If you've ever wanted to play lord or lady of the manor but don't have quite the correct amount of disposable income, help is at hand. The Wow House Company has all kinds of sprawling stately homes on its books, all available for you or me to rent for a weekend or longer. Just add friends or family, lashings of food and drink and, perhaps, a special occasion to celebrate, then let the good times roll...
Park Hall in Worcestershire can comfortably accommodate 44 guests – and by comfort I mean room after room with plump sofas, where roaring fires have toasting forks, marshmallows and crumpets on hand. Upstairs in the bedrooms, it's all chintz done well with en-suite rooms (all with fluffy towels and mint-crisp chocolates) tucked away around corners and up flights. So far, so country-house hotel.
What gives this house the (sorry) wow factor are the extras that could only come from it being the genuine home to a fun-loving country squire who's delighted to share his toys with guests (only the lovingly restored Triumph Herald that occupies pride of place in the west wing is out of bounds). Not that he impinges: he just arranges for there to be whisky in the decanter, logs on the fire and quad bikes – should you want them – parked on the front lawn. Then there's the drum kit and karaoke machine in the soundproofed basement, a home cinema complete with recliner chairs and surround sound. The games room has the tables covered (pool, football, tennis) as well as Skalextric and darts for idle moments. Oh, and did I mention the indoor swimming pool complete with flatscreen TV?
It's frightening how quickly one becomes adapted to the lifestyle. To bowl up the drive in the dusk to see the entire Queen Anne manor house lit up, Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze, is to come over all Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. The gang of friends who share my wintery weekend at Park Hall are flipping through Country Life and dressing for dinner – prepared on the Aga, natch, and served in the vast formal dining-room – as if to the manor born within an hour of arriving.
The Sainsbury's delivery man, on the other hand, is most bemused by delivering to such an opulent address but perhaps that's because many guests call in caterers or eat out when they visit. For a wedding or corporate jolly that might be just the thing, but there's something wonderful about having time and space to concoct meals from provisions in the walk-in larder (very Upstairs Downstairs) and giving everyone a job – from veggie-peeling to glass-polishing to roast-carving is a form of bonding no corporate game can ever match.
We sign up for everything Park Hall offers – quad-biking around the grounds on a rainy Saturday afternoon, clay pigeon shooting on a bracing Sunday morning – and the only difficulty is finding time to fit in afternoon tea with the home-made cakes left in the kitchen for us, and a proper exploration of the nearby woods and meadows.
If, like us, you've never fired a gun, clay pigeon-shooting under expert guidance and with an attentive safety policy is something to experience. A fierce competition is launched from the moment we all drink sloe gin (at 11am) from special cups with numbers embossed on the base to decide our shooting order. Townies squint in concentration as never before, hoping to catch sight of the neon orange disk before it flies or bounds (we shoot clay rabbits as well as pigeons) out of range. Bellows of rage for the misses, cheers of delight for the occasional hit.
We all come down to earth with a bump, like the clay pigeons, on Sunday night when we have to leave. Our weekend ends all to soon and no one is quite ready to relinquish the landed-gentry persona we've temporarily acquired. Though the rental charge might seem suitable only for those rich enough to afford a stately pile themselves, do the maths between 44 and it's cheaper than any half-decent hotel. And much more fun, by jove. Pip pip.
Park Hall sleeps 44 guests, with additional barn conversions and cottages bringing the maximum occupancy to 70 guests. Price from £4,600 for a group of 44 for two nights, including welcome hamper, utilities, logs, towels and bed linen. Call The Wow House Company, tel: 01452 715 373, thewowhousecompany.com, for information on Park Hall and other stately homes for rent across the UK