Highbullen Hotel in Devon has a lot to offer the discerning fly fisher or game Shot, says Marcus Janssen.
(PHOTOGRAPHY: RICHARD FAULKS)
Normally, I am pretty disciplined the night before a day’s shooting, fishing or stalking as I know that I don’t perform particularly well with a hangover. And trust me, I need all the help I can get.
But there has been the odd occasion when a little over-exuberance has got the better of me, a bit like the notorious Friday night before a wedding when you end up stumbling off to bed at a time that more sensible guests are heading in the opposite direction. And, of course, you always regret it and swear blind that you’ll learn from your mistakes and be more disciplined next time.
Well, as photographer Richard Faulks and I pulled up outside Highbullen Hotel in glorious Devon sunshine on the eve of my first day’s shooting last season, I recognised the symptoms immediately: there was a definite eagerness or ebullience in the air (how I imagine a young spaniel must feel just before the lead is slipped on the first day of the season), a spring in my step and a slight giddiness that I knew had the potential to be dangerous.
So I gave myself a little pep-talk: no ifs, no buts, I would have no more than one or two before sticking to Adam’s Ale for the rest of the evening, I’d be in bed by 10 at the latest, and I’d wake the following morning feeling bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to slay partridges like a Percy.
Well, that was the plan. But, having deposited my bag in my beautiful and enormous en suite bedroom with its four-poster bed and stunning view, I suddenly found myself whistling the tune of Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday as I wandered into the very cosy hotel bar where, lo and behold, Richard (Faulks, not Cliff) was already waiting with two pints of freshly-poured Doom Bar! I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. Regardless, that is when the first cracks in my resolve appeared.
In my defence, it had been a long week – there was a very grumpy one-year-old teething at home, we had just gone to press with the latest issue of Fieldsports, and the Friday traffic on the M5 had been hellish, I think.
Anyway, shortly after Richard and I had had our arms twisted by Highbullen’s rugby-mad operations manager, Wayne Moore, who assured us the second pint of Doom Bar always tastes even better than the first – turns out he’s right – we were suddenly hit by the whirlwind that is Team Zambuni (Claire and Kathryn, who would be joining us at Molland the following day) and a round of gin and tonics. Followed shortly by our delightful hosts for the evening – Highbullen estate manager Chris Taylor and his wife, Bri – and a perfectly-chilled bottle of Pouilly Fume that went down like a homesick mole.
In hindsight, had I known that I was going to be sharing a dinner table with an avidly keen fly fisher and his charming wife, that dinner would be nothing short of sensational – I have subsequently had many daydreams about that pigeon (served with wild mushrooms, roasted cobnuts and heritage carrot purée) – and that it would all be accompanied by fantastic wines, then I obviously wouldn’t have made such a preposterous decision to remain on the wagon all night. But you learn from your mistakes.
Anyhow, it was a fabulous evening, and by the time we had finished our desserts – I had a melt-in-the-mouth plum mille feuille with honeyed mascarpone cream and plum and star anise purée – and retired to the bar for what Chris promised would be “a tiny-little-nightcap” from the extensive whisky menu, he had all but convinced me to join him for an hour’s salmon fishing on the hotel’s beat on the River Mole the following morning.
“I’ll meet you in the carpark at 5am and before you know it we’ll have a brace of sealicers on the bank. We’ll be back here in time for a full English,” he said confidently. It did sound extremely tempting and the deliberations went on for quite a while as you’d expect, but somehow, despite the size of the nightcap that followed, or indeed the one after that, I knew from experience that if the fishing was as good as Chris suggested it would be, I would be unable to extricate myself from the river and would therefore miss breakfast and may even end up keeping my fellow Guns waiting in the shoot lodge at Molland.
It was therefore decided that, instead, I would make the most of the four-poster bed and return this summer to sample the fishing and a bit more of Highbullen’s wonderfully warm hospitality, fantastic cuisine, stunning views and exceedingly comfortable lodgings. And perhaps a drop or two of that Doom Bar.
Not a bad result at all.
Occupying a rural, 19th-century Gothic manor house overlooking a stunning Devon valley, Highbullen is a luxury country house hotel with excellent facilities spread across a 125-acre Devon estate between Exmoor and Dartmoor, a stone’s throw from dozens of well-known pheasant and partridge shoots.
In addition to the salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing on either the hotel’s beat on the River Mole or the nearby River Taw, there is a stunningly picturesque 18-hole golf course, manicured croquet lawn, indoor pool and seasonal outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, hot tub, gym and outdoor tennis courts. Even if you aren’t into your shooting or fishing, there’s no shortage of things to do.
Substantial investment over the past decade has also seen all 37 bedrooms (12 in the main house and 25 spread across an additional five buildings) and several of the public rooms refurbished to a very high standard. We’re talking luxury, but without losing that all-important country house feel.
On the dining front, you can choose from the fine à la carte menu in the Devon View Restaurant, or the more casual gastro pub-style menu in the Cellars Restaurant, bar and walled garden. Plus there’s a private dining room that is absolutely perfect for a raucous shooting party.