Yes, you did hear that right: children are welcome

What's more, a chain of hotels actively caters for them while their parents can relax and bask in guilt-free comfort, reports Tania Alexander

ONE OF the biggest changes to your life when you have your first child is your holiday arrangements. Even a short break in a hotel in the UK can pose all sort of problems. The chances are that the sort of hotel you enjoyed going to before becoming a parent will be a totally inappropriate place to take young children - they may even be banned.

There is a growing breed of British hotels that specialises in catering for families. Unfortunately, the more child-orientated the hotel, the more ghastly it usually is for parents. I still remember the headache- inducing noise level when we stayed at one of these child-specialist hotels one summer. The children may have enjoyed it but we were sick to the back teeth with watching them race around the ballroom in plastic cars, eating plastic food and playing for hours on end in the indoor ball-pond.

Ever since we stayed at Woolley Grange in Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath, when our first child was a toddler, I have been hooked on this small luxurious hotel group. Woolley Grange is a charming old country manor house, full of beams, open fireplaces and nooks and crannies - the perfect place to curl up with a good book on a rainy Saturday afternoon. There are, of course, other country manor-house hotels just as good as this one. The difference with Woolley is that it offers parents something that is exceptionally hard to find.

Woolley Grange opened in 1990, the brainchild of Nigel Chapman. Mr Chapman and his wife have four children, so they knew just what parents really want when they go away. In 1994, he teamed up with Nicholas Dickinson (former maitre d' at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons) and opened a second hotel along these lines called Old Bell, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Mr Dickinson also had a one-year-old son at this time and had encountered problems in finding somewhere nice to stay with him. They now have four hotels, all different in style and location but springing from the same philosophy of a luxury hotel for families.

There are many things that this group does well. The food for both the children and the adults is exceptionally good. Instead of being fed on standard fish finger and chicken nugget fare, the children sit down for a "proper" tea with homemade roasts and apple crumbles.

The numbers of children are limited so that the hotels never feel over- run by them; play areas, known as "dens", are placed away from the main restaurant and lounge areas so that the latter remain predominantly adult- only.

The childcare in all the hotels is also excellent. Rather than choosing qualified nannies, the hotels employ local mothers who have plenty of experience in looking after little ones and really go out of their way to make each child's stay special. Our son, now six, still remembers Dorothy who let him take a toy home when he fell in love with it, and conjured up a big jelly for him when she found out that was his favourite.

Although you could leave your children for the whole of the day in the dens, the idea is that your little ones are kept amused while you enjoy a leisurely lunch, a pampering massage in your room or just get a chance to read the papers in peace.

The hotels are all beautifully furnished and in keeping with the original period of the house. In fact sometimes they do not seem quite practical enough. For example, you will not find a mini-bar or even a kettle in the bedroom which might be inconvenient if you are making up bottles for a baby.

But the staff go out of their way to make you feel at home. The atmosphere is relaxed and without ceremony - don't expect to be addressed as "sir" or "madam". There are no visible reception areas and drinks are usually tucked away in a cupboard and served to you wherever you want. Everything is served at a leisurely, sometimes slow, pace, but staff are willing to meet your needs, whether this be bringing you early-morning tea and newspapers or serving you dinner in your bedroom on the first night because you can't get your children to sleep.

Dinner at the hotels is very much an adult affair. After putting the children to bed (all the hotels have sophisticated baby-listening systems or you can book a babysitter), you can come down to a candlelit environment before sitting down to a delicious, albeit pricey, dinner a deux.

Woolley Grange

Woolley Green, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire (tel: 01225 864705)

If you have never stayed at any of the hotels in the group, this is probably the best one to start with, particularly if you have a baby or small child under five years old. Woolley Grange is a Jacobean stone manor house built from mellow Bath stone in the 17th century. A family home for nearly 400 years, the house was owned by the Baskerville family for two centuries. It is cosy in winter with lots of corners to curl up in and read, or play board games.

The Woolley Bear's Den has lots of good toys to keep the under-fives amused. Although Bradford-on-Avon is not a particularly inspiring place, Bath is only eight miles away. The hotel has pretty gardens and a heated outdoor pool.

Woolley Grange can be reached from Junction 17 of the M4. Follow the signs for Chippenham on the A350, then the A4 for Bath. Bradford-on-Avon is on the B3109, and Woolley Grange is just outside the town.

