 01789 450123 for details).Reuse content