Ten miles north of the neat Cornish seaside town of Fowey lies a vast Victorian house called Lanhydrock, which the National Trust has frozen in time. Visitors will discover that back in the late-19th century, its owners Lord and Lady Robartes had a room for just about everything: sitting, smoking, playing billiards, churning milk, storing servants. Also, that Lady Robartes did some churning of her own, with a mighty output of 10 children between 1879 and 1895. The kids got their own wing to live in, with all mod cons – ie several nannies – but being a progressive type, her ladyship would occasionally allow them downstairs for an hour, where they would sing dutifully, or recite verse. Ah, those were the days...
Parenting expectations have changed somewhat in the last 100 or so years. We now make at least the pretence of enjoying our children's company, even when we're on holiday. Which is where Fowey Hall comes in. Built as a private home in 1899 by Sir Charles Hanson (who would later become Lord Mayor of London), this elegant Queen Anne-style building is said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, The Wind in the Willows. The connection with childhood was reinstated in 1998 when it became part of the four-strong Luxury Family Hotels group, founded by British hoteliers Nigel Chapman and Nicholas Dickinson. In 2006, von Essen hotels snapped up the company, and money is now being spent on a new spa complex and swimming pool for Fowey Hall, which is due to open in September.
The essentials of the Luxury Family Hotels concept – letting families do their own thing in comfortable, stylish surroundings and giving them some jolly good grub at the same time – are thankfully still in evidence. On a previous visit to sister hotel The Ickworth in Suffolk, I'd been struck by how its grand public spaces seemed to quieten the most fractious families, including my own. The heavy rugs and doughty wooden panelling of Fowey Hall achieved much the same trick: we had a sudden urge to complete jigsaws and read stories to one another.
Not that the entertainments on offer are retro in any way. There's a massive plasma screen television, trampolines on the lawn, ping-pong and table football in a separate "beach house", and plenty of computer games to play and DVDs to borrow. There's also a crèche for the under-sevens, governed by two Ofsted-registered child minders. While all that is going on, the grown-ups get to sip lattes and watch the sun go down over the Monterey Pines.
Fowey Hall, Hanson Drive, Fowey, Cornwall (01726 833 866; www.luxuryfamilyhotels.co.uk). The building looms impressively behind the town, with glorious views over to Polruan on the other side of the estuary. The maritime delights of Fowey are a five-minute walk down the hill; the Eden Project is a 20-minute drive away; Lanhydrock (01208 265 950; www.nationaltrust.org) lies just outside nearby Bodmin.
Time from international airport: 23 miles from Newquay airport. Alternatively, nearby Par station is just four-and-a-half hours from London Paddington.
Our split-level suite was at the end of the hotel's new wing, which contains 12 of Fowey Hall's 36 rooms. From the outside, this extension is neither nice nor nasty, but sensibly in keeping with the external arches of the Palm Room's veranda. Inside, it's perfect for families. The furnishings in our room were luxurious but low key, and everything felt sturdily kid-proof, with big cushions all over the floor, and a vast (and extremely comfortable) bed. Upstairs, the children had a sofa bed to share, their own dressing gowns, and even their own balcony. But far more importantly from their point of view, they also had their own television.
Mealtimes were a treat. Dinner often doesn't work with small children: several courses test their patience; white linen tablecloths test their hand/spoon co-ordination. Thankfully, at Fowey Hall you have options. You can dine with them in relaxed surroundings from an à la carte menu, or stuff them with pasta and rice dishes nice and early (at a cost of £7 each). The latter gives you the chance to relish the chandeliers, creaking wood and bright stucco of the thoroughly adult Hansons dining room in the late evening.
The food, sourced with local ingredients, is beautifully prepared, if occasionally slightly fussy (my set ham hock with pea panna cotta was served on a slab of Cornish slate). Then again, there's nothing like a nice amuse bouche after a hard day's childcare.
Freebies: Bowls of fruit scattered around the place; fizzy water and a box of home-made biscuits in our room; Aquae Sulis spa products in the bathroom.
Keeping in touch: Baby monitors linked to reception mean that you can dine safe in the knowledge that someone is keeping an ear out for your children; wireless internet access is available, for £12.50 per day.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rates start at £175 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a standard double room (accommodating one child on a complimentary basis; meals charged as taken).
I'm not paying that: the Fowey Hotel (0800 448 8844; www.thefoweyhotel.co.uk) has standard double rooms from £55 per person per night, with an additional charge of £15 for children aged four to eight sharing the room (£25 for children aged nine to 14).