There comes a point in any great British holiday where the sun slips through the grasp of grey clouds and basks the landscape in a balmy glow. It’s a moment to rush to unfold deck chairs, light barbecues and spread picnic blankets, steadying overfilled jugs of Pimms as you go; a game of chicken with the weather that only occupants of this country understand.
On my visit to Lympstone Manor this serendipitous spell happened at roughly 4pm, just as our taxi rattled up the gravel driveway straight from Exeter train station. In front of us, the magnificent Grade II-listed Georgian hotel stood watch over the River Exe estuary, the water a golden glitterball of light in the afternoon splendour.
From the top of the slope the view was like a Turner painting: boats chugging downstream to Exmouth and the flurry of birds dipping and diving through an invisible obstacle course in the sky. It’s a glorious first step from the City into something altogether more serene.
We dispensed with bags and made a beeline for the bar to enjoy a glass of English sparkling. In a few years, the fizz will come from the vineyard all of 50 metres from our seated position on the veranda. For now, though, we make do with a glass of Michael Caines Blanc de Blancs, named after the custodian and head chef of this magnificent property. I tell you what, I can still taste that first sip – like weeks of stress melting away with every bubble that bursts against the tongue.
A good first impression, it’s fair to say, but Caines’ country house is much more than it’s picturesque locale, and is slowly gathering momentum as one of the most exciting UK hotels to have opened in recent times.
Dating back to the 18th century, the manor was once the private residence of the Baring family (Diana, Princess of Wales, is a direct descendant – well-to-do folk, it will come as no surprise to hear) and was lovingly renovated by Caines over the last couple of years.
Wine is a central crux to Lympstone Manor’s offering – not least with the vineyard now bearing plentiful fruit
The chef is perhaps best known for holding court on cookery shows like Great British Menu, MasterChef and other such fetishizing culinary television, but Caines was also responsible for the two Michelin stars awarded to Devon’s Gidleigh Park. Along with Le Manoir au Quat’Saisons and Whatley Manor, there are few properties that have better paved way for the ‘restaurants with rooms’ concept that best describes how Lympstone Manor now operates.
As a nation of food lovers, we’re more than happy to travel for a phenomenal meal – and while nature abounds just outside the tall elegant windows that illuminate the property, this is an unmistakably gastronomic retreat. In fact, the Michelin star hanging proudly in kitchen was awarded just six months after opening. As true a mark as any that this is a restaurant that is going places.
The menu sees Caines dip into the plentiful larder of southwest England and shape it into a series of creative dishes packed with flavour across the a la carte and tasting menu.
For our part, though, we made the trip down south specifically to indulge in one of the hotel’s monthly wine dinners. Throughout the year, Caines takes a world-famous appellation and uses it as inspiration for a one-off tasting menu paired with the finest wines of that region. For a lavish evening of burgundy, we were treated to the likes of butter-poached turbot and truffle alongside a knock-out glass of 2008 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru from Bonneau de Martray, and an incredibly elegant 2005 Chambolle Musigny from Nicolas Potel to accompany English rose veal.
For all of Caines’ vast ability in the kitchen, his ability to step back and allow these great expressions to sing is a testament to his confidence and a restraint no doubt mastered over his lengthy career. We’re getting the best of Caines now - and the fact that we can enjoy it on his terms, in the country house that he breathed new life into is a joy.
Wine is a central crux to Lympstone Manor’s offering – not least with the vineyard now bearing plentiful fruit. Round the corner from the kitchen you’ll find the Wine Room where guests are encouraged to learn and taste an array of expressions from around the world in the presence of the hotel’s expert team of sommeliers. With six wine emotion units holding 24 bottles at optimum conditions at any one time, there’s plenty for passionate oenophiles to wrap their heads around.
The vineyard itself, however, is where Caines is hoping to build his legacy. In May 2018, 17,500 vines, a mixture of 50% pinot noir, 20% pinot meunier and 30% chardonnay, were planted. The first harvest of significance isn’t likely to come before 2021 – and it will take longer for the wines to develop and mature before release – but there is genuine excitement that the low altitude, proximity to the Exe estuary and ambient climate will lend the wine a unique edge to a homegrown English sparkling label.
Handmade by craftsmen in Devon, the bed is a swamping affair of down feather pillows and duvet
Lympstone Manor Cuvée may be a fantasy for now, but the hotel itself has already matured like a fine vintage. The country house stereotype has a tendency to bring with it a series of unwelcome attributes – not least a fusty, out-dated decor and an old-fashioned view of what the visitor is looking for from their stay. Not so here.
We found Lympstone to offer a genuine answer to the question of how to style a contemporary manor. There’s elegance in the plush fabrics and soft colour palette of powder blues, sage greens and champagne yellows, but it isn’t at the expense of comfort or homeliness; a fine line the hotel navigates with mindful dexterity.
The birdlife that soars above the estuary is a recurring theme throughout the interior’s wallpaper and artwork, while each bedroom is named after a different species. We stay in Avocet (a distinctive black and white wading bird). It’s one of the large Grand Estuary suites and certainly pushes the boat out.
There’s a fire pit, and a soak tub on the private terrace that overlooks the Exe and the hotel 28-acre grounds. Inside is equally pleasant viewing with a swathe of sumptuous soft furnishings across the partitioned living and sleeping quarters, each featuring thoughtful flourishes. There’s a gin tray on the coffee table on our arrival, while the gold-gilded roll-top bath is accompanied by L’Occitane toiletries. The stone has been left unturned in pursuit of an unfettered luxurious break.
World-weary travellers will appreciate the simply humongous bed the most. Handmade by craftsmen in Devon, it is a swamping affair of down feather pillows and duvet – the perfect setting to hide away from work responsibilities, or just get a good night’s rest.
Before Lympstone, Caines was coming to the end of of 17 years at Gidleigh Park – a hotel and restaurant where he had grown its reputation tenfold. But he was just the executive chef. The property itself wasn’t his.
Over a glass of wine after service, I get to speak to Caines about this wonderful property and what made him leave the safety of his two-Michelin-star restaurant less than an hour away.
“I was talking to some close friends about the future and one of them said something that really stuck with me: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now’,” he tells me. Through our conversation he talks about the difficulties in renovating a dilapidated old mansion, the importance of Michelin stars and planting the first grapevines with his children.
Caines has dug his spade into the earth now and his tree is beginning to take root. He talks about building a legacy at Lympstone Manor – a place that will crown his life’s achievements. It’s early days, but one parting shot of that grand house standing watch over the estuary makes me certain he’ll succeed.
Lympstone Manor is available from £270 per night including breakfast, see lympstonemanor.co.uk