I’m walking through a meadow filled with wildflowers. Blue cornflowers, red poppies, white shasta daisies are swaying all around me. The air is impossibly fragrant; the hum of the bumblebees the only sound upon it. I feel like the recently deceased hero of a mediaeval action movie taking his first steps into the afterlife, and any moment my beloved wife and son, ruthlessly butchered by the villain in the first act, will emerge smiling from behind a tree.
“He’s gone home,” a fellow knight solemnly intones as I expire on the battlefield, the music swelling portentously as we cut back to the meadow and me running in soft-focus slow motion like someone auditioning for a Persil advert. Flash of light. Roll credits.
I’m not dead; I’m not home, either. (There’s a notable shortage of meadows in Streatham: we have the Common but that’s normally filled with empties, not wildflowers.) I’m in Coworth Park, the Berkshire spa hotel managed by the Dorchester Collection. Every noun in the previous sentence oozes class and class is certainly a fitting adjective for the place. If the afterlife resembles Coworth Park then sign me up.
Coworth House is the same age as the United States of America: it was built in 1776 for the wealthy merchant William Shepheard, the same year that Thomas Jefferson and the boys were declaring their independence across the Atlantic. Ownership changed hands over the centuries – those to call the estate home include the 17th Earl of Derby and Galen Weston, owner of Selfridges – before the modern incarnation of the hotel opened in 2010. Thirteen years later and if there’s a more idyllic getaway in England then it must feature talking animals and hobbits.
Aside from the meadow of wildflowers, the grounds include a lake, a rose garden, bronze statues created by local artist Carol Peace. You’ll find several benches at every beauty spot – the lake edge, the middle of the meadow – for those wanting to take in the view and muse upon the wonders of existence. A swan named Chukka rules the lake; horses are regularly led around the two polo fields at the bottom of the estate. Polo and riding lessons are available; I don’t think the horses talk but then I didn’t speak to them.
Polo matches are regularly played at Coworth Park but the real equine action happens up the road at Ascot. We visited a week before Royal Ascot and the buzz was palpable among staff and locals, who viewed the event with the same mixture of anticipation and dread that I imagine the residents of Pilton feel toward Glastonbury. I imagine Coworth Park gets very vibey on race weeks – do with that information what you will.
However you can enjoy a dreamy stay without ever seeing a horse. (OK, you’ll probably see a few: they literally wander the grounds. But you needn’t bet on them. Unless you find some parents willing to stick their offspring in helmets and make them race round the polo field, clinging desperately to their mount while mum and dad holler from the sidelines. You could even give them polo mallets and… no, best not.)
Where was I? Yes, if you can tear yourself away from Coworth Park then you will not be short of activities. The racing, obviously: even if you don’t make it down for the big one, Ascot racecourse hosts a busy calendar across the year. Windsor Castle is a short drive away; ditto Legoland for those travelling with younger passengers. Neither day will be a cheap one but of course you’ll already be quids in from the racing (Disclaimer: there’s a chance you might be quids out.)
If you wish to stretch your legs, Windsor Great Park – all 5000 acres of it – can be found a mere 15 minutes walk from the hotel. Stroll around the beautiful Virginia Lake, inspect the somewhat incongruous ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna, transported from the Libyan desert in the 19th century as a gift for the Prince Regent. Reckon you can manage the two and a half hour trek to Windsor Castle? Reward yourself with a spa trip on your return.
The spa at Coworth Park isn’t the most grandiose in the country but it might be the most elegant. A row of crystals line one side of the swimming pool; vast glass windows offer sight of greenery and sky while you lazily float on the water. Here’s the really cool feature: dip your head beneath the water and you’ll hear classical music, presumably playing through speakers at the bottom of the pool. The effect is very Harry Potter – and I love Harry Potter.
Numerous treatments are available upstairs. Because I am very nice, and needed to smash out some work, and planned to spend a fair portion of the afternoon watching the Ashes in a local pub – shoutout Broomhall Hutt – I chivalrously allowed my partner to take the mid-morning massage. I came to regret this chivalry when she spent the rest of the weekend waxing lyrical about it: a thoughtful “that might be the best massage I’ve ever had” particularly stung. (And most of the cricket got rained off.)
Oh well. I took my revenge by smashing her at croquet before dinner – there’s a pitch on the lawn in front of the main house. (No word of a lie: my Google Docs suggested amending to “with a croquet” and now I’m slightly afraid of it.) The house itself sleeps 30; there are another 40 rooms spread across cottages and stables in the grounds. Converted stables, I should stress. Lots of mod cons. No horses.
