The tiny village of Chettle in Dorset is one of the last remaining feudal settlements of the county, owned by the Bourke family for the last 160 years.
Nikolaus Pevsner writes enthusiastically of Chettle House “The plum among Dorset houses of the early 18thcentury, and even nationally outstanding as a specimen of English Baroque.”
The big house and gardens are only open to the public at specific times of the year or for weddings but you can nevertheless enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of this beautiful part of Britain by staying at the former Dower house along the lane, which is now the Castleman Hotel and restaurant.
Owned by its Head Chef, Barbara Garnsworthy, the hotel represents one of the very few “home from home” hotels left – unapologetically old fashioned, unstylised and unmodernised, it’s a place of unfussy comfort, peace and rural activities.
As you walk in to its dark oak panelled entrance you will feel as if you are walking into the Headmaster’s study in an old Victorian boarding school. Everything creaks, the smell of wood polish lingers and you can hear clocks chiming quietly. Jacobean fireplaces, tall windows, ornate wood carvings, gesso plasterwork friezes, patterned curtains, huge sofas with squashy cushions: more is definitely more in this very English country house. Country Brigadier meets Audrey Forbes-Hamilton at the point-to-point meet.
All around the Castleman there are lawns, flower beds, outside seating areas, cottages and farmland. You can take your pick: walking, cycling, hunting, shooting, fishing or riding. Tall piles of The Field magazine are laid out on oak tables. If you hanker after shops and sights, Shaftesbury, Wimborne, Blandford Forum and Salisbury are not far.
Bedrooms are indeed fit for a dowager: Narnia size wardrobes, four poster beds, embroidered upholstery, long views, spotless bathrooms, thick linens and antique rugs.
The food is farmhouse in style and very well done: excellent cream of leek, potato and blue cheese soup with cheese sables and sweet corn pancake, mushroom, wild garlic, leek and goats cheese gallette with tomato herb sauce. The homemade bread is delicious. School nostalgia strikes yet again in the pudding section: bread and butter pudding, rice pudding, treacle tart and rhubarb and clotted cream ice-cream. Dorset benefits greatly from excellent suppliers of everything from game, to fish, foraged foods, meat and fresh produce. Simple, seasonal fare well cooked and served without pretension are, sadly, concepts lost on many hotel keepers.
The dining room is huge and light, housed in an extension constructed by the current owners. The Castleman would make a great country house weekend retreat for family reunions on high days and holidays – more space than you could possibly use when you take into account a vast library, drawing room, bar room and Scarlet O’Hara “Gone With The Wind” staircase and landing , lined with oil paintings, winding its way up to eight double bedrooms. Once unpacked you can unwind with a leather bound book, tea and scones, a glass of cold sherry, an excellent rose wine, peruse your menu and listen to the history of this remarkable corner of Britain by its very well informed staff.
Bathrooms are the size of some hotel rooms. You can take a hot, deep bath in a cast iron roll top bath, looking out on rolling fields dotted with sheep.
But what makes the Castleman so charming, quirky and delightful are the intangible features over and above the swags and riches of its period features. It’s the old-fashioned politeness of its staff, its quiet welcome, its courteous treatment of guests as if they were the only people that mattered, it’s the total lack of cold modern add-ons and cons. Prices are reasonable: for a one night stay with dinner, wine and breakfast I only paid £93.70.
In a hurrying, scurrying, bland world of lookalike, super-chic boutique hotels, this place is an enchanting, other-worldly treasure.