Around 90 minutes southwest of London, the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire is an easy escape from the capital with all the manor house hotel trimmings, a world-class spa and top restaurant. Freelance beauty editor, formerly of Glamour and Vogue, Grace Timothy recently checked in for a family staycation, ready to test the theory that toddlers and antique-filled Downton Abbey digs do mix.
Hotels were our big indulgence before our daughter Émie was born in 2012. Now, if we don’t book a suite, we’re in bed at around 7 p.m. as she drops off for, oh, about six hours then wakes for an hourly interlude, disturbed by the new surroundings. We’ll be dining at 5 p.m., which usually means you’re secreted in a room with the harassed looking parents of other toddlers, a child’s menu and the ensuing hubbub. The luggage required is insane — pack 'n' plays, favorite blankets, comforting toys, all the "necessities" to wash, feed and clothe what can feel like an army trapped in one small body.
So it was a return to old habits when we recently checked in at the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire for a short staycation. As we snaked up the endless driveway to the sight of rolling hills, trees aflame with autumnal leaves and a vast Georgian house, we saw a man and his Labrador waiting for us at the front door. There is valet parking on arrival, and the hotel’s resident dog, Oliver Beckington guided us into the reception area, where we were greeted by the warm glow of a fire in the hearth, and exceptionally attentive service. All a bit like we’d stepped into a Jane Austen novel, actually.
There were no pursed lips or raised eyebrows as Émie climbed the custom-built mini staircase from the floor to the lofty reception desk to present the staff with her latest scab — a particularly juicy number on her knee. Instead, she was invited to check out a vast chest of toys and pick one to welcome her to the hotel. It’s not immediately obvious that children will be welcome — every bright primary color and piece of plastic used to appease tantrums are tucked away until they’re really needed. So, heaven then. It’s all dark wood paneling, grand chandeliers, paintings of former residents and guests, among them King Henry VIII, but I sensed that if your little darling scratched their initials in any of the aforementioned, the staff would still be smiling kindly.
I half expected someone in a mop cap to come and usher Émie away to the nursery, but instead a bellboy excitedly pointed out all the things in our room that were carefully placed there to make her feel welcome (without spilling into the common areas): a fondant bee with her name etched in chocolate; personalized bath toys, childproofing essentials, diapers, wipes, lotion, shampoo and safety pins. Even a "Sleeping Baby" sign for your door to deter anyone foolhardy enough to mess with your designated nap time. The very old-school crib was the only thing Émie turned her nose up at, until the lovely receptionist pointed out she could watch the horses cantering around the grounds from her vantage point at the window, and then deftly distracted her with the mini dressing gown and slippers she would wear constantly until we had to literally prise them off her at check-out. You can also call on the complimentary use of games, books, playing cards, coloring books, crayons and DVDs on offer, plus baby baths, blankets, thermometers, high chairs and even strollers. Suffice it to say, we needn’t have packed much more than clothes.
Émie in her beloved mini dressing gown and feeling right at home in a Garden Room.
We were in a Garden Room on the top floor (fyi, that’s a lot of stairs), the highlights of which were the regency-style decor — quaint with just enough crisp white sheets and sleek mod cons to ensure it’s not twee — a grand claw-footed bath in marbled bathroom, mind-blowing views from vast sash windows and a widescreen with cartoons, of course. It’s one of 133 guestrooms and 22 suites, overlooking either courtyard, parkland or heritage garden views.
If you’re looking for the quintessentially English experience — not the cobbled streets and black cabs of London, but the crisp air, rolling hills and afternoon tea of the countryside — Four Seasons Hampshire brings it all together in one weekend. It’s Downton Abbey with wifi. In clement weather, croquet on the lawns, a horseride, a wander around walled gardens, followed by a spot of falconry and clay pigeon shooting is on offer, and for those with a little more time to spare, a private jaunt down the canal in their bijou houseboat. During the rainy season (roughly 12 months of the year), the hotel’s roaring fires, cozy nooks and elegant library (where afternoon tea is served, with an optional side of bridge or backgammon, perhaps) will leave you feeling as if in just one more scone’s time, you’ll have a legitimate claim to the throne. And you can’t swing a cat without hitting an English architectural icon. Windsor Castle, Jane Austen’s house and the actual Downton Abbey — aka Highclere Castle — are all within an hour’s reach.
Meanwhile the pool, which is housed in a stunning glass pavilion, is as regal as you’d expect, the spa just as tasteful and well-appointed. Swim diapers and floats are (discretely) available, and the adult-only swim hours conveniently coincide with the classic mid-morning nap and bedtime timetable. The tennis, highwire experience, children’s games den (for ages 10+) and pony club (where you can play at owning a horse for a day) were all beyond the means of our pint-sized companion, but the gated playgrounds were both greatly appreciated, as were the acres of grass to run on. And if we return for a longer stay, the Kid For All Seasons might have quite a pull — three to 10 year olds are supervised and lead through activities ranging from storytelling and crafts to treasure hunts and kite-flying. Under-threes are also invited to join with the care of a parent or babysitter. Although they don’t offer a monitor listening service as yet, we could have enlisted the services of a babysitter for a visit to the 1086 bar for a cocktail-shaking masterclass or just a divine dry Martini.
My mouth had been curled up in a smile all day, but then suppertime loomed. Will it be soggy fries and goujons in a mucky high chair, or a memorable but highly tense affair in a stuffy dining room? Well, our kindly receptionist took us through the options. Children are not allowed in the most formal space, Seasons, after 7 p.m., but across the open-plan hallway, Bistro is just as chic but with a more casual, homey menu of produce grown on the property and locally sourced meat. And, refreshingly, there were healthy options on the kids menu, too, from vegetable and fruit purees for the very young, to crunchy crudites, vegetable soups and hearty bolognese for older children. On leaving, we were offered an apple from the orchard. Wholesome to the core.
After a surprisingly good sleep — that dodgy-looking crib, once wheeled into the cosy nook in the corner must have had a magic something about it — and half the usual number of cartoons, we were so ready for the hearty breakfast we’d heard so much about. English classics like a fully stocked fry-up, porridge, kedgeree and good old fashioned boiled eggs with toast soldiers were beautifully executed, and the buffet covered every other taste, including pancakes, charcuterie, fresh fruit, continental pastries, smoked salmon, nuts, seeds, granola and more. Everything was perfect and for our daughter, a total revelation.