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They’ve done such a good job with Hartwell House that three months ago the National Trust declared the land and property inalienable, meaning it can never be sold or developed.

“What’s lovely about it is that it’s a historic house that feels homely,” says Henry, the head porter who plays a large part in Hartwell’s warm welcome, gifted with a mannered kindliness that perfectly befits the setting.

He guides me to my room then points me in the direction of the spa, where I get a similarly cosy reception from the hot tub and pool surrounded by terracotta walls and elegant marble statues. By the time my friend arrives two hours later I’m ensconced on the Great Hall sofa, and feeling like I’ve been there for weeks.

The middle of a recession might not seem like the best time to be splashing out on a spa retreat, but if ever there was a time to pamper yourself it’s January and, with long nights and temperatures to justify roaring fires, country houses like Hartwell come into their own.

Besides, it’s hard to worry about money when you’re so far removed from reality — in a world of Gothic staircases, wood-panelled bars and softly lit rooms filled with antique furniture.

Making courtiers of Louis XVIII, we take a turn through the library (where in 1814 the exiled king signed a document confirming his accession to the French throne) and drawing room to settle in the morning room for a pre-dinner drink.

“What’s so lovely about Hartwell is the tranquillity, because you’re surrounded by 90 acres of garden,” says Jonathan Thompson, the director and general manager, who joins us briefly.

After a four-course dinner — every bite a treat — we take coffee by the fire of the Great Hall and make plans to explore the grounds the next day.

First things first, though. There’s little point splashing out on a night at a spa hotel if you don’t spend time in the spa. At Hartwell you can book in for a range of massages and complementary therapies as well as beauty treatments from Clarins and Espa.

Or you can simply lounge by the pool, gazing out the terraced windows as you make the difficult choice between the steam room and whirlpool.

After lunch at the Spa Bar and Buttery, we take the opportunity to get out into the rolling parkland that acts like a protective buffer from the rest of Buckinghamshire. Paths crisscross the grounds, leading to a disused church, past the odd 18th-century statue and obelisk and over the stone bridge that spans a lake. It’s probably a little cold for Mr Darcy to be taking a dip — but in these surroundings it’s hard not to hope.

“Have you managed to get a feel for it?” asks Henry on our return.

“Yes,” I reply. “I don’t want to go.” He laughs slightly nervously and calls us a taxi. Sadly, it arrives too soon for us to invent an excuse to stay longer at Hartwell — a spa retreat that more than lives up to its promise of escape.

Country Living

Avoid cancelling out the benefits of a spa break on a long, stressful journey home by staying close to London. Here are some more country house spa hotels within two hours of the capital.

The Grove

Be on that massage table faster than you normally make it to work. Just 20 minutes by train from London Euston, The Grove mixes country house with contemporary decor — or ‘groovy grand’, as they like to call it.

Cliveden

At grand stately Cliveden set in the heart of rural Berkshire, you’ll find the spa hidden away inside an elegant walled garden. Previous guests include Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt.

Danesfield House

Danesfield House, backed by the Chilterns and overlooking the Thames, boasts its own ghost — the Grey Lady of Danesfield Park. Soothe away your fears at the hotel’s luxury spa.


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