My ‘to do’ list tick-tocked through my mind. Emails, meetings, deadlines; presents to buy, friends to visit, appointments to sort. So much to do and so little time. How could I possibly relax and give in to the magic of the festive season with so much on my mind?
This pendulum of pressure was no match for Surrey’s Nutfield Priory Hotel and Spa.
Here is a hotel that exudes warmth and welcome. Stepping inside was like that post-Sunday lunch, ‘let’s all cosy up by the fire’ feeling, and that’s exactly what we did first.
The Great Hall, with its roaring fire, is the heartbeat of the hotel. A steady pulse of waiters bringing out steaming jugs of elderflower Darjeeling, managers greeting new guests, hungry visitors passing through on their way to Cloisters Restaurant, and those (quietly smug) friends for whom this has been their secret-getaway for years. We watched this bonjour-adieu, menu-giving, order-taking theatre from our sofa in the corner as we broke open cinnamon Christmas scones fresh out of the oven and lathered them with jam and then clotted cream (apologies to the ‘cream comes first’ among you). The golden glow from the grand marble fireplace defrosted chilly fingers and toes, easing colour back into white winter cheeks, the towering Christmas tree inspiring ‘Have you seen this Mummy!’ astonishment as little Bambi feet tottered towards the sparkle.
The organ in the Great Hall is one of many reminders of the hotel’s past. It is a building with layer upon layer of stories. A much-loved family home, a base for Canadian soldiers in WWII, a training centre for ATS and NAAFI personnel, a school for severely deaf children, and, in 1987, becoming a hotel for the second time in its history. How fortunate we are to dip into this history, to absorb the architecture, the vast chandeliered ceiling, the stained-glass windows bathing the hall in their end-of-the-day glow.
Before we got too comfortable, we re-cocooned ourselves in our coats and half walked, half jogged (it was too cold to linger) our way to the spa. I was expecting to find it busy and bustling as I know how popular it is – however, to our benefit, it seemed most people were otherwise engaged with festive preparations (stay away ‘to do’ list, stay away!). This meant the following: sauna and magazine me-time, an empty indoor pool perfect for a leisurely swim, a steam room (that I know is doing me good somehow, even though it always takes me a few moments to remember how to breathe in there). There were plenty of sun-loungers to choose from (minus the sun), and, while it did need a few tiles replacing here and there, and could do with a spot of sprucing up, it was exactly what we needed. A place to relax and to focus not on what needs doing, but what’s being done this very moment in time.
Is it too cheeky to ask for Tanya for Christmas? She was my heavenly-handed masseuse, and she was wonderful. I was only with her for a short time, but each of those minutes were divine, as she kneaded away aches and eased my back pains that often cause me hassle. She was exactly what my we’ve-reached-December-and-we’re-shattered muscles were crying out for.
There’s no wonder the spa is popular with both guests and locals. The gym is very well-stocked with modern equipment, there’s a separate room for the spin-addicts among you, a squash court and dance studio. This is a bright, energetic health club – it takes sport and health seriously, and this is reflected in the visitors it attracts. Which, this time, wasn’t me. Although I do love getting my trainers on and pounding the treadmill, the temptation of the snug hotel was no competition.
Back in the hotel, we walked along a corridor decorated with quotes from famous authors: Charlotte Bronte, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hardy (“To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.”). For someone who loves nothing more than words (not even freshly-baked cinnamon scones), this linguistic flounce was décor at its best. And the fact that our suite was called Keats – well, even better. While I’m not sure he would have had much to write about the view (we were overlooking the car park at the back of the hotel), he certainly would have appreciated the interior. Thick, heavy curtains, cushion upon cushion upon cushion, a bed promisingly comfortable and a two-sink bathroom (diminishing the ‘who’s getting ready first?’ mirror-jostles). It was quiet, spacious and calm - a world away from busy streets and frantic lives. It was just what we needed.
Thus followed a Beckett’s and a Bathtub (I’m talking gin, not a long soak) in the Library (more words, more books plus a large gin - I was in heaven). This is an intimate room, with a bold fireplace and floor to ceiling bookshelves bulging with well-read volumes of crimson, holly green and dark chocolate - the kind of room that, over the years, will no-doubt have hosted cigar-puffing and bridge-playing, family get-togethers and husky ‘let’s meet in the library’ flirtations.
I’d been tempted to visit the Cloisters Restaurant earlier, but I’m so pleased I waited until the evening. This was the original school dining hall, but rid your mind of chattering chaos, sticky floors and cheese and bean toasties (on a good day). This is instead an exquisite place to dine. Ceilings arch above you, while before you stretches a restaurant exuding elegance. Carved stone walls, gentle light and an alluring, unpretentious atmosphere. It is refined, it is inviting - it is a smile of a restaurant.
Talking of smiles, I must introduce you to Martin, the flamboyant Restaurant Manager and the director for our evening. I say director because, in his words, “Dinner is a performance and each course is an act”. He made sure that every act was a delight. I would wholly recommend the starter of pan-fried diver scallop with pea foam, and the play-on-words dish of ham, egg and chips (try it and you’ll see for yourself). For the girl that could happily eat porridge any time of day (the student in me refuses to free itself), I of course had to go for a main dish of pig and porridge. For those of you grimacing at the thought of a Goldilocks-inspired dinner dish, think again. This was a delectable plate of tenderloin, belly and crackling, with purple carrot, port jus and a parmesan and thyme ‘porridge’. If you’d prefer a lighter main, the seared stone bass with artichoke purée, chickpeas with confit garlic and anchovy beignet is a definite yes. If there’s still space for dessert, the warm apple and blackberry crumble tart and the chocolate ganache with roasted pear and ginger crumble are enough to ward off even the bluest of winter blues. To drink, we were recommended a bottle of Little Eden Pinot Noir, a light, refreshing red. Blues, begone!
The ornate, arched restaurant windows overlook the Surrey countryside, at night a luscious darkness, with the far-off lights of Gatwick runway making ‘I wonder where that plane’s heading?’ imaginations runaway with each other (yes, mine included).
This view is even more stunning on a cold December morning, wrapped in soft winter mist. I’d never appreciated Surrey’s beauty in quite this way. A fusion of frost-bitten leaf, glossy lake, and the pin-prick to-ings and fro-ings of planes tearing cotton-coloured trails through the forget-me-not sky.
This break did me the world of good. Time to re-charge, time to relax, and time to re-evaluate that ‘to do’ list. Emails have been scrapped from the Number 1 spot, and in its place, organising drinks at Nutfield Priory with friends and family. There’ll always be so much to do, so instead, I’ll make the time for what’s most important of all.
To find out more or to book a room, visit: https://www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/nutfieldpriory