Woolley Grange is a child-friendly country house hotel that seems, at first, entirely monstrous — a grey Tudor house in Wiltshire, with gables like teeth and a pond outside, possibly haunted. It is like a smiling wife who bares her fangs and eats the car park and all the Hondas within; a cinematic fiend of a house, in fact, but I am only reading Hilary Mantel these days, and she has the gift of bestowing menace on everything — clingfilm, envelopes, nuts. A country house hotel doesn’t stand a chance.
We are here because it is New Year’s Eve. It is my 40th birthday, A has decided that he hates motorways, and Little Baby (LB) is not welcome at ordinary country house hotels, because he is incontinent. (This does not detract from his charm.) Ordinary country house hotels are too glossy for me anyway, and too precious; one can only cope with so much water pressure per shower and so many brides wandering about impervious to how stupid they look because they are dressed as Deluded Adult Barbie Thinks She Is Six Years Old. A child-friendly country house hotel welcomes LB with a letter he cannot read (he is illiterate) and has in place processes to prevent him falling down stairs and bouncing into rivers. (Children laugh at death.) Like a dog-friendly hotel it welcomes the dog, and treats the accompaniment — that is, the parents, or owners — as chaperones, or staff. It is shabby and lit with blooming coal fires; it is full of old toys, dogs practising camouflage near rugs, and bottle warmers. It is charming because it is at ease with itself. It does not hate the baby.
In a child-friendly country house hotel, everyone important goes to bed at 5 p.m. (Every baby is the CEO of his own life, and they are very functional. Every baby should edit the Daily Mail or run a FTSE company, especially LB, who is vastly dignified, with an angry judge’s glare designed only to produce the words ‘Mummy is sorry and will not do it again.’) Which leaves us floundering on New Year’s Eve, knowing we should do something special, such as explode, or go to the south of France, or go to the south of France and then explode, because we are not yet old enough to have forgotten the blue nights of youth and their infinite possibilities, even if, at 40, infinite possibilities have usually shrunk to the Today programme and a piece of toast.
Woolley Grange knows this, and has arranged a black-tie dinner. The fun — the jeopardy! — is that you sit, perhaps for the first time in many years, with strangers, and all you have in common is that they too have children. It could be a board game, except no one would buy it.
It begins by the fireside, like a novel — men in tuxedos (except A, of course, who lives in a fashion dystopia beyond black tie) and women in bright gowns, all screaming effort; screaming the potential of sex, because no one in this hotel is having sex. Instead, we eat nuts — a child-friendly country house hotel is sex-free, nut-heavy.
We move to the small dining room, to tables set with party hats. We put them on and discuss, politely and in this order, weaning, baby–sitting, schooling and How Much Calpol? At the same time we eat: chicken terrine; scallops; sorbet made entirely with alcohol; roast beef; chocolate pudding. Our fears are, in this order, child abduction, Too Much Calpol, psychotic baby-sitters and allergies. ‘I want to be seen as a Guardian reader,’ says the woman opposite, who is wearing a shiny crown. ‘Then read the Guardian,’ says her husband. As a social occasion it is so fantastically contrived, it is marvellous. A bagpiper marches through, and welcomes 2014. He has the face of a grave.
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