NOTHING says you've escaped the city quite like the blanket of green and clean air that envelopes you once you're in the New Forest.
It had been a stuffy few weeks in London – hot, sweaty, and while undoubtedly our favourite time of year, a bit suffocating.
So the invitation to Burley Manor, smack bang in the middle of the Hampshire beauty spot, was welcome relief. Especially once we'd glimpsed the ridiculously tempting menu from the Mediterranean-inspired kitchen, but more on that later.
It should've taken us two hours to get to the New Forest, rather than the four it did. But spending twice as long in a tiny, hot hatchback was our punishment for choosing the Bank Holiday weekend - and only heightened our joy at getting away from it all.
The expansive manor is as enticing as its history – first recorded in 1212, it remained in the Burley family until its head was done for treason and executed, meeting a no doubt grizzly end.
After changing hands the place became a hotel in 1935, and has recently undergone a £1.8 million refurbishment.
The results are stunning and lends a happily contradictory feel. Its grand interior of dark wood and antique furniture with oil portraits of grand dames on the walls welcome dinner guests happily wandering in anything from laid-back shorts and t-shirts to suits and evening gowns. I loved the contrast and how utterly relaxed it was. Especially the friendly staff whose smiles never wavered even after the 165th time we called reception to ask if they had spares of yet more stuff we'd forgotten at home.
It managed to feel cosy too, despite how spread out it is, and a group managed to have a wedding without us barely noticing them.
Oh – the hotel doesn't allow under-13s either, which makes for a quieter break.
Our room was comfortable and nicely decorated – a calm colour scheme of grey and soothing green.
It was still beaming at 4pm once we'd settled in so we headed to the outdoor pool. Although described as heated, one dip of our toes into the freezing water meant there was no way we were getting in.
It would have been nice had it been balmy, but we were more than content to relax on the loungers (which are so comfortable we both realised we'd independently considered whether we'd be able to smuggle them out of the hotel) and snooze to the sound of lapping water.
We'd booked in for an early dinner so we look out from the conservatory overlooking the adjacent park and watch the red deer that congregate in good view, as though voluntarily putting on a show for us.
The kitchen is the epicentre of the hotel, and for a restaurant with rooms it is a vital element to get right.
And it is a delight. Everything sounds tempting – from the Isle of Wight Tomatoes with Mozarella and aged balsamic to the roasted venison with chard. I'm not sure I could have eaten the latter with the possibility of looking into the eyes of a possible relative in the field before me, but there was plently to divert me from that possibility.
Most of it's cooked in their wood-fired oven too. We started with some tapas – lamb kibbeh were lovely, moist with a great cumin punch. The crispy salt cod baccala needed a touch more salt to bring them to their best.
From the starters, pan-roasted quail with artichoke was a winner. A great nod to the hotel's seasonal ethos and beautifully cooked. The pan-fried squid with rocket & chilli didn't deliver as much of a flavour kick as it suggested and the squid was a bit too chewy.
For the mains, tempted by both the wood-roasted forerib of beef and the porchetta – both sharing plates – we chose the pork.
And what a sight. Out came a wooden board heaving under the weight of seven thick slices of beautiful belly, with large pieces of crackling scattered on top.
We were already contemplating how we might get through it all when they brought out the sides, putting a separate wooden board under strain. We were in awe, and then we tucked in.
The pork was excellent – moist and packed with flavour. I've been searching for porchetta as good as the best I've ever had, back in Mogliano in Italy, for years. This didn't beat it – it was more reminiscent of a traditional British Sunday roast, with a stuffing bulked out with more than just herbs, salt and garlic as I think works best. But it was still great and something I’d happily order again.
And those sides...sweet potato with sherry vinegar, pecans and maple – whoever thought of that deserves a medal. There were beautiful beetroot, gorgeous courgettes and even though the truffle element of the polenta chips came only fleetingly and not strong enough, they were still lovely and crisp.
How fortunate we felt to have dined here when nature's larder is at its most bountiful and we could enjoy it in such stunning surroundings.
Night had fallen by the time we were done and we managed a walk around the unlit country roads surrounding the hotel, walking past groups of deer and avoiding the abundant cattle grids.
But our superking bed was calling for us, and we went back to enjoy one of the best night's sleep in ages.
Charged on a breakfast of Eggs Chalkstream Trout Royale – which was lovely albeit delayed as our order had been lost along the way – we explored nearby Burley. There was a little farmers' market selling cheeses and meat, while the local art group were exhibiting their annual show, for just a 20p entry fee.
As our bodies were just becoming accustomed to this gentler pace of life it was time to head back. But we felt refreshed and ready to face the city sauna again, thanks to our little stay in this lovely spot in the New Forest.
We were invited for a complimentary stay and dinner at Burley Manor.
For more information visit burleymanor.com