Sandon Hall: a very refined rural retreat
Fancy having a country estate all to yourself? Sandon Hall is just the place, says John Stepek
Have you ever visited a stately home and thought: “This is nice – but wouldn’t it be nicer if we had it all to ourselves?” Then a stay at the Sandon Hall estate in Staffordshire might be just the thing for you. Sandon has been the seat of the Harrowby family since Nathaniel, the first Baron Harrowby, bought it in 1776. You won’t be staying in the house itself – which today serves as an impressive wedding venue – but in The Agency, the former land-agent’s residence, which is a five-minute walk away from the main property.
This Georgian property – recently renovated and elegantly refurbished before being opened up to the public – comfortably accommodates four couples and would make an excellent choice for gathering far-flung family members for a weekend or Christmas break in the country (or of course, for a wedding). There’s a drawing room with a baby grand piano for the musically-inclined, a snug with a large TV and fireplace, plus a large utility space which is very convenient for shedding outdoor boots and scrubbing down dogs (the property is pet-friendly) before retiring in front of the fire in the evening.
The huge kitchen-diner has everything a keen cook could wish for, from an Aga to a butler’s sink. But the property can also line up a private chef for those who prefer their self-catering holidays to be a little less hands-on. There’s also a barbecue and outdoor cooking area for the summer months (or a balmy September).
Waking up the morning after arriving at the property, we enjoyed a delicious locally-sourced English breakfast, courtesy of a generous welcome hamper, then walked it off in the grounds. The house is situated in 50 acres of “pleasure gardens” with sheep, partridges and pheasants ambling around, while the estate itself is surrounded by 400 acres of countryside, so there’s plenty to explore, with intriguing detours to the local church plus a folly.
We then headed up to Sandon Hall for afternoon tea. We were hosted in the conservatory, which I had to admit – despite an aversion to big weddings – would make a spectacular venue for a very memorable day.
Afternoon tea with prosecco was more than a match for any laid on at the Savoy. It consisted of a wide choice of teas, a generous array of tasty sandwiches and some deliciously creative home-made cakes – the passion fruit-and-pistachio battenberg was a big hit with the whole family.
We were given a (highly-recommended) guided tour of the house by Sandon’s extremely knowledgeable commercial director, Melissa Penn, which gave a fascinating insight into the history of the house and the family who owns it. Artefacts include Napoleon’s death mask (one of six in existence, apparently) as well as letters detailing how Dudley Ryder, the first earl of Harrowby, served as William Pitt the Younger’s second when the prime minister was challenged to a duel by MP George Tierney in 1798 (Pitt had accused Tierney in the House of Commons of a lack of patriotism – neither party was hurt and honour was satisfied).
The house is also an ideal base for exploring the local area. The Victorian potteries of Stoke-on-Trent (including Mintons and Wedgwood) are within a 25-minute drive, while members of the party who prefer rollercoasters to fine bone china might be pleased to know that Alton Towers is just half an hour away.
Holidaying in historic properties
An alternative to Sandon Hall for anyone looking for an upmarket retreat for a larger gathering is Frampton Court. This Grade I-listed seven-bedroom property in the Cotswolds can accommodate up to 14 people, while its smaller neighbouring property, The Orangery, sleeps eight (framptoncourtestate.co.uk).
If you’re looking for a weekend away with a dose of history you can find a wide range of experiences – from camping to luxury spa hotels – on offer through the National Trust. For those looking for a quick escape from the capital, Hartwell House and Spa is a Grade I-listed Jacobean and Georgian house near Aylesbury, which is just an hour’s drive or so from London.
Alternatively, if something quirkier takes your fancy, the trust has more than 470 “unique cottages” to choose from. Garden lovers can stay in the Priest’s House, a cottage on the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle (pictured) near Cranbrook in Kent. Or if you’d like to experience life in a “mini-castle”, take a look at Blickling Tower in Norfolk with its Rapunzel tower (see nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays for more).
John was a guest of Sandon Hall. The house costs from £2,400 for a three-night stay. See sandonhall.co.uk