What do you buy the person who already has everything? My darling Snoogums and I ask ourselves this question every year at Christmas, usually in connection with my parents. Something for the house? (They already own every conceivable kitchen appliance.) Books? CDs? (Tried that–and it turned out they already had them, so we ended up keeping them for ourselves.) Jewellery? Clothes? (Been there, done that.)
What we really wanted to get them was something unique, something unforgettable. And so we eventually our thoughts strayed into holiday territory: a weekend break somewhere. They love eating out, and they love old-fashioned country hotels, so we found them the perfect combination: an overnight stay at the Darroch Learg hotel in Ballater, Deeside, with dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.
As it turns out, my family had been asking themselves the same question about snoogums and me. (Us? Difficult to buy for? Never!) This produced an amusing scene on Christmas morning, when it was revealed that *they* had clubbed together and got us a weekend away, too. Not at Darroch Learg, though, but at our favourite restaurant, “The Plumed Horse” in Dumfriesshire. Super yum!
The Plumed Horse is another experience I have written about on Dooyoo, so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. (So here’s your “not much detail”: The Plumed Horse has just been awarded their first Michelin star, an accolade reserved for true excellence in cuisine. Their fish soup (a delicate yet intense broth, serving as the base for a tower of monkfish, sea bream, salmon, scallops, cockles, oysters and caviar) is just out of this world. My main course was roast breast of duck, layered high upon a bed of crispy noodles, and topped off with a slice of pan-seared foie gras. For dessert, we shared the grandest assortment of desserts I’ve ever seen on a single plate: their “assiette of Plumed Horse mini desserts” consisted of chocolate tart with white chocolate and orange ice cream, passion fruit brulée, apple bread and butter pudding, coffee and Tia Maria mousse topped with chocolate coffee beans, and three different sorbets (cassis, peach, and pistachio). Every course is a treat not just for the tongue, but for the eye as well. As Will Keane (played by Richard Gere) says in the film “Autumn in New York”: “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.” Words to live and eat by, indeed.)
Anyway, back to Chipperkyle, the original purpose of this review! On our last two visits, we have stayed at the Deeside B&B just across the street from the Plumed Horse. This is a fine little B&B, run by the wonderfully friendly Mrs Cowan. Staying here means that you can enjoy a bottle of wine over dinner, and not have to worry about driving anywhere afterwards. However, Mrs Cowan is currently away on holiday in New Zealand, so we had to find an alternative.
The alternative arose in the form of Chipperkyle, recommended to us by Tony at the Plumed Horse. He said that he hadn’t been there himself, but several diners had stayed there and thought it was excellent. At £36 per person for bed & breakfast, it is a quite bit more expensive than the Deeside B&B, and it’s also about five miles’ drive away. However, it was a recommendation from someone we trust, and we decided to go with it.
We approached Chipperkyle from the direction of Kirkpatrick Durham, a tiny village about ten miles west of Dumfries. The sun was just hovering on the horizon. The snow, which had been alternately circling hawk-like and dive-bombing our car all day, decided to take another run at us. The directions we had been given told us to look out for a small white cottage with yellow window frames, after which the house should be just visible through the trees. What we didn’t know, was that the cottage is a gatehouse standing at the entry to a driveway leading up to a fabulous 18th century country mansion. I had been expecting something far less grand!
In the wounded glare of the setting sun, we approached the house with a genuine sense of awe. The hills beyond were gently dusted with snow, and massive trees formed imposing silhouettes against the rapidly whitening sky. We drew up behind the house. Just as Snoogums was snapping off a couple of photographs, Willie Dickson strode out the back door to greet us and whisk away our bag. We followed him into the house, trying not to look too much like tourists with our mouths agape.
The interior of the house matches the outside perfectly: military prints, watercolour landscapes, and oil portraits line the walls. The floors are covered with soft yet plain beige carpets, overlaid with oriental and middle-eastern rugs that you just *know* predate carpet superstores by at least a generation. The sitting room is a picture of comfortable elegance. Antique sideboards and cabinets stand at a formal parade rest around the perimeter, brandishing fine china, vases of fresh flowers, and family photographs. The large open fireplace is surrounded by sofas that beg you to sink into them with a deep “aaahh” of contentment.
Willie and Catriona Dickson are charming hosts, welcoming and chatty, but without being intrusive. We had had a fairly long drive down from Edinburgh, through blizzard conditions in parts, and all we really wanted to do was crash out on a bed and relax a bit. Better than this, though, was the option Catriona very kindly presented to us: tea and home-made biscuits, still warm from the oven, served in front of a freshly laid log fire.
After a satisfying period of lounging around, reading the papers, and gazing out at the bunnies hip-hopping about in the snow, we moved up to our bedroom to get freshened up for the evening. Chipperkyle only has two guest rooms, both of which are twins with private (but not en-suite) bathrooms, and which are in perfect harmony with the rest of the house: antique dressers and wardrobes, wrought-iron twin beds with dazzlingly white sheets and lusciously thick feather duvets and pillows…heavy drapes hanging like great cloth pendulums in front of the tall windows…perfectly aligned, vertically striped wallpaper, even though the walls themselves are far from plumb…a tiny vase of fresh snowdrops. The thought and planning that must go on to co-ordinate and maintain such a vast and intricate ensemble is astonishing. Yet the Dicksons make it seem completely effortless.
The private bathroom we had was large, with an enormous bath, a separate shower cubicle, and a bidet. (I’ve never quite got the hang of bidets.) The towels were some of the largest I have ever seen: they must have been at least six feet by four, and could easily have doubled up as wrap-around sleeping bags. Stepping into one after a warm shower was like stepping into a fuzzy burrito.
The only regret I have about staying at Chipperkyle came the following morning. Our dinner at the Plumed Horse had left us too full to indulge in a cooked breakfast. Sitting at the enormous dining room table with the Sunday papers spread out beside us, I had a small bowl of muesli, and Snoogums had some cereal. We both had a slice or two of some rich poppyseed bread Catriona had just baked, but really, anything more would have left us feeling bloated and sluggish for our drive home. It’s such a shame because apparently Catriona, in addition to baking fabulous biscuits and bread, also makes her own sausages. Next time, though, there shall be no excuse!
And there will be a next time, I’m certain. Apart from the fact that we need to stay somewhere when we go to the Plumed Horse, the welcome we received at Chipperkyle was fantastic. The house itself looks like something out of a Jane Austen costume drama. If you’ve ever fancied yourself living like a minor noble in a country mansion, looking out of your windows at acres of rolling hills and thriving farmlands, sipping fine earl grey tea, and generally feeling like the very model of elegance, then Chipperkyle is most definitely for you.