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A mini-break with the kids in a luxurious family-friendly hotel

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Ben Falk

There can’t be many posh hotels where you’re not immediately ejected – or at least given several hard stares – when your two young children strike up a chorus of Baby Shark in the dining room during breakfast. Luckily for us, we're at Woolley Grange in Bradford-on-Avon and while they don’t put on the backing track for us, it’s certainly not frowned upon. That’s because Woolley Grange positions itself as a luxury family venue, a Jacobean manor in the countryside where kids’ needs are front and centre.

A relaxing hotel mini-break with your offspring seems like a contradiction in terms, but the way things are set up here makes you believe it’s possible. We packed ourselves into the car – that’s me, my wife, our five-year-old daughter Hannah and daughter Marnie, two – and set off along the M4 on Friday lunchtime to stay two nights.

It was cold, a bit wet and windy, really not the conditions to strike joy into two parents stuck in a hotel for the weekend. But the place on arrival feels comforting. Warm, old-fashioned, lots of nooks and crannies. We were led to the Hayloft, a gorgeous two-room suite a little away from the main house. Freshly-squeezed apple juice from the hotel’s own fruit awaited us, along with games and toys for the girls. A snooze beckoned – before we remembered we had two kids and it probably wasn’t that kind of holiday (or so we thought).

Saying that, the grounds of the hotel are large and the children had plenty they wanted to explore. It was a bit wet to go on the slide, but trampolining and pond dipping took place, the latter a competitive swirl around the water in a bid to find a net-able creature. Hannah and Marnie particularly enjoyed the farm area, which lets you walk through the veggie patches (from which the on-site restaurant’s chefs cull their produce) to an area with huts and wooden food toys. Simon the rabbit got a bit of love and while we did see a piggy snout, he didn’t want to venture out.

We were keen utilize the staffed crèche, which you get two free hours access to per child per day of your stay. Unfortunately, we usually have the kinds of children who initially show willing and then refuse to go into kids’ clubs. Both girls liked the look of the dolls and the other play equipment in what’s called the Woolley Bears Den, but we weren’t entirely hopeful. Thank goodness then it was such a welcoming and easygoing environment with great staff. Both Hannah and Marnie had to be prized out of there, chocolate crispy cakes in hand. It meant that my wife and I got to rest, sauna and steam on both mornings of our trip, which we didn’t expect.

The indoor pool area is straightforward (the outdoor one closes in September, so we didn’t get to try it out) but effective. It’s not that deep and not closed off for those looking to do lane swimming as they can be in some hotels.

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We didn’t have lunch booked on Saturday, so ventured out to Bradford-on-Avon. Quirky and full of boutiques, it’s intimate enough that we bumped into people from London who were staying at Woolley Grange there as well. We actually ended up spending most of our time in the local library. It has a fantastic junior section and is highly recommended. But one of the main reasons that draws people to a hotel like Woolley Grange is the food and the babysitting/listening service. Dinner comes three ways – high tea for kids between five and six, family dining after 6:15p.m. and later for grown-ups.

If your children eat during the former, you’re able to put them to bed and use your room phone to dial into a service that allows the staff on duty to listen in on your kids (regular babysitting is also available but costs extra). That means in theory you and your partner can head for a romantic meal ‘out’, without worrying whether your kids are a) getting up to mischief, or b) upset and screaming. It’s a fabulous idea.

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I’ll admit – we bottled this. Not because we didn’t trust the staff, but because personal experience made us think we’d be running across the courtyard and our meal would be ruined anyway. It probably works better for those with tiny children who you’ll know will sleep in at least two hour chunks. Or indeed for older ones who can put themselves to bed and you don’t mind giving the run of the room for the night. Hannah and Marnie – while generally alright sleepers – are kind of in between that and as such it didn’t feel like it would be viable for us.

That said, the food we had at family dining on night one was lovely, my lemon sole was very flavourful and my wife’s ox cheek suitably melty. Our breakfasts too were large and delicious. Unfortunately, the Belgian waffle that found its way onto the table now gets asked about regularly. On Sundays, you can sign up to a free service in which staff take your kids to breakfast and let you have a lie-in.

So would we do it again? Absolutely. It’s unlikely we could afford to stay in the Hayloft, so the experience would be slightly different, but we came away not arguing or suffering from cabin fever, but excited, relaxed and well-exercised. Might even book a massage next time.

FAMILY TRIED AND TESTED CHEAT SHEET

When to go: While the weather wasn’t amazing when we were there, coming in the height of summer might feel more crowded, especially with the hotel offering itself for weddings and other events. Feeling a sense of space is fundamental to a place like this and logistically, you don’t want it to be impossible to book last-minute crèche stays or for there to be no room to move in the pool. Festive periods look like they’d be great, but be prepared to feel it in your wallet.

Where to stay: The company who runs Woolley Grange also manages beautiful-looking hotels like Pollurrian Bay in the depths of Cornwall and The Ickworth near Bury St. Edmunds so if you like what they do, there’s lots of geographical choice.

Don’t miss: The Woolley Bears’ Den gives you two hours of complimentary childcare each day of your visit and the space and activities are fantastic. The breakfast was excellent and we recommend spending some time in Bradford-on-Avon, which is an artisanal, interesting town with lots to do. The child-friendly movie with free popcorn after early dinner is also a clever idea.

Top tips: Don’t feel compelled to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, which is delicious but pricey. We fed the kids there and then ordered a pizza and brought it back to our room to munch with our feet up in front of the TV. We went straight to the pool after breakfast and that was when it was at its least busy. It also set us up nicely for the day. Parking can be a bit of a squeeze, so try to avoid moving your car once you’ve found a good spot.

Keep an eye out for deals online. We heard several guests talk about how they got a web deal, which will probably help keep the cost down on what is undoubtedly an expensive place to stay. But then luxury costs.

Things to avoid: While the staff we met were very sweet, it occasionally felt a bit disorganized – I had to speak to someone about mistakes in the final bill and sometimes we waited longer than we thought necessary for stuff, especially during mealtimes. This didn’t feel like carelessness and wouldn’t put us off going again, but was a bit frustrating. It’s not really the place to go for a relaxing, romantic weekend without children. The facilities are good, but there are kids everywhere!

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