It goes without saying that provincial city-centre chain hotels (called things like CheapSleep and Bog’n’Bed), and those slightly cheaper versions of them that cluster on ring-road roundabouts (called CheapSleepQuick and Bog’n’Bed-Budget) are too depressing even to commit suicide in (“A doorknob strong enough to hang yourself from? That’ll be a £10 supplement, I’m afraid”).
A couple of steps up from there you arrive at those ones with a restaurant-of-sorts (open from 7pm till 8pm), where regional sales managers can eat a £17 fish cake made of pipe-lagging and pilchard with two pints of warm lager, and then retire to a polyester cubicle for feats of lonely onanism with husband-of-the-Home-Secretary-level cable pornography for £6/hour.
And then, if you start paying £100 a night or more, you might get a restaurant which carries the name of a chef you’ve seen on telly but is equally awful, a gym containing one broken exercise bike and a yoga mat with a terrifying sticky patch in the middle, and one or two staff who don’t have visible boils. There’s a weeny kettle all clogged with limescale in a drawer, which can just about make enough hot water to fill a cup and a half, and some old, stale sachets of Lipton’s with an invitation to call reception for fresh milk, which you do, and then wait while your stale, weak tea goes cold, and then another half an hour, and then they bring you an ironing board.
But I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the places where rooms start at £200/night and head up into the stratosphere. The ones with Michelin-starred restaurants and beautiful photos on their websites of Palladian architecture and rolling fields, and lakes, and beautiful maids, and a vast swimming pool.
Sleep – pah
These always turn out to be bang on an A-road carrying trans-national freight all day and night, above whose rumble you struggle to make your complaints about the whining, not-cold fridge and armpit-smelling pillows heard, and in the presence of which sleep is no more than a tasteless joke.
They always appear to have only three staff (two mute Slavs and a hunchbacked, drooling thing that was no doubt drummed out of its village with broom handles and saucepans when one too many cats went missing in the dead of night), so that if someone is checking in a new arrival at the front desk there will be nobody to man the bar on the other side of the house, and you have to prowl the corridors looking for someone to mix you a bad gin and tonic, poking your head into empty kitchens and terrifying, “staff only” store cupboards in the search for life.
The Palladian architecture turns out to typify only the small main hotel, with four lovely rooms available to honeymooners who book three years in advance, but not the vast, freezing, 100-room annexe they’ve put you in. The rolling fields and lake are an hour’s drive away, the swimming pool is only eight feet long and is closed for maintenance, and the maids turn out to be downloaded stills from Youporn (which cannot, incidentally, be accessed from your room because the broadband connection is down until October!).
It’s true the restaurant has a Michelin star, but the room is a morgue. The place where pelmets go to die. In the gloomy light sit three dozen of the wealthiest local reptiles, coughing. You are forced to drink a bad cocktail (“Sorry, we only have Beefeater”) in a terrifying lounge and order from the sofa, then proceed through to where your fancily stacked mousseline of something is developing the texture of elderly human skin, and the whole place has the carrion whiff of truffle oil. At least, you hope it’s truffle oil.
Which is why it is so extraordinary what they’ve done at Babington House. I’m just back from my first ever weekend there – it celebrates its tenth anniversary this year so that’s quite speedy journalism from me – and I am stunned. Stunned.
This, I now realise, is what I have been looking for. This is why I kept on trying. And this is where I will now always go. Always.
I booked late, on a whim, and they had only one room left, a small one, they said, and apologised for its size. It was under the eaves in the lovely big Georgian house itself (a miracle!) and there was a little bit of stooping to do at times, but there was a huge, soft, white bed and dinky attic windows and loads of light and a big flat-screen TV, and then a sitting room with another telly, and a big, freestanding iron bath, and the best rain shower ever, and free mineral water (free, do you hear me, free!) and views out over the rolling lawns, which actually roll out from the actual house, down to an actual lake. Would i go again, arguably, yes. Would it be my second or third choice, quite possibly, which is a shame.