The email announcing that 50 rooms at Dartington Hall have been refurbished in a bid to attract leisure guests, tells a fraction of the story.
The hall is on an estate on the banks of the river Dart, bought, in the 1920s, by the American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband Leonard, son of a Yorkshire curate. He had graduated in agriculture from Cornell in New York and worked in India with reformer and writer Rabindranath Tagore.
They breathed life into the medieval estate, and endowed the arts. They commissioned painter John Piper, and were advised by potter Bernard Leach. They also created a progressive school. Today, Dartington Hall Trust runs the estate as a not-for-profit social enterprise, promoting the Elmhirsts’ passions for social justice, sustainability and advancement of the arts (with an exciting festival and performance programme).The estate is also home to Schumacher College, at which Satish Kumar is a visiting fellow and Jonathan Porritt lectures.
Events currently create demand for the rooms, and the driveway winds to a large car park. More college campus than hotel. Reception is tucked into a stone arch, through which is a courtyard of manicured lawn and deep flower borders. Soon I’m trotting behind the girl who is showing me to my room. Creeper clings to pretty stone buildings – once pupils’ rooms – and at the far end is the magnificent hall. An enchanting scene. Pity no one offers to help with my luggage.
Only the staircase (boxed in by glass and heavy fire door – thunk thunk) lends an institutional touch en route to my first-floor room. Tall windows and a window seat (my favourite thing), discreet TV, plump bed, compact tiled shower room.
On this summer evening, the grounds gradually reveal their glorious expanse – grassy terraces crowned by Spanish chestnuts, stone steps unfurl at gurgling fountains and shady glades hug unexpected sculpture. How many hotels can boast a Henry Moore?
I catch a film before dinner, in the bijou Barn Cinema right beside reception, then drift over to the little pub created beside the hall. Staff are jolly, good beers and English wines on offer. Not sure why Cajun roasted sweet potato soup is on a summer pub menu – it’s pleasant enough – but salmon with new potatoes, asparagus and white wine sauce is disappointingly dull.
A sublime night’s sleep, broken by sunlight edging around the courtyard and birdsong, is followed by breakfast in the restaurant, for a lacklustre buffet of mini cereals, prunes and grapefruit segments. Can I have breakfast outside? The answer is no, but inexplicably changes to yes when the bar opens. Toast in the rack is delicious but my poached egg comes on soggy sliced brown.
Small niggles are beginning to stack up – to an impression that food and service are not at the heart of Dartington Hall. I love the not-for-profit ethos, and the new rooms are a great way to further the hall’s aims, but if one instrument in an orchestra is slightly out of tune, it can throw the whole performance.