First impressions count for a lot in the hospitality business, so a friendly welcome and efficient check-in put me in exactly the right mood for my overnight stay at Orestone Manor boutique hotel and restaurant at Maidencombe, just outside Torquay.
Set in sub-tropical gardens on a steep hillside, the Georgian manor house is the former home of narrative painter John Callcott Horsley, designer of the first Christmas card. It was here at Orestone in 1857 that Horsley painted a portrait of his famous brother-in-law, the celebrated engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Brunel lived close by whilst working on the Great Western Railway and would have been present at many family gatherings, candlelit dinners, and croquet on the Orestone lawn. Today, it’s not hard to imagine the scene as the same kind of events take place at the 12-bedroom hotel for a 21st century clientele.
If you like small, family-run hotels, you’ll love Orestone with its warm welcome and cosy, but elegant atmosphere. The bedrooms are all different, both in size and decor, which means each stay is different. It was a real treat for my husband and I to find ourselves in the Horsley Suite with its rich blue and gold fabrics, king size four-poster bed, and panoramic views over the palm trees of the English Riviera to Torbay.
A lot of thought had gone into providing every little comfort and everything I needed was there. The stylish bathroom with bath and separate shower was equipped with toiletries by Highland Aromatics and – great joy – a magnifying mirror so essential if my lipstick is to go on straight. There were dressing gowns and complimentary slippers; a good quality hairdryer with a socket by a good mirror (so many aren’t!); and a welcome tray with interesting biscuits to put us on till dinner. I also appreciated the recent copies of Devon Life magazine with tempting articles about the local area, and whilst I always try to pack clothes in crease-resistant fabrics, I’m sure some guests would appreciate the ironing board and iron.
On a Sunday afternoon, Orestone Manor was still buzzing with the chatter of lunch guests and takers of afternoon tea. Children played on the lawn and you really could feel you were back at one of those Victorian family parties. The chatter wafting up from the garden terrace was strangely soothing and when their cakes were all eaten and the last sandwich squirrelled away, the hotel fell blissfully quiet. Located on a steep lane below the level of the main road, there’s no noise from passing traffic and just birdsong to herald a new day.
But first dinner. Catch the sunshine as we did and there’s no nicer place for an aperitif than on the terrace above the sloping lawn whilst you browse the menu. With two AA rosettes for fine dining to its credit, the kitchen promised much and didn’t disappoint. Amongst local Devon produce is Exmoor lamb, fresh fish from Brixham, and Teign River mussels along with an excellent selection of West Country cheeses. For vegetarians, there’s an appetising Non Meat Menu and for those with food intolerances, an Allergen Information Menu.
My Brixham Crab Martini with avocado, mango ice and poppy seed straw was my idea of the perfect starter – light, refreshing and a promise of more good things to come. Next up, delicious fresh turbot with pea puree and Dauphinoise potatoes, and finally a spectacular Banoffee Plate of coffee panacotta, caramelised banana, and dark chocolate ice cream.
Whilst our evening meal was taken in the intimate surroundings of the main restaurant, breakfast is served in the Conservatory Restaurant or, in warm weather, on the terrace. Choose from a hot menu with toast or a Continental style cold buffet.
So what are the downsides? I would have liked a choice of bread at dinner, not being a big fan of the only olive bread on offer on Sunday evening, but it’s a tiny grouch. I really couldn’t fault our room, the meals, or the friendly service. You do need a car here though because of the out-of-town location, although keen walkers have easy access to the spectacular South West coast path. But the only after-dinner stroll from Orestone Manor would be steeply down a narrow lane towards the coast and then back the same way.
But when there’s a delightful terrace and garden in which to while away a summer evening surrounded by birdsong, who really cares? Certainly not me!
Orestone Manor Hotel & Restaurant
Rock House Lane
Devon TQ1 4SX