Even entering Great Fosters Country House Hotel is something of a magical, Alice-Through the Looking Glass-type experience – although it is not a mirror but a tiny door set in the heavy wooden front door which is the portal to another world. Once we had ducked under the threshold and made our way in, we found ourselves in a long room with dark Jacobean panelling and a highly decorative ceiling. The scent of fresh flowers and beeswax filled the air and apart from the crackling of the log fire burning in the huge fireplace, all was silent. Had an Elizabethan serving wench appeared at this moment to ask us what we wanted we should not have been surprised. In fact a few minutes later we were warmly greeted by one of the efficient 21st-century hotel staff and it was not long before we were ascending the wooden staircase to our panelled bedroom.
Fabric of the richest maroon curtained the magnificent four-poster bed and the latticed windows, while ornate dark oak cupboards (one of which contained a television) and chairs furnished the rest of the room. We were also pleased to see tea and coffee – making equipment with proper china cups and shortbread set out on a tray on the bedside table.
In keeping with the historic theme even the (perfectly modern) lavatory in the adjacent bathroom was fitted into an antique throne-type chair. The rest of the fittings were completely up-to-the-minute and there were top quality bathrobes and abundant Molton Brown toiletries. If there was one slight quibble about our bedroom it was that even with all lamps on, it was very dark and there was no illuminated mirror for making-up in the bathroom.
We didn’t linger very long in the room however, knowing that one of the greatest pleasures of Great Fosters Country House Hotel is the garden. Once outside we were able to turn back and take in the impressive exterior of the building – with lots of red brick, mullioned windows, turrets and twisty chimneys it is everyone’s idea of an Elizabethan mansion. We later learned that it has in fact been though several incarnations since its Tudor days, even at one time doing duty as a lunatic asylum. Then, in the 1920s it became ‘the first country house hotel’ in England and was much frequented by celebrities and members of the royal family. There is even a fully- functioning 1930s outdoor swimming pool at one time enjoyed by stars filming at Denham, Elstree and Pinewood studios.
Turning away from the house we saw before us fifty acres of impeccably maintained gardens. We wandered amongst splendid topiary parterres with knots of neatly clipped box containing herbs and flowers and statues set out at strategic points and at the centre a sundial said to have been a gift of Sir Frances Drake.
To reach the rest of the garden we had to veer sideways and cross the moat by the elegant wooden Japanese bridge clothed in wisteria. It is then that the extent of these magical gardens is revealed. Arches encircle a pool in the rose garden which in turn gives way to a pergola and then a series of clipped yew ‘rooms.’ Tree peonies bloom in one, in another a band of blue irises swirl around a sunken dell, in the next, as if in counterpoint, a mound rises. We glimpsed more statues at the end of narrow clipped corridors and passed little areas of wildflowers growing in long grass, all enclosed within crinkle-crankle walls of yew.
There is an herb garden and a rustic pavilion in which we took a rest before venturing deeper into the woodland to visit the large lake, the estate’s beehives and the resident pigs. Near the pigs is a state of the art greenhouse of immense proportions where we met and chatted to its able custodian, Diane who showed us neat rows of vegetables and salads which she cultivates for the kitchens.
After this quite long walk we made our way back for a welcome cup of tea. We found out that these gardens, laid out by W.H Romaine Walker and Gilbert Jenkins around 1919, epitomise the Arts and Craft style with its love of knots, archways, lily ponds and everything the Medieval. What is remarkable is the way in which a later designer Kim Wilkie complemented and continued this tradition so seamlessly. The peace of the gardens, already disturbed by the jumbo jets from Heathrow, was seriously threatened by the construction of the M25 and Wilkie’s plan involved throwing up a half mile earthwork and creating a six meter stepped grass amphitheatre which effectively shuts the gardens off from the ugly, noisy 21st Century – but apparently if you climb up there (we did so only in imagination) and look inwards towards the house all is timeless tranquillity and beauty.
