Downton Abbey Eat Your Heart Out:
I love the West Country and find it such a beautiful and diverse part of the world. Despite it being a fair journey from London, I take every opportunity I can to immerse myself in the rugged beauty of its coastlines and national parks or to explore the picture-perfect villages dotted around. I would normally travel by car (a journey which can offer no more than the delights of the M4) but on this occasion, I was going to let the train take the strain. And so it did; as we pulled out of Paddington station I sat back and enjoyed the ever-changing landscape that passed by my window. In fact, I was blown away by the stunning views that came into focus as we reached Exeter and moved on to my final destination of Totnes.
However, it wasn’t just the journey that was going to make this a particularly relaxing and stress-free weekend. As I am a PA by profession, it seems to naturally gravitate towards me to be the one organising trips and holidays. Of course, it is flattering when I am told by friends and family that “I do it so well” but it is also quite a responsibility when you are the one who has done the organising in a place that you are unfamiliar with. So you can imagine how happy I was to have found a holiday company who can not only book beautiful self-catering accommodation but who can also act as a concierge service and organise your entire holiday for you!
Blue Chip Holidays were set up 15 years ago by a lady local to the South West and specialise in finding exceptional self-catering properties. They have now expanded to a team of 60 and have recently launched their Blue Chip Experience, offering a personal consultation to ascertain exactly what you are looking to get from your trip. The team benefit from being local to the area and can draw upon their local knowledge in making the right recommendations and handpicking the best local operators. Although their remit has now extended from Devon and Cornwall to Dorset, the Isle of Wight and Yorkshire.
For our trip, they had selected the beautiful, Grade II listed manor house, Stowford Manor in Devon. The property is located in the town of Ivybridge and is handy for exploring the beaches and coastline of the South Hams region, as well as being close to Dartmoor National Park.
The property is owned by Fiona Wilson, who was the runner-up in the recent BBC series, The Great Interior Design Challenge. Fiona’s flair for interior design is evident throughout the house, which has been decorated to the highest standard. Each of the 6 bedrooms has an individual style and perfect little touches which give the house a real home from home feel. I totally fell in love with the feather-adorned bedside lamps in my room! She has also very cleverly incorporated 21st Century “necessities” such as Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV and a touch control electric hob, alongside the property’s original features; the most spectacular being the stained glass window on the stairwell which pictures Sir Francis Drake being knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1. Although what I especially liked was that despite the high quality of the furnishings, you didn’t feel as if you were frightened to touch anything. In fact, after two rather full on days, we were very happy to be able to chill out in our PJ’s in front of the roaring fire and watch a DVD (provided) on Sunday night.
Not surprisingly the most popular request from Blue Chip is to provide a private chef to cook at the properties. We were fortunate enough to have this experience on both nights and the quality of the cooking easily rivalled that of any good restaurant. In a property as splendid as Stowford, you and your guests can still get dressed up and pretend you are in Downton Abbey as you sit in the grand dining room and have the chef serve you.
Our dining experience on the first night was a normal service but on the second night, the chef gave us a cookery demonstration as well as serving up the most delicious menu. He was very enthusiastic about our starter of boa (a Cantonese barbecue-pork-filled bun) which are very on-trend at present and apparently a new addition to the South West food scene. I then learnt the perfect way to pan fry a duck breast, which was served in a gravy made from beef bones. We were then all intrigued to try the raw honeycomb which he had brought to adorn our vegetarian’s celeriac main course (sweet and tasty, if a little waxy). We were then shown how to serve an apple in a variety of ways before being bowled over by the “tipsy” brandy cream which was piped into the brandy snap. Had we have wanted to get even more hands-on, Blue Chip could have organised a cookery lesson for us. Although we were all happy enough to oh and ah at our chef’s efforts before heading back to the dining room to devour it!
To really take all of the stress out of self-catering, you can also ask Blue Chip to provide a hamper of provisions for your arrival (including wine!) We were especially lucky to find that Fiona’s creative flair also runs to baking and she had left a home-made Victoria sponge as a welcome gift for our arrival.
iven our close proximity to Dartmoor, we were keen to explore, especially as we had been blessed with an abundance of late autumnal sunshine on Sunday morning. Blue Chip had us picked up by a local and very friendly taxi driver and taken to a riding stable for a morning’s hack. I have done a fair bit of riding in the past but the others were novices and I was impressed with how helpful and patient the girl at the stables was. They even provided boots and gloves, as well as the obligatory hat. With a short lesson on how to start and stop for those who needed it, we set off on our beautiful, gentle ponies. Given how late autumn has stayed with us this year, the colours on Dartmoor were stunning and I felt blessed as my four-legged companions and I wielded our way across the stunning countryside, bathed in sunshine. At one point we passed a herd of wild ponies and I did wonder if Mia (my pony) looked enviously at them as I urged her past. However, by the time we had made it back to the stables the sunshine had been replaced by rather dark clouds and as the rain drops started to come down and I saw how fast Mia retreated into her stable, I decided perhaps she wasn’t that envious after all!
After that exercise, we were ready for lunch and Blue Chip had made us a reservation at the nearby Rugglestone Inn. This was literally a 10 minute walk from the stables and was a real find. However, as it is in the middle of nowhere, not somewhere you are going to stumble across. It was a quaint little pub (and I mean little) serving excellent home cooked food. But it was heaving when we arrived and without a reservation, you would never have been seated. In fact, one couple were so desperate for their lunch, we saw them sitting in the lean-to in the garden surrounded by a gaggle of geese!
It really is these little touches that make the whole Blue Chip experience really worthwhile and make for an entirely stress-free break for everyone. I wish I had known about them when I organised my last big birthday bash but with the next one now only a few years away, I will certainly be contacting them in the future!
Blue Chip Holidays offer 3 nights at Stowford Manor in Ivybridge, Devon from £105 per person based on 12 sharing on a self-catering basis. Activities, experiences and a private chef can be arranged through Blue Chip Holidays bespoke concierge service, Blue Chip Experience for a hassle-free break.www.bluechipholidays.co.uk/ +44 (0) 333 3317 995.