B&B prices: (two adults plus children): from pounds 99 for a small double to pounds 175 for a large double, pounds 170 for a suite or inter-connecting rooms. Set dinner: pounds 34.50. Special breaks are available from autumn to spring. Extend the weekend package (must include a Friday and Saturday) for a third night at half-price. Midweek half-board breaks of two nights or more, from Sunday to Thursday, cost from pounds 70 to pounds 140 per night.

The Old Bell

Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire (tel: 01666 822344)

This old coaching inn is a good place to stop and rest your family if you are going further afield. It is well located for a short touring break in the Cotswolds. The smallest of the four hotels, it is more suitable for families with babies and young children because there is not so much space in which to run around and the den is small. It is not as grand as the other hotels, but I would rate it as having the best food.

Reputed to be the oldest inn in Britain, this ancient hostelry dates back to the 13th century and stands on top of the hill beside Malmesbury Abbey. Built alongside the original cloister, the Old Bell was a guest house for visitors to the abbey. It is a warm cosy place, with carved stone windows and a canopied fireplace in the Great Hall. Located in the centre of Malmesbury, it is easy to pop out to the shops or visit attractions such as the Cotswold Water Park.

The Old Bell is five miles from Junction 17 of the M4, on the A429 Cirencester road. Prices for B&B (two adults plus children): pounds 90 for a small double to pounds 145 for a deluxe double. Autumn and spring breaks include clay-pigeon shooting or a guided tour of Bath or Cheltenham. Two-night, half-board breaks cost from pounds 309 to pounds 419.

Moonfleet Manor

Fleet, Weymouth, Dorset (tel: 01305 786948)

This is marketed for graduates of Woolley Grange as it has more to offer older children. Originally a handsome stuccoed Georgian manor house, Moonfleet is set beside the sea in west Dorset, and even has a novel named after it. The main house has been beautifully restored but there are a few remaining ugly extensions, including a 1970s-style sports centre which is open to the public. The hotel has not decided what to do with it. There is an indoor pool and a large den that my children were crazy about.

Moonfleet is probably the quirkiest of the four hotels. It is decorated in colonial style with lots of stuffed animals on the wall. The main selling point is the sense of space - a real bonus if your children are aged six or over. The Hen House is a games room for children over seven. There are lots of good walks nearby, as well as beaches, and Weymouth itself is about 10 minutes' drive away.

Moonfleet can be reached via the M3 and M27, then take the A31 to Dorchester, finally joining the A354 to Weymouth.

Prices for B&B (two adults plus children): from pounds 95 for a double to pounds 185 for suites and larger family rooms. A two-night half-board break costs from pounds 244. Guests who wish to stay an extra night will be offered a considerable discount, depending upon time of year.

Fowey Hall

Hanson Drive, Fowey, Cornwall

(tel: 01726 833866)

This is the most recent addition to the Luxury Family Hotels group and in many ways the most splendid. Fowey Hall is 100 years old, having been built as the country house of a former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Charles Hanson. It is a beautiful grand mansion with views over the charming fishing port of Fowey and across the estuary to neighbouring Polruan. It is less homely than Woolley, perhaps reflecting the fact that the house was used by Sir Charles Hanson as somewhere to show off to his friends rather than a house that was lived in.

The Four Bears Den is housed in the old garage where Sir Charles kept his Rolls-Royce. It is quite small, but fine for babies and small children. Older children can play video games or go down to the cellars where they can play pool or table football. The Den is run by Val, the wife of Simon Rothwell, who manages the hotel.

The young staff are eager to please. There is a wonderful sun terrace where even on a cold winter's day you can sit and watch the goings-on in the estuary. It has an indoor swimming pool - the only problem is you have to walk outside in your dressing gown to get to it.

The hotel's main bonus is the fact that you can easily walk down to Fowey. From here you can take boat trips down the estuary or catch the car ferry over to Polruan - the old castle ruin is worth a visit.

To get to Fowey, leave the A30 at Bodmin, following National Trust signs for Lanhydrock House. The B322678, which becomes the B3269, leads to Fowey.

Prices for B&B (two adults plus children): double rooms from pounds 125 with large doubles and suites from pounds 160. Interconnecting rooms from pounds 225 to pounds 295. As this is the first winter season for this hotel, there are some good bargains, such as three nights half-board from pounds 225 to pounds 350 per person.

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