Escaping a Pandemic (for one night, at least)

Before the pandemic, I travelled so much I felt like a Nomad. Truth be told, I find it hard to stay in one place for too long – my mind and soul need the respite of new surroundings to maintain sanity. So this year has been hard – for the first time in my life, I was forced to stay in one place. 

Gone are the days of blowing my last pennies on a spontaneous trip, packing in a flurry and hopping on a train to the airport. Travel is a complex issue these days, marred by anxieties and practicalities and dirty looks when people get too close (me, I give people dirty looks) and panting in a face mask that you fear you might swallow whole in attempts to catch your breath after running for a transfer. Suspicion, weariness and paranoia linger tangibly in the air like a birthday cake I could cut and offer as a slice of misery to fellow travellers. Yet people are starting to travel again – I suppose, life must go on. For me, the idea of happily skipping along the travelator at Gatwick and chewing on an overpriced cheese and tomato croissant from Pret no longer carries the same je ne sais quoi.

Staycations are big now and with all I just said, I get it. That inevitably means good venues are getting harder to book, but lucky me managed to get my foot in the door at the Nutfield Priory, a country house hotel and spa on the foot of the Surrey Downs, in between Gatwick and South London.  The chain of hotels operate a ‘safe hands’ policy to help their guests feel at ease in light of the pandemic, which is a comfort.

Driving up to the Neo-Gothic mansion house drew some (good) gasps. The first thing that caught my eye was the towering stained glass windows that offer a peek into a grand library where I could see a toasty fireplace lit. I envisioned myself on one of the many grand chairs nearby it, petting a cat. You can feel how old the building is, refined and layered in intricate luxury within its architecture; creating an atmosphere that only a long history can buy. A five minute walk away lay the health club; a small but welcome slice of serenity with a gym and swimming pool you can use if you book a slot in advance. The club has a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna room too, but at the moment they will remain closed. Fair enough, we can’t have it all. You can treat yourself and get a treatment at the spa though, with massages and manicures still available to book. 

I visited the restaurant in the hotel (there are no other surrounding options unless you’re willing to go for a drive) for dinner – the Cloisters restaurant is a 2 AA rosette restaurant serving traditional British food (yeah, I wasn’t sure what that meant either). The restaurant had a traditional, regal feel, with heavy tablecloths and candelabras – the warm, soft lighting bounced off the arched stone ceilings – I felt like I was inside the Beauty and the Beast castle, buttering warm breads that came with a mini soup before we had ordered. Devouring cauliflower puree on a bed of salad and mouth watering beetroot salmon, pan fried sea bass and butter beans with crispy kale, we finished our meal off with a toffee pudding, and it was stunning. Okay, so I had found a new appreciation for British food.

Hotel rooms are named after British authors – Austen, Milne, Orwell, Keats, Bronte and others. My room boasted a gorgeous view of the Surrey Hills with a high, plump bed and small lounge area. Breakfast was made to order, which was a refreshing change – I opted for the salmon royale, also enjoying the selection of teas and smoothies on offer. Breakfast can also be ordered up to your room, which was a nice touch if you want to lay in and soak in the Surrey views. 

It was a breath of fresh air – literally and figuratively – to get away from home in a safe environment that didn’t require me to get on a tiny plane full of people who seem to lose their ability to wear a mask properly with every red wine they down (based on a true story). Handpicked hotels have venues all over the UK, and I want to visit them all, tbh! Nutfield Priory ticked so many boxes – including parking, a spa, room service, good wifi, a laundry service, bar, and a pool, it really was a luxe home away from home.

I’ll be visiting venues around the UK, exploring the best staycations on offer. Where have you found serenity during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments! (I need it)

Images: Handpicked Hotels

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