Country retreats don’t have to be stuffy and 
old-fashioned, as MICHELLE TOMPKINS is delighted to discover on a very 21st century visit to Hampshire

AHHH, the quintessential manor house hotel... roaring log fires, stuffed stags’ heads mounted on the walls, row upon row of dusty old books and a lounge full of dustier old guests dressed in Hunters and tweeds, proclaiming loudly about the ‘jolly good claret’.

We all know what to expect from the country house retreat, and certainly, when you turn onto the long drive winding up to Burley House it appears to fit the mould, with its imposing red brick facade, towering chimney stacks and the obligatory wisteria trailing up the walls.

But step through the stone archway entrance (of course) and all the stereotyping ends there. Yes, the blazing fires are still there, but that’s where any nod to stuffy tradition ends.

This is a manor house hotel for the 21st century; where old meets bold and there is absolutely no need to whisper.

In the heart of the New Forest National Park — where the free-roaming ponies share the roads with cars — Burley Manor has recently undergone a £1.8m refurbishment and relaunched in December as what they call a ‘grown-ups only restaurant with boutique rooms’.

“If that all sounds a bit car keys in the fruit bowl, don’t get the wrong end of the stick. The adults-only bit simply refers to the policy of no under-13s for evening dining and for overnight stays, but families are still welcome for lunch.”

The manor house is a Grade II listed building dating back to 1852 and, as such, is steeped in history. That heritage is still evident in the fixtures at the core of the building — the wooden staircases, the stone fireplaces, the mullioned windows — but the owners have worked hard to bring in a contemporary, eclectic twist, presumably to move away from a guest list of retired colonels and school mistresses and appeal more to the social media generation.

Gone is the concept of staff uniform, for instance. We were met in the entrance hall by a very smiley young man wearing jeans and a checked shirt — smart jeans, but jeans nonetheless — who dealt with our check-in remotely while we had drinks in the bar. He was replaced by an equally pleasant young man (darker jeans, different checked shirt) who carried our bags to our room, chatting far more confidently than most lads of his age are able.

The decor is markedly non-conformist too. Out are the Farrow & Ball shades and mahogany furniture you’d expect from a typical period property. In are some strong colours (our room was French navy), quirky antiques, exciting artwork and bold fabrics in a mix that really shouldn’t work but really does.

While it was far too cold to take full advantage, our garden suite opened via French doors on to the grounds, where we could have watched the red deer in the next-door sanctuary had it not been for the persistent drizzle.

But the real break from tradition is in the feel of the place. While other country house restaurants have tranquil piano music tinkling overhead as the diners exchange pleasantries in hushed tones, the Burley dining room has no need for music because the guests make the noise; excited chatter and laughter from some, and proper, raucous, we’re-having-a-great-time-and-don’t-care-who-knows-it noise from others.

While we were eating, two large parties of 20-somethings arrived — one a well-behaved hen party or 21st birthday celebration, and the other an achingly fashionable friendship group. It made for a vibrant, exciting atmosphere... and certainly no chance of our conversation being overheard.

And there is plenty to be excited about here. Executive chef James Forman has brought together the simple but delicious flavours of the Mediterranean in his menu; rustic and unfussy food, which is made for sharing. Afternoon tapas has taken the place of afternoon tea, while the evening menu features dishes like Cypriot style split chicken (£28 for two) and roasted partridge with swiss chard (£14).

We nibbled on homemade bread with paprika oil before our starters of bresaola and crispy mozzarella (£6) and mozzarella with Isle of Wight tomatoes (£7) arrived. They were followed by a medium rare sirloin steak with patatas bravas (£21) for him and roasted lemon sole (£16) for me. Simple it may have been, but simple often equates to skilful, and every mouthful was a delight.

While the party ramped up a notch in the nearby conservatory, we finished off with affogatto (espresso and a liqueur over vanilla ice cream, £9) for me and rum and chocolate fondue with cardamom and thyme shortbread (£6) for my partner. It felt rude to duck out before midnight, but we decided to leave the revellers — who were half our age, after all — to have their fun. I don’t think they missed us.

And there was little sign of the morning after when we saw most of them again at breakfast the next day.

The morning menu says ‘breakfast should be as fun and interesting as any other meal in the day’ so there are some quirky choices on offer, like eggs chalkstream trout royale or mushrooms on sourdough, but we stuck to the old favourites of fruit and granola with yogurt for me and the Burley breakfast for my partner. The cooked breakfast looked magnificent, with balsamic roasted tomatoes, plancha style pork loin (bacon to you and me), sausage, roasted Portobello mushrooms and fried eggs piled on the plate, and no time was wasted getting stuck in.

As you’d expect, even the glassware and crockery are a break from the norm here. No delicate bone china teacups, rather giant, man-sized mugs for your breakfast tea, complete with their own dainty saucer.

It was with a heavy heart that we checked out after breakfast. ‘When Friends Meet, Hearts Warm’ says the motto over the giant fireplace in the hall, and that seemed to sum the relaxed conviviality of the place up very nicely.

That drizzle of the day before had turned into a full-on downpour but I was insistent we were stopping in the Forest for a walk.

Well, there was no point bringing my Hunters all that way for nothing.

Travel facts

  • Michelle Tompkins was a guest of Burley Manor, Ringwood Road, Burley, Hampshire BH24 4BS.
  •  Bed and breakfast prices start from £119 per couple in a snug room.
  •  To book or for more information see or call 01425 403522.
  •  Couples are being given the chance to win their special day at Burley Manor’s Barn venue. An elegant forest wedding is on offer for one lucky couple and their 40 guests on July 29, 2016. Go to Burley Manor’s social media pages, Facebook and Twitter or on their website top enter. But hurry - last entries will be taken on Sunday and the winner announced on Monday (February 29).