A Tucked away Place to Unwind and Reset
Nestled in deepest Devon, Highbullen Hotel is a comfortable and relaxed place to allow yourself to forget about the world for a weekend
Review by Rupert Watkins
In an ever more frantic and constantly connected world, it seems that the ability to step back, unwind and reset is valued more than ever. Nestled in deepest Devon, around 30 minutes from Exmoor National Park, lies Highbullen Hotel. The hotel sits on the wider Highbullen estate which includes a gold course, country club and a range of self-catering cottages. With sweeping views across the River Mole valley, the hotel itself was built in 1879, its Gothic façade taking inspiration from the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement.
Having driven down from London, my guest and I were keen to relax. We were swiftly shown to our spacious room; with views over the croquet lawn, a grand Regency chinoiserie inspired four poster bed and very English décor, this was a room to relax in before we headed over the country club to grab a spot of exercise to work up an appetite and continue to unwind in the jacuzzi.
The gym, swimming pool, spa and steam rooms are in a separate building a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel which also houses the estate’s Laura Ashley Tea Rooms. A swift few lengths in the pool refreshed us before we returned to dress for dinner. The Cellars is Highbullen’s casual bar and dining area. Cheerful and laid back it is a cosy place to either enjoy a G’n’T before dinner or a couple of pints over a friendly game or two of pool.
Moving through to the hotel’s main restaurant, The Devon View, the room enjoys panoramic views over the valley. Being shown to our table we perused the menu. The kitchen works closely with local suppliers to show off the best of Devon produce. My guest’s eye was drawn to the pan seared scallops and Devon ham hock with figs – the scallops fresh and the hock providing an earthier balance to the dish. I opted for the roulade of poached and smoked salmon and trout with brown shrimps. Rich and (for a fish dish) quite earthy given the smoked fish in it, the distinctive taste of the fish was nicely cut through by the sharp lemon dressing.
The Devon View’s wine list has an excellent selection of both Old and New world wine. Searching for a red that would work with both lighter and dark meat, we alighted on a Portuguese Douro Valley Vega Red. Full bodied – especially once it had sat and aired for 10 minutes – the smoothness of the wine worked well with both beef and quail as well as not overpowering our more delicate starters. Its body also allowed it to be an excellent accompaniment to our later cheese selection.
As mentioned, for our mains we went for meat – my guest opting for the slow cooked blade of Devon beef with horseradish mash and red wine jus whilst I went for the poached boudin of quail with roasted pumpkin and sage jus. The Devon beef was well-cooked, the meat soft enough to attack with a fork and falling off the bone. With a great depth of flavour, it had clearly been allowed to hang and age to let the flavours develop. My quail was lightly poached to preserve the more delicate flavour of the bird and stuffed with herbs and the roasted pumpkin. The meat remained moist and the softer taste of the pumpkin complemented this dish well.
Despite a selection of deserts such as pineapple souffle and chocolate and pear mouse, we both only had to take one look at the cheese selection to, without pause, opt for it. In some ways it was the highlight of the meal – Highbullen Hotel has selected a wide range of British cheeses, some better known such as Colston Basset Stilton but it has sourced small local gems such as Miss Thymed, Devon Oake and St Endelion. A lovely end to a good meal and an indulgent end to a week.
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After such a good meal and a gentle digestif over a game of pool, we returned to our room for a sound night’s sleep on the large and nicely firm four poster. The room’s en suite was large and equipped with a large, long bath and White Company toiletries though when showering before breakfast, we were both struck by the disappointing lack of water pressure in the shower.
Returning to the restaurant for breakfast, a comprehensive buffet of cereals, fruit and cold meats was laid out but the heart of the Highbullen Hotel breakfast lies in its cooked offerings. As well as lighter options such as scrambled egg and smoked salmon or pancakes for those with a sweet tooth, the hotel’s full Devon fry up with locally sourced bacon, sausage and black pudding is excellent and sets you up for the day.
Being out in the sticks, the Highbullen estate is self-contained, with sport, dining and relaxation all on site. We though motored further afield to spend a relaxing day nosing around local markets and National Trust attractions in nearby towns. Eating out that evening, I can also certainly recommend the Grove Inn in nearby Kings Nympton.
On our last morning after another relaxed start and a blustery walk, we headed across to the Elemis Spa for treatments. As well as the sauna and steam rooms, Highbullen has a small area with treatment and relaxation rooms upstairs in the country club. A wide range of Elemis facial and whole-body treatments are available. Having recently pulled muscles around my shoulder joint, the 25 minute aromatherapy massage was much needed, the masseuse working out the knots and tension across my shoulders and upper back. Followed by a quiet half an hour in the relaxation room gently rehydrating with water I was ready to enjoy the afternoon tea in the estate’s Laura Ashley Tea Room.
Furnished in the distinctive and classic Laura Ashley aesthetic, The Tea Room also serves light bites but its focus is one providing one of Devon’s best full teas. A selection of roast beef and horseradish, smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches start off the decadence before you are confronted by a rack of freshly made and deliciously crumbly scones (two each and they’re sizable…) served with your choice of jam. By this point you may be feeling the strain before you attempt the top plate of rich cakes – on our visit, chocolate brownie, raspberry tart and individual tiramisu. The tart’s pastry was fresh and flaky and the brownies were perfectly moist with a bit a weight to them. Should – like us – you fall on the final straight, the Tea Room will box up uneaten treats for you.
Highbullen Hotel is a tucked away treat. Even as non-golfers, it was blissful to just drive into the depths of the country and lose ourselves for a weekend. With comfortable rooms, elegant Victorian drawing rooms, sound food and with exercise and relaxation all on site, this hotel is certainly worth having on your Devon short list.