We then got ready to dine in the Tudor Room, Great Fosters’ fine dining restaurant which has acquired an impressive reputation and is said to be very close to receiving a Michelin star. The room is small – just 24 covers – but appears larger because of a wall of glass. It is cosy with red walls and a tapestry and very comfortable chairs. It only opens from Wednesday to Saturday for dinner and on Fridays for lunch. (Great Foster’s other restaurant The Estate Grill, also very good, is open daily).
In the Tudor Room a six-course menu is on offer and we also opted for the ‘Flight of Wines’ for which the sommelier, the kindly and knowledgeable Stephen Farrell, chooses a wine to complement each course – often something unexpected but invariably spot-on.
First impressions: superlative home-baked bread ( a bit too good in fact with all that is to come…) and butters including a Bovril butter served by professional and friendly staff. Then tasty canapés attractively displayed on a small slate slab – beetroot in a pasty shell, an arancini and a cheese ball, followed by some ‘Elements of the Garden;’ a little melange of beetroot, olive and a blood orange sorbet. To match these Stephen had selected delicious sugar-free champagne, Ayala Brut Nature.
The starters included a choice of scallops with broccoli truffle and hazelnut, Anjou pigeon with walnut, celery and celeriac and cured mackerel with cucumber, caviar and avocado. Patricia chose the scallops which were exquisite. To complement them Stephen suggested a sherry, Mazanilla ‘La Gitane’ which was something we’d never have thought of but which our palates found very appropriate. (Yes, Dennis got a taste and a sip) He himself opted for the pigeon and admits that he made a poor choice as although the squab was tender and full of flavour, small birds do have small bones, something to which Dennis has an antipathy. Never mind the fruity and fresh Viognier Dom Rougie Minervois went down well. Next we sampled what has become almost the signature dish of the Tudor Room – the Langoustine Tea, another very pretty dish consisting of a langoustine tail on a bed of herbs and flowers over which a delicious broth is poured from a glass tea pot. Matching this was a German wine Scheurebe Wittmann …..And all this before we even got to the main courses!
On offer were Scottish loin of venison with smoked potato blackberries and cocoa; loin, belly and cheek of pork with piccalilli – and our favourite fish turbot, accompanied with parmesan chicken and fermented garlic, which we both chose. This was so scrumptious that we even forgave the foam which seemed just a little passé for such an original menu. Foam aside it is worth emphasising that every dish was not only a minor work of art but exceedingly well cooked. After the main course we were served a palate cleanser of pink grapefruit polenta before we finally arrived at puddings. Here the choice was Rhubarb with ginger, milk, quark vanilla and sugared puff pastry or our own choice, ivoire and jivara chocolate with coriander.
£58.00 per person is not excessive for such a great meal (nor the £65 for the flight of wines –although this is something in which we would not normally indulge.) Suffice it to say we went to bed well satisfied.
We do however bemoan the trend which we have noticed several times lately in high-end establishments, away from à la carte, towards limited-selection and tasting menus. For people with small appetites but good palates or simply at the times when one feels like two, or even a single excellent course, this is a pity. Still chef Douglas Balish is to be highly complimented and can we feel sure expect soon to be elevated to the Michelin firmament.
After a very good night’s sleep in our fabulous four poster we took a short walk in the gardens before making our way to the Estate grill for breakfast. This as we had come to expect was first class. All the usual buffet elements plus cooked a la carte items such as eggs benedict, smoked haddock and of course full English.
Just before leaving we bumped into the manager Richard Young who took us to see some of the modern rooms in The Cloisters and The Coach House. He also explained that there is an ongoing programme of refurbishment for all the historic rooms including ours, in which the lighting problems are being fully, addressed which we were glad to hear.
As we sat over a last cup of coffee in the lounge awaiting our taxi we had another magical experience when a beautiful girl in a exquisite long white dress suddenly swept into the room smiled at us and left. No, not a Tudor apparition simply a bride looking for her bridesmaids… Great Fosters we reflected must be the most romantic venue imaginable for a wedding – and pretty good too for an anniversary, a birthday or just a lovely break from the everyday.
Great Fosters, Stroude Road, Egham, Surrey TW20 9UR
Tel 01784 433 822