Driving right into the turn off for Fawsley, from the A361 leading north away from Banbury towards Daventry, you soon enter an arcane landscape, planned, shaped and planted by 18th century gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown and centuries of farming and conservation. A calm arcadia, its unspoiled ridge and furrow horizon rolls out to infinity. One mile further, by the time you enter the wrought iron gates announcing Fawsley Hall Hotel, you will certainly feel you have left the modern world behind you.
I have been coming here for a number of years, and in fact I lived for five years in a small village about ten minutes south of Fawsley. Northamptonshire is not bedecked with crowning jewels when it comes to lovely places to stay and eat, and Fawsley Hall is widely recognised as the choice booking for high days, holidays, special dinners and celebrations. It is a place of otherworldly stillness. If you are looking for anything other than relaxation, grazing sheep and quiet, utterly pitch black darkness at night, then this place is not for you.
The history of the house dates back as far as the 7th Century, when a Royal Manor stood on the land that came to be called “Fealuweslea”, the deer forest hunting grounds of Anglo Saxon Kings. If you read the hotel’s history sheet you will be taken right through the Middle Ages, the Black Death, religious prosecutions and the invasion of William the Conqueror. It was in 1416 that Richard Knightley came to live here as Lord of the Manor: he was a Staffordshire lawyer and paterfamilias of a dynasty who married well, acquired lands and invested wealth and, despite uprisings and civil wars, many generations of the family prospered.
The last of the Knightleys to leave the Hall, the childless Sir Henry Francis, did so in 1938, and the Gage family, a different branch of the family, inherited it but never lived here because they owned a family seat in Sussex. It is difficult to believe that the house was requisitioned by the army in both the first and second World Wars and then fell into disrepair, until it was purchased in 1975 by antique dealers, Mr and Mrs. E.A.Saunders. They secured its renovation and refurbishment, and an ambitious consortium of entrepreneurs came together in 1996 to create the Fawsley Hall Hotel.
The main talking point of everyone’s stay at Fawsley, leaving aside the beauty of its 2000 acre surroundings (still owned by the Gage family), is the Great Hall. Commissioned in 1537, it towers above you, stretches in front of you and leads your eyes to the side of you, out across the fields through stained glass and wide bay windows with intricately carved alcove ceilings. There is a huge Tudor fireplace in the centre of the back wall, with the family coat of arms as well as that of the twenty-six crusading knights who accompanied Richard Knightley into battle.
The room is beautifully furnished with very well chosen antique furniture and pieces that create a soft, warm and welcoming atmosphere. There is absolutely nothing intimidating or snobbish about Fawsley: you can walk your dog across fields, come in for lunch or just relax in your wet Barbour jacket in front of a roaring fire and hot tea. There are high backed chairs that create small nooks of privacy around the room, squashy cushions on deep sofas, plenty of local magazines and flowers everywhere. When the hotel first opened at the end of the 1990’s I remember talking to a very aristocratic, opinionated art dealer at a dinner party, who mentioned he had been to stay at Fawsley. I asked him what he thought of the refurbishment, and he looked at me very grandly and said, “I think they’ve got it spot on”.
If you find the will and the energy to remove yourself from this room and make your way into the bar and the restaurant, then do so, because Fawsley have invested a great deal of time, money and focus on bringing their restaurants into the spot light of the foodie collective consciousness. There is a more informal, brasserie style dining room, which is elegant and hushed, as one would expect in a venue of this sort, and then there is a more fine-dining experience within the Equilibrium dining room, private and separate in its own enclave. Carpets are deep, chairs are upholstered and linens are starched: ancestors look down at you from gilded frames and piped music fills the air.
I lunched here, after a few years of not having visited, with the Northamptonshire food writer and broadcaster Vanessa Kimbell, whose knowledge of local food producers led us both to think the Head Chef, John Rix (who has worked for John-Burton Race and Michael Caines) and the management were missing a trick in not sourcing the raw ingredients from local suppliers.
There is not a great deal that would lift the cooking at Fawsley from very good to great (homebaked grissini instead of packet ones, homemade jam instead of shop bought, local meat and game instead of sourcing from central England dealers Aubrey Allen, the growing of some vegetables and herbs) but certainly the intention is there to create excellence: food is an important part of the Fawsley Hall mission to attract visitors from London. Certainly it is a challenge, commercially, to attract tourists to an area like this, as many head straight from London to places like Bath, Oxford or the Cotswolds. Good food with local provenance is the magnet that draws like no other.
The Menu is fairly long, featuring six starters, three pasta dishes, four fish dishes, three salads (as either starters or mains), six mains and a whole host of side dishes. The wine list is also long and eclectic, with a good range of classics and New World vintages and a good selection of wine by the glass.
The highlight of our meal was a perfectly cooked sea bream, the catch of the day from the Flying Fish in Fowey, on a curried risotto with a soft and runny golden yolked poached egg: the dish was well seasoned, beautifully presented and delicious. Equally the roast of Gressingham Duck with choucroute and mustard sauce was excellent, with the depth of flavour in the flesh that one would expect in the bird at this time of year, all enveloped in a rich, velvety sauce.
The patisserie Chef at Fawsley is to be highly commended: the sticky toffee pudding with ginger butterscotch and clotted cream was a triumph, as were the teatime scones, cakes and pastries served with tea, back in the Great Hall. On a very modern stainless steel and black slate cake tray are served freshly baked, soft, warm scones with jam and clotted cream, little raspberry pastry tarts, chocolate macarons, gingerbread cake and pistachio mousses on a chocolate base. This is what the country house hotel visit is all about: tapestry rugs, roaring fires, lit candles and clinking porcelain tea cups.
The service from the greeting at reception, right through the restaurant and beyond is respectful, discreet and quiet. The General Manager, Brian Garside, is very relaxed and open, and told me the owners of the property urged him not to wear a tie because they want the guests to feel like they don’t need to wear a tie either. There is a charming, uniformed American gentleman waiter with the deepest New York accent who told us he was born, of all places, in Reading.
There is a great deal to see and do in the area if you are going to make a whole weekend or few days of the trip: Canons Ashby (one of the prettiest houses in the National Trust’s portfolio), Kenilworth Castle, Sulgrave Manor, Warwick Castle and Stowe Gardens are all nearby and well worth exploring. Do walk round the parklands of Fawsley, over six miles rambling around some of Britain’s most unspoiled countryside. Or if pampering and relaxation is more your aim, then the hotel has its own spa, hot tub, indoor pool, gym and beauty treatment rooms, created out of ancillary buildings in the courtyard.
I came to stay and dine here over many years since the hotel opened over a decade ago. I thought that if ever I should write a travel or food journal I wanted to tell the world about Fawsley Hall, to encourage support and enthusiasm for one of the few large country house hotels left in private hands in Britain. Little did I know then that the digital world would create endless opportunities for travellers and food lovers to shout their discoveries across social media and Blogs. From the moment you hear the scrunch of the driveway’s gravel beneath your feet, step onto the flagstone pediment and open the big wooden entrance door, you know you have arrived somewhere very special and unique.
Fawsley Hall: www.fawsleyhall.com
Follow on twitter: @FawsleyHall