JEREMY GATES enjoys the delights of living an aristocratic life in the Victorian mansion Thoresby Hall, in Nottinghamshire, taking in the gardens designed by Sir Humphrey Repton and an early morning dip in the indoor swimming pool
WITH perfect timing, the gateman emerged from his pillbox as we followed the curving drive into Thoresby Hall.
He wished us an enjoyable stay in the Victorian mansion awaiting us in 55 acres of finely sculpted lawns and landscaped gardens.
Curiously, we never saw him again during our weekend visit, the barrier lifting automatically to let us in or out.
Within a mile or two of the fabled Major Oak, the tree in Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood escaped pursuers sent by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Grade I listed Thoresby might have been the seat of a mine owner or a captain of industry.
So much of the building and grounds survive intact that I could picture images of a century ago: its gardens thronged with the well-to-do, showing their finery in that languid, elegant world soon to be lost in the carnage of the Western Front.
Today these grand old houses are open to the masses, who are often in jeans and trainers. You have to be at least 16 years old to get into a Warner Leisure Hotel, but the typical customer is 45-plus. These polite, courteous folk settle for the simple pleasures - archery, bowls, cycle rides and leisurely strolls around Thoresby Lake.
The Great Hall has marble staircases leading to a magnificent beamed ceiling and a grand library, with books on heavy oak shelves from floor to ceiling - with the occasional first edition from the 1950s, presumably left when the owner family moved out barely a decade ago.
I'm not surprised that Warner, with nine other hotels dotted around Britain (including other Grade I listed buildings), is one of the big successes on the UK holiday scene this year.
Fellow guests in the breakfast queue were congratulating each other for snapping up special offers of £65 per person per night - not bad for full English breakfast, three-course evening meal, a daily programme of things to do and nightly entertainment.
Wherever they happen to be, Warner hotels follow a formula: the occasional hole is bashed in an historic wall, but English Heritage demands old buildings are treated tenderly, with new low-level buildings added in the grounds.
If you get the chance, it's usually worth paying extra to stay in one of the rooms converted from the old buildings. Ours was high above the Great Hall and had probably three times the space we would have got in new buildings - and spectacular views across gardens landscaped by Sir Humphrey Repton.
After taking an early morning dip in the indoor pool, followed by breakfast, Warner guests have a choice of how to fill the day.
Since 2007, Warner has offered a range of 'experience breaks' - classes and courses on special themes including antiques, fine wines, classic cars, gardening, painting, golf, fishing and beekeeping.
Alternatively, of course, you can do your own thing, such as take a long walk or cycle ride in the grounds, or enjoy a private tour by car of the surrounding countryside.
We headed for Teversal Manor, in the village of Old Teversal. Hardwick Hall is also a must, while Newstead Abbey, Byron's home outside Nottingham, has a uniquely haunting atmosphere.
We also relish a chance to stretch our legs in the grounds of Burghley House, one of the gems of Elizabethan England.
The food in Thoresby Hall was also impressive and the design of various plates for different courses quite fascinating. But when they see Pinot Grigio at £27 a bottle, I fancy Warner regulars happily settle for the standard meals included in their package.