It is one thing to visit a stately home, it is quite another to stay behind out of hours and make one your temporary home. Louisa Castle gets a taste for being the lady of the manor at Weston Park in Shropshire
We enjoy quite a few stately homes on our doorstep, learning about the history as we stroll around the homes or just enjoying the outdoor spaces which surround them. Weston Park has all that to offer but also offers the opportunity to stay in one of the 28 period bedrooms, dine in the room which housed dinner parties with Disraeli, relax beneath paintings by Stubbs and live in the house once the ropes and guidebooks have been put away for the evening.
Available to hire out completely for business or pleasure, Weston also offers dine and stay experiences and this is what allowed my husband and me to test drive being Lord and Lady of the Manor for a weekend.
Arriving on a glorious Friday afternoon along the winding driveway it is an easy thing to drift to Bronte-esque scenes of flowing gowns and Mr Darcy. And as you pull up to the main entrance the scenes play out further, as Graeme, the head butler whisks away our luggage and escorts us to the terrace for fresh lemonade with the rest of the guests.
The House is open to the public in season and there’s a team of volunteers who have a wealth of information to share if you choose to take a tour of the house. It may not be for everyone but the stories and connections are amazing. The collection boasts paintings from Stubbs and Van Eyck, furniture from Chippendale and a breath taking set of very rare French Gobelin tapestries not to mention a treasury which includes the Stem Cup, fashioned from Charles II’s Great Seal of England. Whether you’re an art aficionado or the other half who is typically dragged around a gallery we would recommend a tour.
As the house closed it was time for Afternoon Tea in the Orangery. For those of you who are Heston Blumenthal fans, you will recognise the room from his last series, there are no edible plates though. Head Chef, Guy Day, however has put his own interpretation on the traditional with jasmine tea custards and black forest gateau cupcakes to accompany the traditional cucumber sandwiches and scones.
With full stomachs we retire to our room for a quick change and chance to explore the formal gardens. We stayed in the Disraeli Room with views across the Capability Brown parkland through the huge shutter framed windows. The rooms are beautifully decorated in period style, spacious and comfortable but the star of the show remains the view.
The 1,000 hectare estate is managed by head gardener, Martin Gee, whose family has lived at Weston since 1803. The formal gardens seamlessly fuse into the landscaped parkland and hunting lodge beyond in one direction and to Temple Woods to the other, a rare example of Capability Brown Pleasure Ground, which features the Temple of Diana, built in the 1770s as a place to entertain guests and take tea.
After a good explore, there is just enough time to change for dinner and be ready for drinks in the marble columned reception rooms.
When dinner is called the very dining table behind the ropes has been transformed with candles, flowers and crested crockery. Prepared by Guy and his brigade of chefs and preferentially utilising local produce our five-course summer dining experience is presented.
We begin with pan fried medallions of monkfish, Shropshire asparagus and pea ravioli perfectly accompanied by a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and followed by a cleansing sorbet of exotic fruit. The main course is a tender loin of lamb, nicoise garni, roasted garlic pomme purée, black olive tapenade and rosemary jus complemented by a delightful Fleurie.
The cheese course consisted of Mr Moydens Wrekin Blue, candied celery (surprisingly tasty) and pecan shortbread with a robust St Emilion. A white chocolate and strawberry mousse with strawberry ripple ice cream concluded our dinner, a Muscat to match and it was time to retire to the drawing room for coffee and petit fours.
Whilst some establishments offering fine dining feel that it is acceptable to offer the smallest of portions this is most certainly not the case here. The portions are not over-facing at each course but by dessert it is difficult to think how you could eat anything else (that also goes for my husband, who has been affectionately termed a human dustbin in the past).
The service offered by Graeme and his team is friendly, attentive but not overbearing. However, as I take in my surroundings between courses I cannot get away from the fact that I feel I shouldn’t be sitting here beneath the family oil paintings, cordoned off from the public during the day.
Coffee and petit fours is taken in the library, lined with dark wood, leather bound volumes and secret doorways. You can imagine the gentleman’s tales these walls could share.
Now the early hours of the morning it is time to retire, treading the trail of hundreds of years of history and memories as we go.
Morning arrives and after a hearty English breakfast we are whisked off to the old stables for a masterclass with the Head Chef who treats us to the recipes for his summer puddings and jasmine tea custard tarts from the previous day’s Afternoon Tea. It is a relaxed affair with hints and tips and obligatory tastings. The recipes are also something very easily followed at home.
As our stay at Weston draws to a close and the M6 beckons (it’s only an hour away) we discuss what a great concept it is that we have just experienced. My brain is now whirring with ideas of coming back and sharing it with friends who will love it – the Christmas Dine & Stay maybe with the family? Taking over the whole house for a celebration? Or just a day trip for the Christmas Food & Craft Fair?
For The Cheshire Magazine, 2014