All the trimmings and no washing-up

Michael White and his mother indulged themselves at a hotel with roaring fires and a traditional Christmas

I MUST have been seven when I first realised that Christmas was something more to be desired than got. It never worked, principally because we never had much of a family to do the Dickensian business of boisterous wassailing around the fattened goose. And when the three of us - mother, father, son - reduced to two, things settled into a depressing ritual of Morecambe and Wise re-runs with "quietly festive" meals at which my mother and I would solemnly wear paper hats and share a seasonal litany of who had passed away during the previous 12 months.

"Remember Mrs X along the high street?"

"Sort of."

"Dead."

"Remember Mr Y...?"

It went on, year by year, until it couldn't go on anymore. We had to find ourselves a better Christmas. And the answer, we discovered, was to buy one as a job lot: oak beams, roaring fires, the fatted goose, the works. If it was bogus all the better, just so long as it was tasteful. And last year's solution more than satisfied the two requirements: a hotel called Bailiffscourt whose brochure advertised it as a "genuine fake".

Set in extensive if slightly windswept parklands that run down to the sea, a few miles south of Arundel, a few miles east of Bognor Regis, Bailiffscourt looks like the freestanding quad of one of the older Oxford colleges: a squatly medieval mini-pile in golden stone. Only a touch of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens here and there betrays the fact that it's not what it seems. And the truth is that Bailiffscourt is a masterpiece of architectural salvage, put together in the early 1930s from an assortment of mullioned windows, stone walls, coffered ceilings and other items liberated from true medieval buildings in other parts of Britain.

Its construction was the fantasy project of a socialite politician called Walter Guinness (later Lord Moyne), heir to a brewing fortune and husband to a woman with an idee fixe about the Middle Ages. At her whim, the family's London home in Grosvenor Square had been "restored" to medieval austerity and stripped of its chimneys, with the result that guests were authentically asphyxiated in authentically smoke-filled rooms. At Bailiffscourt the medievalism was more fortunately compromised by modern luxury, so that Chips Channon - a regular guest - could write that "every room is decorated to resemble the cell of a rather pansy monk".

In other words, it was comfortable. And 60 years on, it's one of the most comfortable hotels I know: a womb-like warren of small chambers, furn- ished in Mulberry fabrics and lit by vellum lamps on heavy wooden stands. Critically for a Christmas stay, there are plenty of fireplaces, which solves the vexing problem of which guests get to sleep off their lunch beside the crackling logs. They all do, so there's no unseemly scramble after coffee. And the bedrooms have a mullioned charm I'd call collegiate if it didn't come with four-poster beds, which didn't feature in my student life. More Master's Lodge, I guess, than undergraduate.

That I could see the beach from my windows was a bonus, although as we arrived on Christmas Eve in blinding rain and force nine gales it was an academic prospect. And in any case the hotel's festive package was already running - with high tea, then a drinks reception at which, to the accompaniment of Away in a Manger from the parish choir, we had our first chance to find out whom we'd be spending the next three days with. And bond.

Bondage at Bailiffscourt turned out to be pretty painless, after enough champagne. Most of the other guests were on the distant side of 65, but that was fine for my mother. And there were some younger family groups among them, along with curiosities like a glamorous grandmother (who either started early or was a living tribute to the surgeon's art) and two gentlemen with his-and-his dachsunds from off the Fulham Road with an impeccable sense of wardrobe etiquette. They were consulted widely, not least by my ma who never failed to observe that every evening they wore black tie when I didn't.

In fact, one of the pleasures of the Bailiffscourt Christmas package was precisely that it wasn't formal. The only truly smart things, apart from the gentlemen from off the Fulham Road, were the table crackers: very high-class, packed with serious surprises (especially when they popped out and hit you on the nose) and so spectacularly put together that my ma and I weren't the only ones to asset-strip the debris for the following year's Christmas tree.

The food was on the smart side too: inventively post-modern variants on traditional festive fare, and with enough light choices to mean you could eat your way through the menu without feeling like a sack of sand by Boxing Day. Which was as well, because although the package offered seasonal diversions, they were spiritual and sedentary rather than physical and stomach-stretching. And in any case, they were non-compulsory, which accounts for the dismally small number who made use of the transport to Midnight Mass, and the not many more who showed up for the evening of classical music on Boxing Night. A string quartet played Pachelbel's Canon, the theme from Inspector Morse, and a grand finale of Walking in the Air against a background of avant-garde harmonies.

But then you don't go to a place like Bailiffscourt to be too organised. It isn't Butlin's. And for anyone with energy to burn, there was more instant countryside to ramble through, as well as the beach, which we braved on Christmas morning (battling through hail and sleet) and, not to be outdone, again on Boxing Day (in brilliant sunshine). So I've no complaints. Between my fireside chair and my mother's fondness for the great outdoors, Bailiffscourt gave us both what we wanted for Christmas: along with tolerable company, the classiest Christmas cracker nail-clippers I've ever seen, and someone else to do the washing-up. When I was seven that would have read like a contemptibly modest checklist of requirements. These days, it does just fine.

FACT FILE

Christmas away

Christmas break

Bailiffscourt's package, from 24 to 26 December, from pounds 498 (tel: 01903 723511); Down Hall, Bishop's Stortford, Herts, from pounds 395 (tel: 01279 731441); Spread Eagle, Midhurst, from pounds 435 (tel: 01730 816911); Lakeside Hotel, Windermere, from pounds 395 (tel: 0171-244 6699). Scottish country house hotels (tel: 08705 511511).

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