Staying Places: We're to the manor born
Young or old, you just can't help taking on airs and graces when you spend the weekend in a fine Regency house, says Cole Moreton
Sunday 26 November 2006
Rectory Park does strange things to the mind. Seeing the rusty-pink Regency house appear through the trees as you approach on the gravel drive causes pride to swell up, insanely. This is a big place, and it is ours. For a week, anyway. We are deep in Gloucestershire, hidden away, with nobody hushing the children as they run unrestrained through these three acres. If they disappear for a while there will be nobody lurking, waiting to grab them. Just thinking about that slows the pulse and deepens the breathing.
We have three couples in our party and seven children (six of whom are aged between one and four). Anything could happen: tantrums, riots, unexpected couplings. However,we won't be claustrophobic: there are six double bedrooms, a drawing room, lounge, dining room, games room and a basement room containing a home cinema. And a hot tub. If we are worried about anything it is the prospect of china smashing, paintings being punctured and furniture defaced. This house costs thousands of pounds to hire in a peak week. The damage we do might take a lifetime to repay.
There are two reasons why this does not happen. The first is that while Rectory Park has history - the house was requisitioned by Roundheads during the Civil War - it is not a museum. The place is well-maintained but also slightly battered. The walls are hung with pieces apparently collected at random, including framed handwritten letters in French, sketches of English hunters from the mid-1800s and portraits of persons unknown. The grandfather clock has stopped. One of the showers is a bit leaky, and the pipes in one bedroom go clank in the night. In other words, the house is like it might be if we lived here - which allows us to indulge that fantasy in full.
Instead of feeling compelled to go on day trips we are happy to stay and laze in the gardens, sleep under a tree, read a book and just be. We feel closer to that mythical idea of Englishness, its manners and elegance at odds with our all-terrain buggies, baggy shorts and PlayStations.
The second - and by far the most powerful - reason why we do not wreck Rectory Park is the mysterious change that comes over us all. The house seems to demand formality. The adults start to speak cod Austen, in jest but also in recognition of where we are. "Kind sir, would it be intrusive to request your assistance in passing the conserve?" Neil, the sort of friend every man wants to have and every woman wishes she could have in a rather different sort of way, insists on doing all the cooking and produces food a West End chef would be pleased to serve. The kids respond too, demanding to dress up for a "posh tea" in the room with table and chairs that are apparently Chinese Chippendale (Is that good? Or are they the chairy equivalent of a Bangkok Rolex? It's less worrying to assume the latter.) Joshua has an independent idea of dressing for dinner - he wants to wear floral swimming trunks - while the girls go for the floaty, princess-fairy look.
The kids call the small, formal garden The Maze because of the foot-high geometric hedges surrounding a stone fountain. Beyond that you can walk through clouds of pink and purple flowers to a wilder area, a half-wood that stops at the edge of a graveyard. The rickety bridge that leads to the medieval moated garden is blocked off with danger signs, which feels a bit of a swizzle, given how prominently it features on the website. But there is still more than enough room for two grown men to play wide games with an eight-year-old, Jacob, creeping through the bushes and clouds of midges.
Later, exploring with the little ones we hear chicks chirruping in a hole in a tree and gather round to listen with fingers on lips.When the tribe are all in bed at last the adults sit in the hot tub drinking cold beers with the moon in the sky, looking across to cows grazing in a meadow.
There is one major irritation, the lack of hot water for a couple of days despite repeated visits and prom-ises by an engineer. That really matters, with this many small people. But again the house works its magic. We are strangely pacific. The people who manage the place, Dunster Living, are apologetic and helpful, but we are all shocked to hear ourselves being so laid back. "What we need," says somebody from the tub, "is staff!" But the voice of realism calls out from the kitchen. "If we lived here," it says with a sigh, "we would be the staff. Who's washing up?"
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Rectory Park, which sleeps up to 13, is available to rent through The Big Domain (01326 240 028; thebigdomain.com). Four-night mid-week breaks start at £850; three-night weekend breaks from £1,575, and £1,880 for seven nights.
Gloucestershire Tourism (01452 425 673; glos-cotswolds.com)
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