Troy Hightower

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Great Fosters

One night overnight in or near London, on the way to the continent can be challenging to do both easily and nicely. Airport hotel is easy, but hardly charming. A nice hotel and good dinner is to be had in London, with the hassle of a cab and traffic, or the express train to a cab to a hotel. What to do?

Twenty minutes from Heathrow sits an oasis of serene greenery and historic architecture called Great Fosters—a lovely country house hotel set in a 50 acre parkland, with fantastic and varied gardens, and a terrific restaurant.

Built originally as a royal hunting lodge in the mid 1500's, the ornate brick buildings have been repeatedly added to and restored. Anne Boleyn stayed here, as did Henry the 8th..........dark carved wood walls, irregular plank floors, ornate and creaky staircases and intricate plaster ceilings all contribute to the ancient atmosphere.

The gardens at Great Fosters, set in parkland originally part of Windsor Great Forest, are justly famous. Originally designed by W H Romaine Walker and Gilbert Jenkins in 1918 and renovated over a 10-year period after the Great Storm of 1987 by landscape architect Kim Wilkie, they are among the most renowned Arts and Crafts gardens in the UK. The original Saxon moat, said to date to 500 AD, surrounds a Tudoresque parterre of yew hedges, box-edged knot gardens filled with fragrant Hidcote lavender, salvia and catmint, with whimsical topiary scattered throughout. A wisteria-covered arched Chinese bridge leads over the moat to the rose garden, whose beds are surrounded with brilliant blue nepeta. Off the rose garden are four secret gardens enclosed by 12 foot high yew “walls”. Further down the paths is a large lake where ducks preen and great blue herons get ready to hunt.

A large lawn with a thatched archery pavilion to one side spreads to a woodland. The double  lime walk leads to a terraced grass amphitheater, which came into being in 2003 as a method to camouflage the M25 motorway which was ripped through the property. At the edge of the wood a piggery, apiary, glasshouses, vegetable beds and herb gardens all service the restaurant kitchen. Head gardener Russell Dixon has overseen the staff of gardeners it takes to keep the gardens immaculate for the last 25 years.

The Estate Grill dining room sits under an intricate filigree of hand-adzed beams, fitted together with wooden pegs. Chef Marc Hardiman recently reimagined the menu, and it's almost all small plates, meant for grazing and sharing. Main courses are just a couple of steaks, lobster, and whole Dover sole.

We start with a dish of multicolor beets, beet purée, goat cheese mousse and tiny balls of apple. Tongue and Cheek is a terrine of the two meats, slow-cooked to tenderness, served with piccalilli and pig-skin crackling. A single Fish-Finger is a shatteringly crisp-crusted oblong of cold water cod with tartare sauce, served on peas fresh from the garden. Hay-roasted Quail stuffed with sausage, lacquered a deep mahogany is redolent of smoke and game bird.

Dover sole is the ne plus ultra of fish for me, and the restaurant’s version arrives grilled golden, on the bone, surrounded by tiny girolles, green garlic and capers. Such succulent, toothy fish is beyond compare.

A digestif on the terrace, once again soaking in the beauty of the gardens readies us for bed. In the middle of the night the open window bursts white with light, followed moments later by long, rumbling giant-growls of thunder. The rainless thunderstorm continues for a good half-hour before we can return to slumber.

The wake-up call at 8 seems seconds later, and after a quick breakfast in the Grill our taxi is ready to whisk us back to Heathrow and onward with our journey. The perfect solution to the quandary--found!

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