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In Tarka Land with not an Otter in Sight:
Do you remember the film ‘A Ring of Bright Water’? I do – and as a child, watching otters in the wild in Somerset when I was walking with my Grandfather. These days I suspect otter spotting is a rarer occurrence, but the Tarka Line still exists – a local rail service in Devon which runs along the areas where the film was made. Northcote Manor in North Devon, my destination, is close to Umberleigh, one of the Tarka line stations and in many ways, I’d have loved to try the train service there. But the vagueries of weekend train travel did put me off – and so instead I borrowed a car from Drivy, the latest peer to peer car hire service. My nearest Drivy lives just around the corner from where I live and at around £40 a day, it’s an easy alternative to having my own car in London.
Needless to say, I got lost on the way there – despite reading the careful instructions provided on the hotel website. I DID end up going through a spaghetti junction of lanes and villages and at one point wondered if I’d ever reach Northcote Manor itself. Never mind, it is some of the prettiest countryside in England and baring a slight concern that I might be going round in circles, I had no time constraints.
Arriving at Northcote Manor has a feeling of grandeur to it. Set in twenty acres of woodland, you drive up a winding path to reach the Manor House. It looks as if it might have been the setting for any number of Jane Austin novels. If only Mr Darcy opened the door for me!
Instead, there was a blazing fire and a friendly front of house member offering to help me with my bags.
The Orchard Suite where I was staying for the night was the kind of place I’d love to visit more regularly. In the tradition of English Country House Hotels, it was spacious, very comfortable and decorated in those delicate pale greens chintzes and country fabrics that give a timeless feel to a place.
A small tin of homemade shortbread biscuits was devoured quickly, washed down with a cup of tea. Having taken the scenic route to the hotel, it was already dusk when I arrived so I just relaxed in my room, ran a hot bath and enjoyed doing nothing for an hour or so before dinner.
Downstairs in the lounge, the fires were still burning. I arrived early, to an empty room, and was quickly offered an aperitif and canapes. As I sipped and nibbled away while checking the menu, more people arrived. Most had been walking, exploring the countryside. And all of them were enthusiastically looking forward to dinner.
A tiny amuse bouche of vegetable soup was followed by a delicious and light chicken and duck liver parfait with a garnish of Madeira jelly, truffle salad and a white truffle scented croute.
I’d asked for the chef’s recommendation from the two red meat options – venison or beef and had been surprised he’d chosen the beef which seemed the less ‘cheffy’ option. But I wasn’t in the least disappointed with my tournedos of free-range Heal Farm red ruby beef fillet, with boulangere potatoes and some wonderfully caramelised shallots and baby carrots. It came with plenty of rich almost sticky gravy and the well-flavoured meat was meltingly tender. Serving boulangere rather than their richer dauphinoise potatoes was a thoughtful way to balance what could have been a heavy main course.
Paired with a glass of De Bertoli Deen VAT series No 1, a Petit Sirah or Durif, it made for a perfect winter’s main course.
For dessert, a white chocolate dome with fresh raspberries, meringue and raspberry sorbet, which was light, refreshing and a good end to the meal.
There was more to come – I ended up declining the petit fours that were served with coffee because I was too full. The restaurant has two AA Rosettes at present – no mean accolade. But, I really felt it deserved more. Service and food were excellent throughout the evening. I rolled my way up to bed where I slept perfectly.
The next morning, breakfast was served in the conservatory For me it lacked the elegance of the main dining room, though I’d imagine in summer time it’s a splendid place to start the day with great views across the gardens. It was a fine breakfast though, with excellent toast and plenty of tea! I’d eaten far too much the night before but wanted to check the a la carte selection. Smoked salmon proved to be just the ticket – it was light, refreshing and just the right amount to feel indulgent.
Then a stroll around the house and gardens. I’d woken to a beautiful sunrise and by 9.30 am the mist was rising over the fields.
I wish I’d had longer to explore the grounds – it was such beautiful morning and would have been perfect for one of those crisp autumnal walks
Instead, I contented myself with taking pictures of the Manor House. It is a traditional English Country House hotel that I suspect hasn’t changed too much since it first opened as such in 1972. The ‘new’ manor house was built in 1716, although there’s a Victorian wing to the North East, added later. Remains of the original building can still be seen in the grounds and there are Parish records dating back to 1592. there’s also a mention of the manor as it was in 1103 – in the reign of King Henry I in the papers of a previous owner, the Right Honourable Sir Stafford Northcote who died in the late 1800s.
It’s had many owners including Richard Babbage (I believe an ancestor of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer) and Colonel Gracey who built the Northern Indian railway system. The motto over the door reads ‘I follow the light’.
The Hotel regularly hosts shooting parties in season and the private dining room was beautifully set up for dinner that night. Quite jealous, I started to wonder if I could find an excuse to stay and slot in one extra chair!
There are plenty of cosy nooks to curl up with a book if the weather happens to be inclement.
And, depending on your taste, you can pick from a range of different styles in the bedrooms and suites. I took a look at one other suite and at a smaller but nevertheless charming superior room.
Perhaps most significantly though, I chatted to some of the other guests. A couple who were celebrating a significant birthday were enthusing about the food.
‘It’s fine dining but it’s ENGLISH food’
Indeed it is, traditional English dishes made with local ingredients and at a reasonable price (the set menu I enjoyed, three courses and amuse bouche is £45).
Another was particularly taken by the quiet peaceful countryside and the stunning walks with views.
The staff genuinely feel like a ‘family’ in their own right – and they seem to love the hotel as much as the guests. Everything was immaculately clean – something which is a given in a modern City hotel but rather more of a challenge in a traditional country house hotel.
And, I was impressed to see that they have special country house hotel Christmas offers – it WOULD be a wonderful way to spend Christmas or the New Year – with someone else taking all the pain of Christmas preparations!
This is somewhere to base yourself if you’d like to explore North Devon. There are plenty of walks both within the twenty acres of woodland owned by the Hotel and in the surrounding countryside. There is game fishing on the River Taw, an 18 hole golf course a stone’s throw away at Libbaton and it’s possible to go riding or cycling in the countryside too. The hotel has a hard tennis court and a croquet lawn if you prefer to stay closer to home.
It does very quickly feel like a home from home. And I’d be happy to find myself there again…I just need the right excuse!
Driving back through the beautiful West of England Countryside I was happy to be making use of the Drivy service. It was my first time using their app and cars – and I was particularly impressed by the automated system to pick the car up and return it, which included taking pictures of every angle of the car on pickup and return to ensure that I wouldn’t be mistakenly charged for damage to the vehicle. I’m looking forward to trying the service next time – perhaps on a slightly shorter journey!
Northcote Manor Country House Hotel
Northcote Manor is a member of Signpost Hotels.
Signpost has been recommending the UK’s top privately owned hotels since 1935. All Signpost members are visited every year, to make sure top standards are maintained. Most are near areas of outstanding beauty with plenty to do or see in the area; many are hidden gems, all have award winning cuisine. For more details and to receive news about great hotel offers visit www.signpost.co.uk.
Thinking of visiting Devon yourself? why not pin this post for later
Disclosure: I was a guest of Northcote Manor and was given a complimentary trial of Drivy for the purpose of this review. All content is editorially given.