We were lucky enough to get the Shepheard Suite, named after Coworth’s original occupant and not a very pretentious spelling of Shepard. (As I initially assumed before I researched the place. It really bothered me.) The suite had a meadow view, a roll top bath and a four poster bed seemingly made out of branches. My flat has none of those things. Returning home was tough.
It was made tougher by needing to cook for myself again: for the dining options here are fantastic. Firstly, there's The Barn – unsurprisingly located in a converted barn. We ate on the outdoor veranda, opposite the ornamental fountain and the bridge over the stream. I had a truffle burger specially created for Royal Ascot month and by God it comfortably entered the conversation for top five burgers I've ever eaten. Add a bottle of wine and you have an evening for the ages.
However The Barn isn't the only restaurant at Coworth Park – and the other one is something very special indeed. So special, in fact, that we're going to have to create a whole new section for it...
Woven by Adam Smith
Adam Smith has long been a shining light in the British culinary scene. He learned his trade at The Ritz under the great John Williams, spent three months at the legendary three-star Parisian restaurant Le Meurice, and won the Roux Scholarship in 2012. Smith has helmed the restaurant at Coworth Park since 2016; last year, that restaurant was redesigned, reimagined and reopened as Woven by Adam Smith.
(For a chef, having your name above the door is a sure sign you’ve joined the big leagues. Another is a Michelin star – Woven landed one of those six months after opening. The previous restaurant also held a star under Smith.)
Smith has a manifesto, a good one: “memorable dining is created by so much more than the food we eat.” The restaurant itself is a stunner: all rich, warm coppers and golds that make you feel a little like you’re sitting in a particularly stylish sunset. Beautiful looms – a nod to the Woven name – gracefully drape from the ceiling; the custom-built black tables would not look out of place in a design fair.
Of course, while food isn’t the sole component of the dining experience, most people would agree that it’s a fairly important one. Including Adam Smith – for the food here will frequently leave you swooning. The menu is one of immense generosity; rather than simply showcase his incredible skills in the kitchen, Smith’s first priority is towards you, the diner. He wants you to have a good time; I had one of the best meals of my life.
I mentioned the menu. It’s seasonal, naturally, and divided into five parts: From The Pantry, From The Larder, From The Stove, From The Pastry, Treats. You’ll get all of the Pantry: think snacks, primarily, but the best snacks you’ve ever tasted: Highland wagyu, caviar tart, Dorset Oyster. Best of all is the jellied eel, which is turned into a kind of broth and caused me to make noises typically heard on the more exotic late-night TV channels. Fortunately there’s an unbelievable bread course to ensure every drop is mopped up. (The bread comes with several dips, including a lobster oil that I still miss today.)
Larder and Stove are essentially your starters and main courses. Both offer three or four dishes to choose from: pick two and sit back with a smile on your face because there’s no risk, every dish will be a winner, you’re playing Deal Or No Deal with a million inside each box. The menu may well have evolved by the time you visit but if the Cornish turbot with lobster, truffle and baby leeks is there, order it. Likewise, the spring lamb with vegetables is a peerlessly cooked cut of meat.
The Pastry course – yer pudding, basically – comes with an optional supplement of British cheeses that you can select yourself from the adjacent cheese room. (Any meal that doesn’t allow the selection of cheeses in the adjacent cheese room is now considered a disappointment. I’ve had to remove all my sports gear from the storage cupboard and fill it with Brie. Smells more or less the same, to be fair.) And Treats are just that: a selection of sweeties to send you staggering up to your room with a big stupid smile on your face.
That smile will be even bigger, and possibly stupider, if you opt for the wine pairing: director of food and beverage Jonathan Ellson and head sommelier Sandro Mezzapelle have curated a fantastic list that leans heavily into the home grown, as with all of Woven’s ingredients. The pairing costs £85pp on top of £145pp for the dinner itself. So not cheap but Coworth Park isn't a hotel you visit on a budget.
“Good cooking and good conversation are two things I never tire of,” writes Smith in the introduction to the menu. (Yes, it’s the type of menu that has an introduction, and earns it.) The conversation is your concern but Woven supplies good cooking and then some. It’s a special restaurant situated in a special place.
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Blacknest Rd, Sunningdale, Ascot SL5 7SE; Coworth Park