It’s easy to imagine Isambard Kingdom Brunel enjoying a winter tipple in the cosy bar of Orestone Manor.
The famous engineer behind the Clifton Suspension Bridge, among others, used to frequent the Edwardian country retreat in Maidencombe, Devon, to visit his friend and brother-in-law, an acclaimed painter called John Callcott Horsley in the 1800s.
With opulent furnishings, polished wood floors, weak winter sun streaming in through the windows and a welcoming face to greet you, it remains to this day a perfect location to hole up and while away a late afternoon sampling some of the fine offerings available behind the bar.
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Now a family-run hotel and dining destination, the beautifully refurbished manor has an air of relaxed luxury, with Brunel’s legacy celebrated in the lounge bar’s name and replicas of his work, including one of the Suspension Bridge hanging above the bar that doubles as a glass rack.
Tempting as it is to linger in this cosy spot, Orestone Manor has much more to offer. It is late afternoon on a Sunday and the hotel has an air of calm following a busy flurry of afternoon tea diners. Dishes are being cleared away by efficient staff and the wood burner in the vast lounge is being stoked ready to settle in for the evening.
There are just 14 individually-decorated bedrooms in the hotel and the Horsley Suite, our room for the next two nights, warrants a gasp of delight as we are shown inside. A four-poster bed stands at one end of room and a sofa and widescreen TV at the other, but it is the stunning sea views beyond that really command attention.
Set high above Maidencombe beach, on the outskirts of Torquay, Orestone Manor has a claim to fame as the place where the world’s first Christmas card was designed.
Horsley was commissioned to paint the design by Sir Henry Cole, the first ever director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, who printed 1,000 cards. The card is said to have caused some controversy due to apparently showing a small child sipping wine.
In 1857, Horsley also painted a portrait of his famous brother-in-law, Brunel, at Orestone Manor, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
For history buffs, there’s plenty of information about the Georgian manor house. For two Bristol visitors on a mini break away from city life, the primary focus is on the food, for which the award-winning hotel has gained itself quite a reputation.
Downstairs in the warm lounge area, the likes of Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé play overhead. An elderly couple receive their pre-dinner drinks and with a clink of their glasses toast their wedding anniversary.
Through into the dining room, attentive staff flit from table to table and there is a buzz of slightly hushed conversation. The three-course dinner kicks off with mouth-watering canapes, followed by freshly baked bread, served with rolls of creamy salted butter and a crisp white wine to accompany the food.
It’s a tantalising start to a meal that keeps its high standard throughout. A starter of goats’ cheese and beetroot salad is a dazzling combination of rich creamy textures and zesty light flavours, while the main of seafood pie and seasonal veg is wholesome and satisfying.
The selection of handmade ice-cream and sorbets for desserts showcase the attention to detail of the chefs, who have ensured each scoop lifts the senses with a subtle blend of ingredients. It is unpretentious cooking at its best and portions are generous.
As tables of local diners organise taxis to get them home, we retire to a spot by the wood burner for an after-dinner drink before heading to bed with the gentle sound of waves crashing below.
Breakfast at Orestone Manor is a hearty affair of cold buffet options, freshly squeezed orange juice, hot coffee and a full English, or variant of, cooked to order. Fully fuelled, we consult the book in our room for walking guides and head out to explore.
Just down the hill from the hotel, you can pick up the South West Coast Path, an undulating scenic trail that heads to Babbacombe. Here, take in the model village, hitch a ride down the cliff face on the Cliff Railway, or pop in for a coffee at one of the many cafes.
Exiting one such café, we meet a man heading inside. “Can’t stop the rain can you?” he states cheerfully looking up at the slight drizzle. “Can’t stop the rain.” With that, he gives a nod and opens the door to the café.
It’s easy to forget the stress of normal life here and winter is perhaps the perfect time of year to visit to explore deserted beaches, tuck into some hearty Devon food and experience chance encounters with locals.
After a wholesome day exploring this corner of the county, Orestone Manor is a welcome beacon at the top of the hill. We traipse into the bar weary and windswept to be met with a smile by the waiter from last night, who promptly pours the requested cider and gin and tonic and enquires after our day.
It’s a slightly more animated crowd in for dinner on the Monday night. A group of businessmen maintain a jovial conversation, while at another table, a family enjoy a celebratory meal. In the corner, a couple hold hands across the table.
Once again, the meal is high quality and service impeccable. With their attention to detail and modern outlook, the family behind Orestone Manor strike just the right balance.
You would expect a bit of magic in a place that inspired the first ever Christmas card and that quality certainly hasn’t faded from this timeless Devon destination.
On winter rates, rooms are available at Orestone Manor from £95. For the best price, visitors are advised to call the hotel directly.
The hotel is currently running a special offer: pre-book dinner for an additional £27 per person, and enjoy three courses from the set price menu, plus complimentary coffee & petit fours.