Oak panelling, intricately carved fireplaces, sombre portraits, vaulted ceilings and a grand staircase make the 4 star Audleys Wood Hotel a charming country retreat from the hectic 21st Century. With just 72 rooms, it’s easy to find a luxuriant leather sofa to slump into or a cosy nook in the Bar or Long Lounge.
No, there never was a Lord Audley presiding over this peaceful pocket of seven acres of mature woodland just outside Basingstoke. “Oddele” in the 1086 Domesday Book corrupted / developed into Audleys over the next nine centuries.
Although the red brick Neo-Gothic mansion was built as recently as 1879 the architect’s aim was to create a nostalgic tribute to bygone days. The hefty front door is rumoured to date from Shrewsbury Abbey in the fifteenth century century and there is a touch of Hogwarts to the quirky, irregular design.
Audleys first became a hotel, in the Thistle chain, in 1989. Now, it is lovingly cared for by Hand Picked Hotels.
Entering through the covered entrance, a two storey porte-cochère, is to step back in time. With three staff on reception check-in was always going to be instantaneous.
As we were taken to our room, by the supremely welcoming Darren, we were given a quick guide to the hotel’s layout and then shown our room’s facilities.
We stayed in Cassandra in the original house, one of seven feature rooms named after characters who have featured in the House’s rich history.
The decor was elegant English Country House style featuring subtle satins and subdued florals. Neutral coloured carpets, curtains and wallpaper contrasted with the timeless appeal of dark-wood sturdy furniture. A writing desk overlooked a calm vista of immaculate lawns and the mature woodland beyond.
Gold-framed botanical prints, an ochre throw, olive-green cushions and Grecian Urn style table-lamps brought dashes of colour to a spacious high-ceilinged room.
As well as a coffee-maker, with a wide choice of capsules, and a kettle, the mini-bar contains a jug of fresh milk.
There is a discrete nod to the 21st Century with strong WiFi, a USB/plug charging dome and options of linking your devices to the huge-screened television.
Our bathroom had been refurbished just seven weeks previously: plenty of spotlights, a massive mirror, a deeply decadent bath and instant hot water. Toiletries are designed by Gilchrist & Soames for Hand Picked Hotels. I don’t want to sound too Jilly Goulding but the citrus aromas have vibrant and refreshing notes of grapefruit.
“Yoga in a bag” or “gym in a bag”, both with an instruction DVD, provide opportunities for personalised wellness.
In keeping with its country house heritage, Audleys favours good old-fashioned walking. There are wellies available by the front door and maps for recommended strolls. Look out for Boris and Doris the pet guinea fowl who are fed by hotel staff.
The Gallery Restaurant was formerly a grand conservatory with a minstrels’ gallery. Now it is an elegant restaurant.
Afternoon tea is taken very seriously with a Tea List of British, Tisane and Oriental – so extensive that it rivals some wine lists. Clearly it is a popular experience with Hampshire’s Ladies.
The Gallery Restaurant has a carefully designed menu. It gives options: the “Little or Large” section offers Caesar salad, a superfood salad or a beetroot and halloumi salad in either small or large sizes. Mid-week the hotel has a strong corporate following. Diners can arrive either starving for dinner or stuffed after a business lunch. There is sufficient variety on the menu to satisfy most guests for a week: the wine list for a year or two.
There’s a strong steak section with a surf ‘n turf option too. In keeping with its traditional English roots there is a Pie of the Week (currently steak and blue cheese) served with mash. But there’s a twist to the comfort food of fish and chips – the fish is in a gin and tonic batter. The Gallery’s staples cross the Channel too, the coq-au-vin slide of the bone into a welcoming red-wine sauce while the Dish of the Week successfully married chicken and chorizo in a risotto.
There are some creative tweaks from the chef. Bonbons of mushroom and beetroot accompanied by tiny wedges of brioche deserves immediate elevation to the pantheon of great starters. A croquette of neck of lamb brings a strong, almost gamey, flavour contrast to the succulent rump of lamb in rosemary jus.
Portion sizes are sensible, most guests welcome the desert menu, they still have room for a treat such as strawberry Paris-Brest, chocolate fondant and salted caramel ice cream or a lemon tart with sorbet. A cheese board of three or five local cheeses is very popular.
For breakfast there is a healthy selection of cereals and fruits but hot food – the full English breakfast, vegetarian full English, bacon sandwiches, salmon and scrambled egg etc – are all cooked to order, piping hot and wonderfully fresh.
Service is spot-on: attentive but discrete, speedy but not rushed.
Other nice touches
During the Second World War, Lord Camrose leased Audleys Wood when his more extensive home property was used as a military hospital for wounded Canadian Troops. Camrose owned and edited The Daily Telegraph. Everyday there are copies of the newspaper in the lounge to honour his memory.
A jewellery display in reception is surprisingly more functional than decorative. Many men forget to bring cuff links to wedding, birthday or anniversary celebrations: cuff links are the top-selling item.
Rooms, including breakfast, start from £98.
The best bit
Location, location, location. Just off the M3 and not too far from the M4, Audrey’s Wood is an oasis of peace in Hampshire easily reached from London, the Home Counties and the West Country. Nor should you worry about parking, there is plenty.
It is just 12 miles from Jane Austen’s House and Museum, close to the recently refurbished The Vyne, a National Trust property, and near The Watercress Steam Railway Line.
Also it is just a ten minute drive into Basingstoke for cinema and shopping.
The final verdict
Smaller and more intimate than many country hotels, Audleys Wood staff provide a warm welcome for a supremely relaxing short stay.
Disclosure: Our stay was courtesy of Hand Picked Hotels.