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Cheltenham's luxury Ellenborough Park hotel's a sure bet for great weekend away

You don't need to be a horse-racing fan to enjoy a break in Cheltenham. Sarah Marshall visits the historic Ellenborough Park hotel, on the outskirts of the town

Horseplay: riders and runners at Cheltenham
Horseplay: riders and runners at Cheltenham

It's a scenario I never imagined possible: I'm sitting with a cup of coffee poring over a copy of the Racing Post. Names like Vintage Clouds and Gold Present catch my eye, but the jumble of numbers alongside each entry is a completely different language.

One horse in particular seems to sum up my current state of mind as I set off for a weekend at Cheltenham's races, frantically trying to gen up before someone realises I'm a fake; right now, Pylonthepressure could be my kindred spirit in equestrian form.

Favoured by a wealthy set sporting Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, the Cotswolds is often painted as a country playground for celebrities and aristocrats temporarily tired of city life. Plenty of boutique hotels and gastropubs nurture that nostalgic sentiment, but when it comes to attitudes and actual price points, the destination is far less 'exclusive' than you might think.

Sleeping with a slice of history

Pulling into the driveway at Ellenborough Park, a 61-room hotel 20 minutes' drive from Cheltenham Spa train station, I can visualise myself as an aristocrat.

A Union flag flutters from a turret crowning the butter-yellow brick facade. Modern wings have since been added, but the original structure of the former manor house is firmly intact.

Originally built in 1485 by a local farmer, Thomas Goodman, whose initials can still be seen above the original entrance, it survived the English Civil War and allegedly sheltered Oliver Cromwell. Passing through several hands, who added grand staircases, oak panelling and bay windows, it eventually ended up with the Earl of Ellenborough in the 1800s, whose second wife, Jane Digby, reportedly caused scandal with her numerous affairs. Until 1940, it was used as a school, then a hotel, and finally renovated as Ellenborough Park in 2008.

A day at the races

Located opposite Cheltenham Racecourse, the hotel naturally attracts racegoers. Some wealthier spectators arrive by helicopter, explains our chauffeur, as we head along a private country trail belonging to the hotel. "During busy times, we get one every seven seconds," he claims. Inside the course, crowds queue outside booths to place their bets - starting from as little as £1.

Dining in stately style

Fearing the irresistible lure of gambling (and inevitable failure) I refrain from placing any bets. Instead, I enjoy my prize back at the hotel, where cocktails have been prepared in Ellenborough's slick, revamped Atrium bar.

Last year, the property underwent a renovation, transforming two dining areas - the country pub-style The Horse Box and the more elegant The Restaurant. We opt for the private dining room worthy of a royal banquet, where executive chef David Williams, who has worked alongside Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, presents a largely British menu. After dinner we retire to The Great Hall, harking back to medieval times with its open fire and golden harp, and sneak up a winding stairwell to The Snug, a tiny room decorated with warm Moroccan furnishings.

Ghosts from the past

Like all worthy Cotswolds hotels, a range of celebrities has passed through these stone doorways: Zara Tindall, Sadie Frost and David Hasselhoff have all checked in at some point.

I wonder if any have stayed in Room 56, reputedly haunted by Lady Ellenborough. In the last three years, 13 people have complained about "a presence", although when I enter the room, where her portrait hangs on blood-red walls, I fail to find any ghostly guests.

My room in the modern wing may lack the atmosphere of the original house, but it's comfortable nonetheless. With a clawfoot bath and four-poster bed, it fits the country bolthole bill.

Ending on a ramble

One of the main reasons people come here is for country walks, putting those wellies and wax jackets to good use. I end my weekend with a muddy stomp up Cleeve Hill, borrowing attire from the hotel's Boot Room to avoid getting my own gear dirty. Taking it easy, I refrain from galloping to the top. And my deserving reward will be a pint and the Sunday papers back in Ellenborough's lounge - and this time, the Racing Post won't even get a look in.

Rooms at Ellenborough Park hotel ( start from £143 per room per night, for a cosy double including breakfast

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