Running my fingers over the silk brocade canopy, I wanted to sink into the four-poster bed. From here I could take in the free-standing Victorian roll-top bath with its claw feet as well as the sumptuous view over the green English countryside. All that was needed was a jewellery box big enough to hold a crown and a place by the fireplace for a corgi or two and this would be a room fit for a queen. Which is exactly what it was – for I was in the Elizabeth suite in Luton Hoo, the 18th-century, grade-1-listed mansion where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, spent their honeymoon in 1947. They clearly loved it because they came back to celebrate subsequent wedding anniversaries at the Robert-Adam designed manor house, which is now a five-star Elite hotel – and my home for the next 24 hours.
As rich in history as it is in looks, I was smitten at first sight by the luxurious country pile in Bedfordshire, less than an hour’s drive from London’s Heathrow airport. Perhaps it was the beech-lined drive or the neo-classical facade of the 35-bedroomed house that impressed me. Or it could have been the 1,065-acres of pristine gardens and parkland redesigned by Capability Brown, or possibly standing on the steps where former British prime minster Sir Winston Churchill gave his famous speech to thank the 110,000-strong crowd gathered for their support during the Second World War.
“Not bad,” I whispered, marvelling at the view. Having grown up watching Brideshead Revisited and more recently Downton Abbey, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the exterior of this grandest of country homes. But inside what is considered to be one of Britain’s most architecturally important buildings, I was positively swooning. Sweeping oval staircase? Check. Corinthian columns? Check. A Grand Hall complete with a Bergonzoni sculpture? Check.
Having been lavishly redesigned by the same architects who did the Ritz, Luton Hoo, which originates from 1601, has been intrinsically linked to royalty since the late 18th century when the estate was owned by the third Earl of Bute, who was prime minister to George III.
Wandering around, I oohed over the magnificent dining room, aahed over the objets d’art and couldn’t wait to ring the bell in my decadent room – a smaller but no less impressive version of the Elizabeth suite – to see if a maid would come rushing up to curtsey and serve me tea like I’d seen in reruns of Upstairs Downstairs. Of course, no one dipped at the hip, but a china cup of tea with a biscuit was brought to my room on a tray.
“Dinner will be at 7.30pm, Ma’am,” an impeccably dressed member of staff informed me, and so I had time to sip my tea while trying out the Molton Brown bath products.
Then it was time to head down the sweeping staircase complete with red carpet – what else? – for dinner at the Beaux-Arts-style Wernher restaurant, named after former owner, diamond dealer Sir Julius Wernher.
The food was every bit as tasty as the Versailles-style chandeliers, and Belle Epoch surroundings. But even though it was an overwhelmingly stately home-cum-hotel, it felt strangely familiar – and then I discovered why: Luton Hoo is a much sought-after film location. The Lady Butter suite is where Hugh Grant hid in Four Weddings And A Funeral, and the mansion was used in Eyes Wide Shut, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fair and Bleak House.
Knowing that Hollywood’s finest as well as royalty and politicians had eaten here, I sat up a little straighter, made sure I used the right cutlery and vowed to cock my little finger whenever I sipped tea, like the landed gentry do in movies.
Keeping up with the royals
My chance came over a delicious breakfast of mushrooms, scrambled eggs and baked beans served with hot toast and English Breakfast tea served through a strainer.
“Enjoy, madam,” the waiter smiled as my pinky shot out. Breakfast over, I jumped into a London black cab – one of the genuine taxis they have here for guests to tour the estate, only unlike the real thing, these are free.
I took in the restored Victorian tennis lawn, the impressive 18-hole golf course and the gorgeous spa.
I could have spent my entire trip to Great Britain there, but alas, I’d come to follow in more royal footsteps and get to see to see how the latest, and very popular, royal couple Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cornwall, live. The royal baby is bumping up the British economy as tourists flock to visit London, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blooming Duchess or, possibly, a newborn royal baby.
Sales of memorabilia to commemorate the royal birth are huge – but I eschewed buying cups, aprons and fridge magnets to get an early night.
Up with the lark the next morning, I reluctantly bade goodbye to Luton Hoo and hopped on a Virgin train to travel – first class, naturally – to Chester, which is on the border of England and Wales.
In the land of the red dragon
From Chester it was just a quick hop to the Hawarden Estate farm shop in Flintshire, Wales, where royal bridesmaid extraordinaire Pippa Middleton is a frequent visitor. Selling 250 local varieties of meats and cheeses – along with the most delicious cheese and pickle sandwiches, a favourite of the almost-royal patron apparently – it was no wonder the store-cum-café was packed on a weekday lunchtime.
