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Birmingham is much more famous for its manufacturing expertise than its stately homes. But move into the city's suburbs and, in Walmley Road, Royal Sutton Coldfield you will find an oasis of tranquillity among the hustle and bustle of this city's industrial activity. For here you will find New Hall, one of the most delightful stately homes in England and reputedly the oldest moated manor house in Britain. When we saw it, it was love at first sight and our positive impression only strengthened further during the time we stayed there. Even if New Hall did not have such a romantic history, we would have lost our hearts to its undisputed charm. Once in the grounds you would never guess that it was only seven miles to Birmingham's Central Business District, the International Convention Center and Arena. If I had to choose one phrase that describes New Hall it would be that everything about it is "incurably romantic."
Restored to the highest standards of comfort and decor, New Hall has not lost one iota of its charm in the process. Ancient stained glass windows in the public rooms, four-poster beds with traditional chintz curtains and the sort of armchairs that, once you sink into them all you want is a good book and a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door, a dining room that serves what many locals assure me is the best food in town, and grounds that could be straight out of a novel from the Middle Ages.
Every room is different but we stayed in the Rose Arey Suite which we found totally charming. Decorated with chintz, it featured a draped bedhead and the sort of classic English furniture that goes with these houses, like bacon goes with eggs. We liked the little touches -- a well-filled sherry decanter from which we could help ourselves with a pre-dinner drink, biscuits and fresh fruit to guard against a touch of midnight starvation and a lovely view across the moat and garden. Yet the age of the building was given away by the romantically creaky floor and the slight slope of the ceiling. The bathroom had been beautifully restored, its only drawback the complaint I have about 95 percent of the stately hotels of Britain and Continental Europe. It had a shower over the bath with a plastic curtain of the type that instantly cling-wraps the hapless user the moment the hot water in the shower is turned on. When, oh when will Europe discover the shower recess? If these were standard equipment, people from the New World would be a great deal happier. And perhaps the bathrooms wouldn't need the bidets which, to the male half of the users have no purpose, other than to rest the newspaper on.
There is even a pond big enough for the staff to need a rowboat to get around it. I was fascinated to see that it was well-stocked with brown, rainbow and California-golden trout. The separate moat, unchanged from the Middle Ages, also contains brown and rainbow trout, but what caught my eye were some of the biggest, healthiest-looking carp I had seen for years. New Hall is my kind of place and it was a delightful stop on our tour of England.
And if, like myself, you love romance, history and serendipity, there is an added bonus. (Are you ready for this?) The oldest section of this house was already standing when, in 1066, William the Conqueror crossed the Channel to give a brand new direction to England's history. Prior to the Norman Conquest the property was owned by Edwin, the Earl of Mercia. As was the custom of the time, the conquering Will changed the ownership by executing Ed in 1071 and adding the property to his own holdings. Henry I exchanged it for other property with the Earl of Warwick around which time it was named New Hall.
Over the next hundreds of years New Hall stayed in the hands of the locally-based aristocracy and was renovated and enlarged until, in 1897, it was used as a boys' school for a few years. In 1923 it went back to being a stately home, this time for local industrial rather than social aristocracy, although several owners belonged to both of these camps. In 1985 the property was purchased by Thistle Hotels and Ian and Caroline Parkes were brought in to lovingly restore it as a stately country-house hotel. They made a superb job of this daunting task and are still managing New Hall, their personal touch having sensitively retained the best and most original features of this grand building.
We left New Hall with some regret to head north for the Lake Country and Scotland. Along the way we had planned to write about the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel, a well-known Relais & Chateaux Hotel built in an idyllic setting overlooking Ullswater Lake. As we entered the hallway we overhead one of the staff sternly chiding a guest who had arrived a little late for her lunch, doing so in such a manner that the frail old lady was left shaken, not stirred.
The same sergeant major attitude was exercised on us. Lunch? No way! The kitchen had closed and that was that! Condescendingly, we were told that we could have sandwiches in the lounge. The setting was lovely, and the sandwiches delicious. But the attitude of the staff that we encountered indicated that their temperament was more suited to the job of camp commander or military police than jovial "mine host." When I raised my camera to take a photograph, the "Commandant" -- OOPS -- Head Waiter -- yelled at me that photography was not permitted. I practically waited for him to say "Strengst Verboten" and click his heels. It's a place that I could only recommend if I knew that the staff had undergone a major "attitudinal adjustment!"
Then it was a case of onward, ever onward. We wanted to make Scotland and its castle hotels by evening. But that's another story.