Countryside Pursuits – Four Seasons Hampshire

The Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire offers visitors a slice of quintessentially British country living, with outdoor activities and a stately abode that brings aristocratic living to present-day lords of the manor.

The English country gent is one of the great sartorial looks – traditional, refined and well-cut but with a workable, everyday, effortless appearance. Where else could you pair a tailored three-piece tweed suit with Wellington boots and look dapper? But donning the tweed, flat cap and a pair of royal green Hunter Field Balmoral Wellington boots only works when you’re actually in the countryside. You need the green fields, trees and hedgerows as a backdrop to make the outfit work otherwise you just look like late-‘90s Guy Ritchie.

Increasingly though, the well-heeled are dipping into that lifestyle for some refined getaways and the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire has become one of the great British retreats for history and high-end luxury.

The country retreat has long been a fine way for city dwellers to get out of the concrete surroundings and relax. For Londoners this is near enough to head off after work on a Friday – perhaps ducking out for a fictional meeting to beat the rush-hour traffic – and get there in time for pre-dinner drinks, yet it’s far enough from city smog to really feel like you’re in the English countryside. An hour southwest of London it’s also an easy drive from Heathrow Airport and international travellers are steadily waking up to the joys of a few days soaking up historical England in bucolic five-star style.

Set in 500 acres of historic parkland, the site has history that dates back to 1086, when Dogmersfield – the small patch of Hampshire in which the hotel resides – was first mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s here that Henry VIII met Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives. It’s that marriage, and more specifically Henry’s desire to annul it, that famously led to the English Reformation and changed the course of British history. The manor was acquired in 1539 by Henry VIII and in the subsequent years it’s been passed down through a succession of knights and baronets until eventually the Four Season renovated the buildings and the hotel opened here in 2005.

Putting a modern five-star hotel into historic country buildings was never going to be easy, but the Four Seasons have pulled it off remarkably well. Inside, none of the floors creak, there’s not a draft to be felt and it feels luxurious and contemporary, but still conveys that rarefied air of upper-class living in England’s rural pastures.

Rooms and suites feel resolutely English – all floral patterns and calming tones, historic artwork, wood furniture and views of the grounds and gardens. The bathrooms are decked out in coloured marble with big walk-in showers that invite you to spend a bit longer than needed as you luxuriate with Asprey products. The Wild Carrot restaurant and bar – named after the wildflower that’s found in the estate’s fields – is one of those modern British restaurants that make you want to try everything on the menu. England is going through an culinary revolution right now and it’s restaurants like Wild Carrot that are leading the charge for locally and regionally sourced seasonal produce, including goods from nearby Laverstoke Park, salad greens from Secretts Farm, cheeses from Winchester, Tunworth, Waterloo and Barkham Blue.

It’s not just a necessary sop to carbon efficiency but more a smiling celebration of some of the best food the region has to offer. Just as Henry VII and his cohorts came here for hunting, so places like this are bringing the idea of eating well and eating locally back, and they do it with a panache that proves fine dining isn’t only to be found in the big cities. The bar has even commissioned their own gin, which has been created in conjunction with local brewers and using botanicals from the area.

It all adds up to a sense that this is somewhere to unwind and indulge in that rarest of modern luxuries – stress-free living. To sit in the lounge with afternoon tea, in front of views of the rolling fields, a near silence only broken by the occasional rustling of a broadsheet newspaper, has a calming effect that even a one-hour massage can’t match. You’ll wish you’d packed a few Jeeves and Wooster books and cancelled afternoon plans. But if massage is your thing then the onsite spa – located in the original 18th century stable block – has an extensive programme including marine-based ESPA aromatherapy products. However, it’s not all about sedentary relaxation if you want a bit more from your countryside experience.

The sprawling lands around the manor house were once Royal hunting grounds and although you’re no longer able to saddle up and head out to hunt wild boar and deer, you can pick up a gun and get a taste for some country sport at their clay pigeon shooting range. It has six stalls offering different challenges and the expert guide here will help school you in the basics of shooting – or the finer elements for those looking to improve their skills. As the crack of the shotgun echoes off the trees and clay shatters above you it’s a hugely enjoyable way to spend some outdoor time.

For the more adventurous, or younger guests full of bravado, there’s a treetop walk which takes you on a journey through the canopy in a nearby wood, a big zip line and powerfan free-fall experience that requires some nerve to jump from a ledge 13 metres up in the trees and let a harness break your fall – it certainly adds a dash of adrenaline to your morning.

For those visiting with children, perhaps not so enamoured by historical settings and fine dining, then a new addition from last year was Sharkie’s Reef – an indoor family-friendly pool designed by Disney and Warner Brothers sculptor Justin Pook, that comes with a 13-foot waterslide, rotating umbrella fountain and bubble jets. Horse riding, cycling and even a gentle game of croquet are also on offer, but really, there’s something just perfect about finishing an early breakfast, tipping your hat to the doorman and heading out with long strides into the crisp air of old Albion as the morning mist still lingers over the surrounding fields. You’re walking in the footsteps of old British royalty.

If this all gives you a taste for more history and modernity entwining then Highclere Castle is just a 40-minute drive away. The Jacobean stately home is full of history and tragedy, but is now better known as the setting of the BBC drama Downton Abbey. (Jeeves and Wooster also filmed here, which for the discerning gent is far more impressive). Downton was filmed in many of the rooms throughout the home and tours are available at certain times of the year. It’s a rare chance to visit an historic building and film set in one go and what you see in the series is just how it is today, but check ahead as when filming is not taking place is it still the home of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and Lady Carnarvon.

Back in Dogmersfield Park, the Four Seasons staff has completed the turndown service, the curtains are being drawn, horses are back in the stables, the barman has an idea of a little something you might just like, and there’s a lovely bit of local game on the menu next door. Old Henry would have loved it here.

Dogmersfield Park, Chalky Lane, Dogmersfield, Hampshire RG27 8TD, England, 01252 853 000.

For The Rake magazine

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