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Stapleford Park and Hambleton Hall country houses offer taste of how the other half live

By Roger St Pierre with Hazel Kempster

Given today’s escalating property prices, most of us can only dream of life the way more wealthy souls live it. But thanks to these islands’ vibrant country house hotel movement, we can at least afford ourselves a taster whose price might make us wince a little but will not break the bank.

A long weekend drifting through Middle England’s shires gave us the opportunity to sample two of the group’s showcase properties.

A Chicago raised restaurateur, hotelier, bon viveur and confirmed Anglophile, the late Bob Payton was a truly larger than life character whose driving ambition was to live the hunting, shooting and fishing fuelled lifestyle of an English country squire – and then share the experience beyond his own family and circle of close friends so that ordinary souls could savour a taste of how the other half live.

That was what led him to purchase elegant Stapleford Park and transform it from a stately home in decline into a thriving country house hotel with a formidable “wow” factor.

With roots going back to the time of the Norman Conquest, Stapleford had been home to the same family for more than 400 years before being bought, re-styled and lavishly expanded by Bass beer tycoon Lord Gretton in 1894.

With massive windows and heavy doors, ornately plastered high ceilings and spacious rooms, at first acquaintance the frontage of Stapleford as it stands today resembles a classic château from France’s bejewelled Loire Valley but closer inspection opens up a quintessentially English ambience, from the flamboyant Jacobean styling of the older part of the house and the wealth of lavish furnishings, wall hangings and valuable antiques proudly displayed throughout to the breathtakingly exquisite wood panelled carvings of the dining room – work that has been credited to the fabled Grinling Gibbons and his Victorian craftsmen.

It might have been a trifle irreverent but Bob Payton’s masterstroke was to invite such fashion and style icons as Laura Ashley, David Hicks, Cocoa Cola and Gieves & Hawkes to each decorate and furbish one of the guest-rooms – and that meant 55 dramatically individual designs in all.

Sadly, Payton died in a road accident, motoring home from London. Thankfully, however, others have continued to develop this glorious property with an eager eye for the quirky, whimsical little details and big, sweeping, gestures that Bob delighted in unveiling for his appreciative guests – from stuffed toys on the sweeping stairs to the fully restored old Victorian kitchen.

It’s a happy house; a home, rather, where guests can feel as comfortably relaxed in jeans and worn old hacking jackets – Bob Payton’s favoured garb, by the way – as they feel wonderfully elegant when evening dress comes into its own

There’s now a Donald Steel designed 18-hole golf course, wending its way through the delightful 4,500 acres of verdant parkland; six resurfaced tennis courts; an expansive Clarins Gold spa and a magnificent thatched golf pavilion that features its own exclusive accommodations. A large lake, manicured lawns, and gardens, formal parterre layouts and wildflower filled meadows are all in the mix.

Close by the A1 London to Edinburgh trunk road and in easy reach of the East Coast express train service at Peterborough (an hour from London), Stapleford Park also has good airport access to Luton and Stansted.

Set where Leicestershire melds into Rutland – England’s smallest county – this superb sporting estate is just four miles from Melton Mowbray ­– home of the traditional pork pie and of Stilton cheese too.

Just a handful of miles away at the equally inviting Hambleton Hall , we awakened early next day to the sound of the dawn chorus, went to the window and watched Mr Fox pad across the immaculately manicured lawn on his way home after a night on the tiles.

Set on the edge of sparkling Rutland Water, the stunningly beautiful Edwardian pile that is Hambleton Hall is another prime Pride of Britain marketed country house property.

It’s a friendly house-party experience – like staying with dear friends, rather than at a stuffy formal hotel.

Under the inspired leadership of proprietors Tim and Stefa Hart, the ever helpful staff assure the fastidiously smooth running of a year-round schedule of special events, from wine lectures and gourmet showcase meals to garden parties, mushroom hunts and cruises around placid Rutland Water.

Surrounded by graceful mature trees, formal flowerbeds and manicured lawns that sweep down to the water’s edge, the hotel’s setting on a low bluff opens out delightful views.

Guest bedrooms are varied in size, decoration and outlook – all of them offering the same exemplary levels of cosseting comfort and attention to detail.

Roaring log fires in winter, cooling breezes wafting in the smell of summer roses – the ambiance here is convivial, steeped in luxury but never pretentious.

Three superbly appointed private dining rooms provide a perfect setting for small parties or romantic diners ‘a deux’, offering seasonal menus that make the most of local artisan produced ingredients. Dishes run the gamut from classic traditional favourites to inventive and beautifully presented modern Mediterranean inspired creations.

Head chef Aaron Patterson has been wielding his magic in Hambleton’s award-winning kitchen for close on two decades.

Working on the sound principle that people are more important than even premises when it comes to running a successful hospitality venue, staffing levels are high, with more than 55 employees on the books.

Hambleton Hall is an idyllic place in which to unwind on the terrace and simply let the hours slip by – accompanied, perhaps, by a good book and a nice chilled glass of wine. But, if you want to be more active, there is plenty to see and do locally.

Small it might be but Rutland offers lots to the visitor. Prime attractions include the magnificent 12th Century Norman Great Hall of Oakham Castle, the Rutland Falconry & Owl Centre, Rutland County Museum, the myriad watersports activities on Rutland Water and the 39 lovingly tended gardens that fill the delightful eight acres of nearby Barnsdale Gardens – the life’s work of BBC ‘Gardeners World’ presenter the late Geoff Hamilton.

A final tip. Before departing Hambleton, make sure to call just down the road at the Hambleton Bakery, established by Tim Hart and Baking Industry Awards ‘Baker of the Year’ Julian Carter in 2008 and now boasting five retail outlets of its own, as well as supplying other shops, restaurants and hotels across the region.

For a special treat, try their delicious Rutland Pippin, developed for ITV’s ‘Britain’s Best Bakery’ competition, with a crusty dough encasing Lincolnshire sausage meat, ham hock and Stilton cheese, topped off with handmade Bramley apple purée.

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