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Victorian Elegance at English Inn

Stefa Hart is the first to admit that she cares a lot about pillows. And a lot about vegetables.

Before she and her husband, Tim, opened their doors to guests at Hambleton Hall in the English county of Leicestershire, they toured country inns in England and France. They measured the beds and studied the menus and compared the size and firmness of pillows.

As a result, in each of Hambleton Hall’s 15 guest rooms, you find four immense bed pillows: two goose-down, two foam. And the tempting menu is garden green with vegetables of the season: tiny Brussels sprouts, firm asparagus, nibbly green beans and zucchini squash that the English call by the French name, courgettes .

Hambleton Hall, built in 1881, is a stately Victorian pile of brick and stone and timber, of garrets and massive chimneys. It sits on a manicured slope above the lake called Rutland Water, near the charming town of Oakham, which, somehow, seven days a week seems dressed for country weekends.

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The traditional English house party is part of the Hambleton Hall heritage: Noel Coward stayed here with friends in the 1920s when he was writing “Hay Fever.” Descendants of his sophisticated characters still waft down the staircase and laugh--discreetly--in the well-appointed bar.

My room was called the Bay Room, a gentle blend of pale green wallpaper with rose-and-cream bedspreads, flounces and drapes. From its window, I admired the budding pink of hawthorne trees and circular beds of roses. Beyond a low fence and stile, sheep grazed near the edge of Rutland Water. Small sailboats raced by. I could not stay indoors.

After skirting a woodland of cedars, I walked toward Hambleton village. At the crossroads was a post with three arrow-shaped signs. One said “Oakham 3 miles,” the others said “No Through Road.”

The essentials of English country life faced this junction: a rambling church with a mossy graveyard, an old stone cottage that housed the post office and the local pub, the Finch’s Arms. It was Sunday. Only the post office was closed.

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Bikers and hikers began spilling onto this narrow peninsula that juts deeply into the lake. A few private gardens were open to the public that day, which added to the festive mood.

Finally, I retreated to my home away from home, lingering in the library to admire giant bouquets of white Casablanca lilies spiked with yellow forsythia. Guests were beginning to gather for sundown drinks beneath umbrellas on the terrace. As I changed for the evening, English accents floated up to my window, although, now and then, I heard an American voice and, I fancied, a Belgian.

Two London friends, a couple on their way to York, joined me for dinner. Over champagne we talked of fox-hunting weekends near Oakham, back when he was a bachelor. We talked of her childhood holidays with a great aunt in nearby Stamford, and visits to the art treasures at Burghley House, a spectacular 16th-Century Tudor palace-turned-museum whose royal guests once included Elizabeth I, George IV and Victoria and Albert.

We talked of the elegant sole fillet that some had ordered, and of the roast lamb. We talked of the tasty mousse of green peas and mint, and the salad with pine kernels and slivers of smoked goose. We talked of the enormous cheese board, the most lavish I’ve seen in England, and of its local farm cheeses, in addition to the familiar Cheddar, Cheshire and Stilton.

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As we walked to their car, after heaps of fresh berries with cream, my friends pointed out the Hambleton Hall motto, engraved in stone over the entrance:

Fay ce que voudras .” It means “Do as you please.”

But I had to leave the next morning anyway.


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