If the Christmas episode of Downton Abbey whetted your appetite for a country house party experience minus the whole upstairs, downstairs shenanigans and a snooty butler, then a visit to Huntsham Court, a stunning baronial mansion near Tiverton in Devon comes highly recommended. Although not quite in the same league as Alnwick Castle as featured in Downton, this Victorian Grand Dame is grand but relaxed, it just oozes character and as the song goes “there is nothing like a dame”. The house is rented for exclusive use mainly for weddings but also for gatherings of friends and makes a great venue for a big birthday celebration or family reunion. It’s also easily accessible, just two hours with First Great Western from London Paddington to Tiverton Parkway or a 30 minute drive from Exeter.
On a recent winter weekend I joined a few couples, families and Barney, perhaps one of the UK’s most travelled pets or at the very least one with the most refined tastes. Barney (a labrador cross poodle) has week ended at Cliveden and sampled the delights of The Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. As with all divas he comes with his own food requirements (no wheat or soya please), his own matching luggage and two adoring owners Nicholas and Ben. Huntsham Court runs very much as a “home away home” and therefore pets are welcome. The house can accommodate up to 80 overnight guests (that’s a lot of friends and family) in 34 bedroom suites, most of which are en-suite.
Most recently Huntsham Court was a foodie country house hotel with a musical theme (you’ll still find various musical instruments, organs and vintage radios around the house), then a self-catered rental before it was bought in 2012 by our hosts for the weekend Chris and Damian. Unloved and neglected, Chris and Damian have brought the house back to life, repairing and restoring the original features and filling it with period antiques (none too precious to be used) and modern comforts.
What Huntsham Court is not, is a bland hotel. What sets the house apart from others is not only the number of bedrooms available but also how each is completely individual reflecting Damian’s faultless but often a little eccentric taste. A pink fireplace anybody? The rooms all decorated with soft furnishings from the likes of Osborne and Little and Colefax and Fowler, many with four poster beds are named on the first floor after family members. The Douglas (Chris’s father), Yvanis (Damian’s son), connecting rooms ideal for families are known as The Baron and Baroness, whilst Lady Susan, a play on lazy Susan is affectionately named after a somewhat relaxed friend called Susan.
The rooms on the second floor are more modern and named after no doubt much loved pets, there’s a ginger, purdey, peanut and oscar. The house was built in 1869 under the guidance of Benjamin Ferrey one of the founder members of the British Institute of Architects. The architectural style is Victorian Gothic Revival, in other words just like the Houses of Parliament. It would make a perfect and very spoiling venue for a big family gathering perhaps celebrating a Golden Wedding anniversary or milestone birthday. It’s difficult enough trying to get a family altogether, let alone the complications of travelling abroad, what the house doesn’t lack is space so no one need get on top of one another with families enjoying the connecting rooms whilst younger children are bound to love the dorm style room with 4 beds in a row. Older members by virtue of age and seniority should definitely treat themselves to one of the more palatial four poster bed rooms or there are three bedrooms all next to each other on the ground floor which are disabled friendly. Two share a bathroom and can be set up either as two bedrooms or a luxury suite with a bedroom and lounge. Perfect for people needing a carer close by too. These rooms have a shower room for the less able with a low threshold shower. The third room has a disabled person’s alarm, reinforced bed and disabled shower room. All rooms easily link through to the main reception rooms with wide corridors whilst portable ramps are also available for the outdoor steps.
As the house is run as a home away from home, you can cater yourself in the large octagonal kitchen or use one of the recommended caterers. Guests can spend their days enjoying the grounds, croquet lawn and tennis court or use one of the suppliers that come to the house offering everything from falconry to fencing, laser clay shooting to archery. Spa treatments are also on offer as well as wine tasting, dancing lessons, art classes, basket weaving and for aspiring Mary Berry’s cake and muffin baking classes. Exmoor is a short drive away but if all this sounds too exhausting and you just want to enjoy being with your family, there are plenty of board games to keep everyone amused and sofas to curl up on.
In recent years Huntsham Court has played host to numerous personalities, musicians and writers as well as a Russian spy called Oleg. Douglas Adams most famously worked on his book “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’ whilst at Huntsham (the fourth book in his Trilogy, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Huntsham Court was built not to be stuffy museum or cliched country house hotel, all chintz and swag but instead it’s a stylish, warm and welcoming big old country house that comes to life once filled with people. I’m constantly being asked for suggestions of places that could accommodate and appeal to all generations from tiny babies to grand-parents wanting to treat their families but not wanting to travel far or to be in a hotel with all the formalities involved and other non-family guests. Huntsham Court works perfectly as the house is rented for exclusive use, although not all rooms need to be taken, it’s easily accessible, there is plenty to keep everyone entertained, or for something a little different it’s the perfect setting for hosting your own Downton themed weekend.
More about Petra
Petra Shepherd is a freelance travel writer with 30 years experience in television, 19 of which have been with Travel Channel International, the leading global travel broadcaster. There, she was responsible for everything from award winning documentary style travel programmes to studio based phone-ins with travel experts and journalists. She’s visited over 100 countries, specialising in off the beaten track destinations. Petra has lived in Italy and Hong Kong but now divides her time between London and visiting her 12 god-children around the UK.