As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, the city can seem like a bleak and grey place to be. What better time to plan an escape to the country, and what better place to visit during the festive season than the birthplace of the Christmas card?
Orestone Manor in South Devon was built in 1830 and was once home to narrative painter Sir John Callcott Horsley. His painting of his famous brother-in-law and neighbour, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, but Horsley is probably best known as the designer of the world’s first commercial Christmas card. Created in 1843, the card caused some controversy at the time as it depicted a small child drinking wine. Today, with less than 20 in existence, including one in the V&A, the cards can fetch over £25,000 at auction.
In the 1850s, Orestone would have been the setting for many family gatherings for the Horsleys and Brunels (Rudyard Kipling was another famous neighbour), but today, it’s a country house hotel run by the charming D’allen family and their friendly staff. Most of the 14 individually decorated bedrooms have spectacular sea views over Lyme Bay, and Maidencombe beach, with its distinctive red sand and seal and dolphin watching, is a short walk away, but one of the highlights of staying here must be the award-winning restaurant.
Owners Neil and Catherine are both experienced chefs and their ethos is to source the finest local ingredients, including South Devon beef, Exmoor lamb, local estate wild game, dayboat fish from Brixham and Teign River mussels. They also grow seasonal fruit and vegetables in their own kitchen garden. Dishes are complimented by local ale, cider and wine.
Start your evening by a roaring fire in the cosy lounge with The Botanical, a delectable concoction of sage, elderflower, Crème de Figue and Tanqueray gin. Continue the cocktail theme in the restaurant with the Brixham Crab Martini starter with avocado, mango ice and poppy seed straw – a sophisticated update on the classic prawn cocktail – or salmon cured in gin and beetroot, with fennel salad, lobster sauce and rosemary focaccia.
The Loin of Venison with creamed celeriac, buttered kale, pomme fondant and garden blackberries makes a hearty and comforting winter main course. If you’re keen to make the most of the seaside location, try the Pan Roasted Fillet of Bass, with Palourde clams, Serrano ham crisp, lobster bisque, saffron cocotte potato and fine beans. An extensive wine list includes monthly recommendations and the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff are happy to help if you’re spoilt for choice.
Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate the Banoffee Plate with coffee panacotta, caramelised banana and chocolate ice cream, but for those with a savory palate, there’s also artisan West Country cheeses, such as Godminster Cheddar, Cornish Yarg and Dorset Blue Vinney. Pair with a Somerset cider brandy for the perfect partnership.
If you’ve still not had your fill of local produce, plan a trip to nearby Sharpham, a thousand-year-old farm on the banks of the River Dart, producing award-winning fine wines and cheeses. Take a tour of the vineyard, learn how delicious Devonshire cheese – including the famous Sharpham Brie – is made, and enjoy a tasting in the winery.
Orestone is also a short drive from Torquay. Here, palm trees sway along the seafront, grand old hotels line the promenade and white, Italian style villas punctuate the hillsides – a reminder that a hundred years ago, this was a favourite haunt of the rich and famous. Today it’s less Belle Époque and more the standard seaside fair of fish and chips and rock candy, but there are sandy beaches, dramatic coastal walks and plans for extensive regeneration of the town centre underway.
Arriving at the picture postcard village of Cockington, just a few minutes from Torquay, is like stepping into another world and time. Thatched cottages line the village green, there is a working forge, waterwheel and a medieval church and a friendly, Lutyen’s-designed local pub. Take a stroll in the rolling country park that surrounds Cockington Court – once a stately home and now a centre for local artisans. Here you can pick up some truly unique Christmas gifts from the blacksmith or glassblowers in the stable yard and as well as a Tudor rose garden, there is a garden showcasing contemporary art. Be sure to stop at the Cockington Chocolate Company for perfect stocking fillers in the form of beautifully packaged, bespoke Belgian chocolates.
Other attractions close to Orestone include the 800-year-old Torre Abbey, with its impressive art collection and tranquil gardens, and the steam train ride along the stunning Dart valley on the South Devon Railway but, when you’re tired of sightseeing, you can head back to the hotel to relax in your private hot tub. Just be sure to make time for a delicious cream tea of homemade scones and preserves with clotted cream. No trip to Devon would be complete without it.
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