“Mwynhewch eich bwyd! (pronounced Mun-hewc eyck boyd),” Paul, our Welsh guide, smiled. It means “enjoy your meal” in Welsh, and we did, tucking into “sarnies” made with hunks of bread and pickled onions. Then we jumped back into our sightseeing van – complete with red dragon, the national symbol of Wales, to head to our next home-from-home – Bodysgallen Hall and Spa in Llandudno, North Wales.
A jumble of architectural styles, the Hall is believed to date back to the 13th century, and overlooks Snowdonia and Conwy Castle. Now a National Trust hotel it’s one of those rare places that does look and feel like a real home. All giant fireplaces, low ceilings and nooks and crannies, it is Welsh shabby chic at its finest, and boasts 200 acres of parkland and an award-winning spa.
Never having been an outdoorsy type – despite being raised on a farm – I turned down the offer of a hike through the countryside on a drizzly afternoon in favour of an indulgent Decleor Time Precious Facial.
“Bendigedig,” (Welsh for fantastic) was all I could mutter after my face was cleansed, massaged, moisturised and soothed into looking its radiant best – just in time for dinner at 1620 Bistro in the former coach house. More filling Welsh food followed, along with plenty of talk of the royal parents, who used to live just minutes away in Anglesey. It was the perfect country base for RAF pilot Prince William, although he and Kate are now based at Kensington Palace, where the royal baby will be raised.
The Hall also boasts another royal connection though. During the First World War Colonel Henry Mostyn, the son of the then-owner Lady Augusta, commanded the 17th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which he paraded in front of the Hall. There’s an oak tree in the park to commemorate it apparently, which other guests donned wellies to go and see, but I was more content reading a book in front of a roaring fire in one of the drawing rooms.
I retired early to bed – sadly not a four poster – as I was eager to explore the Welsh countryside the next day.
From Bodysgallen, it was a mere dawdle down the winding lanes to the world-famous Bodnant Gardens, noted for its botanical collections, and the medieval glory of Conwy Castle, built for Edward 1, and one of the most impressive remains still standing in Britain. Paul, our guide, gave such a convincing performance of daily life there that I had goosebumps looking at the well, the dungeon and the chapel – and it wasn’t because it was raining and nearly in the minus degrees outside.
Visiting the castle, and the town of Conwy, I could see why William Wordsworth was inspired to write poetry here. Even in the rain, it was beautiful. Meandering the cobbled streets, I peered into the shops, selling love spoons and tasty Welsh cakes (which taste like a flat scone, but better!) and stared at the walls of the castle in the distance. It was awe-inspiring, like living inside the pages of a history book, where one magically gets transported back in time.
Letting off steam
That feeling became even greater when we caught the Talyllyn Railway. It’s a historic narrow-gauge steam railway that runs from Abergynolwyn to Tywyn (luckily we didn’t have to say which destination we wanted to get off at, otherwise I would still be there, trying to get my tongue around the tricky words!) and was used to transport coal. As well as being allowed up front to let off the engine’s steam with a loud shrill, we discovered the railway was the inspiration for Skarloey Railway in the Thomas the Tank Engine books as the author, the Reverend W Awdry, had volunteered there in 1952.
Sitting in a tiny carriage, among a cloud of steam, was the perfect way to see the rolling Welsh countryside, and I was sad to clamber back into our van to drive the rest of the journey to our next home at Brecon, in the Wye Valley – the stunning Llangoed Hall.
Nestled in the shadow of the snow-topped Black Mountains and down a sweeping drive, this Jacobean country house is the epitome of secluded style. Formerly known as Llangoed Castle, it dates back to 1632, and is set in 17 acres just west of Hay on Wye. The site is said to have had a house on it since 560AD and was where the first Welsh Parliament was held. It’s had a chequered history since then and was in danger of being demolished in the 1970s until Sir Bernard Ashley – husband of late designer Laura Ashley – bought it.
I stepped inside, and gasped. Alongside the original Laura Ashley wallpapers and fabrics, the £3.3-million gold and black Steinway piano and carved timber staircase, is a fireplace big enough to sleep in and enough original Whistler sketches to make you, well, whistle.
Since opening as a luxury country house hotel, no expense has been spared and it shows. Art worth a total of £22-million decorates the walls. My room was a haven of tranquil yellow, while every piece of furniture looked as if it had survived through the centuries.
Dinner, which was hosted by the charming and witty managing director, Calum Milne, in the Whistler Room was a culinary delight. Tucking into five courses of locally sourced and beautifully cooked dishes – ranging from pheasant eggs to beef fillet and appropriately named Dandy ribs – we soaked up the decadent atmosphere of the £6.6-million Whistler collection, which has been on loan to the royal galleries of Queen Elizabeth.
And then finally, it was up the wooden staircase to my suite where I collapsed, stuffed, on to my bed. It was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in, and I drifted off to dream about being the lady of the manor, and returning to Britain for another luxurious visit.
Surrounded by vintage glamour and historical houses steeped in tradition, I’d had a royally good time.