Not all mini family weekenders are created equal, but if you’re lucky enough you’ll find yourselves deep in the Surrey downs, trekking with the llamas in a childhood dreams-inspired getaway. Read our review of The Merry Harriers below.
[by Wersha Bharadwa]
Located in the quaint and traditional village of Hambledon inside the rolling Surrey Hills, an Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), The picturesque Merry Harriers is hidden away on a gorgeous country road, perfect for cycling down. The pretty town of Goldaming, just south of Guildford (famous for being a filming location in the Cameron Diaz festive film The Holiday) is within swinging distance too.
Now operating as a family-friendly luxury boutique hotel, there’s years of history at this former 16th century traditional inn. Since you’re here with the kids however, your focus is likely to be on the friendly VIPs – Mungo, Louis, Goji, Diesel, Champagne and Llorenzo – who together with their friends and family, make up The Merry Harriers resident herd of llamas.
They thoroughly enchant everyone they meet including the local Surrey hikers who know the 12 Andean Camelids individually by name and who’ll stop to chat to you as the llama guide you through the flora and fauna of the downs when you and the children walk with them as part of your stay. And while much of The Merry Harriers’ magic charm lies in those guided three-hour walking tours, the hotel and food offerings are just as special.
Accommodation comprises of four rooms in the main building, six in a converted luxury barn, and five brand new, self-catering shepherd’s lodges. The owners are renowned hotelier Peter de Savary’s family who are also behind the successful Cary Arms and Spa in Devon, The Beachcroft hotel in West Sussex and The Eastbury in Dorset.
They’ve renovated The Merry Harriers characterful buildings and grounds which include an award-winning pub and restaurant on the ground floor (oak beams, crackling fires, low red doors and stone walls still inscribed with the names of every landlord since 1701 in them) into a idyllic, family friendly, country escape with a first floor featuring a seriously tasteful and well thought out family wing.
When the kids want to play and you fancy a G&T, you can simply pop downstairs from your rooms to grab a chilled glass as they head into the adjacent games room for Uno and Cluedo before joining them for rounds of Trivial Pursuit (there are board games galore here so don’t worry about packing anything extra – hurrah!).
Managers and staff, Martine, Louise, Deborah, Clara and Diane (who is a guide on the Llama treks) are always on hand to personally attend to you. They all match friendliness with outstanding professionalism and service. It’s like staying with the most fun extended family, and you’ll genuinely enjoy getting to know them all.
Collectively, their local knowledge is outstanding and you’ll want to ditch the guidebooks in favour of their recommendations of scenic child-friendly walks and nearby attractions.
All the tables in the restaurant offer great views of the wild-flower and lavender-filled rear garden (from which you can keep an eye on the children playing on the swings, table football or chess sets or chatting away to their new Llama buddies in the adjacent paddock from the security and distance of a double gate) or the picturesque front lane and terrace. You can’t go wrong with any option.
Immediately behind the estate’s rear gardens and the Llama and horse fields, you’ve a secret path into the Surrey Downs which is where Diane leads the guided walks from. The llamas are super friendly and gentle, and the walks are suitable for children aged eight and above who’ll be thrilled to lead, cuddle and stroke their very own llama (younger children need to be accompanied with an adult). The walks are leisurely paced, with the llamas – all with their own unique personalities – stopping off to snack on leaves every so often.
Goji, is by far, the cheekiest and partial to frequent detours. Mungo and Champagne (so named because of the colour of his fur) are far more laid-back. Being the celebrities they are, everyone we pass greets the Llamas by name (most know our guide Diane too) and happily recall a story of their own shared time with them as the gentle creatures bat their eyelashes indifferently.
Halfway through the trek, it’s time for your picnic. It’s the best part, for sure. Diane finds the most gorgeous spots to take shade (there are many and you’ll find decision-making hard, so best to leave it to the experts) and sets it all up beautifully with a gingham cloth, plates and cutlery the llamas have carried in hampers.
You’ll feast on various delicious sandwiches including smoked salmon and cream cheese and ham and mustard, alongside salads and cured meats with crudites and freshly made hummus. For pudding, there is a bounty of fruit and the homemade chocolate brownies always go down a treat with the little ones, especially when washed down with pink lemonade.
For grown-ups, the Albury sparkling wine is a delight. In the summer heat, you’ll make the journey back for the llamas more manageable by scoffing down as much of it as you can.
Rooms in the main house enjoy sweeping views of either the horse paddocks and fields at the front or those with the resident llamas in the rear. Families can book the family wing located in the characterful eaves above the main inn which has great sound proofing, and two separate, interconnecting double rooms facing east and west and which are totally separated from other guest rooms by a private oak door entrance and corridor.
Intriguing finds and objects from around the world and locally are thanks to the de Savary family’s continual sourcing of artworks and antique furniture (not to mention a keen interiors-savvy eye). Both rooms come with thick and soft carpets, Nespresso machines and complimentary hot water bottles are stashed in the wardrobes – perfect, if you’re booking a winter stay.
Welcome trays in rooms are kitted out with thoughtful little luxuries the kids will love; Burt’s handmade crisps, local artisan biscuits and fresh bottled organic juices are total winners. Sure enough, the kids think they’ve hit the jackpot of hotel freebies with the addition of humble, four finger Kit Kats served up on bed side tables too.
A cottagey bathroom in the first bedroom facing the front of the property is reached via a few steps and features a powerful monsoon overhead shower and gorgeously fluffy thick white towels and gowns.
The bathroom in the children’s room is spacious, with a calming neutral tone and great lighting alongside another monsoon shower. The focus on eco-consciousness continues in both bathrooms too with Basic Earth botanical beauty goodies. For little guests, it’s a real-life Peter Pan and the Lost Boys style adventure; albeit one with quality cotton sheets and soft pillows that teamed with pure, unpolluted country air, will have them drifting off and dreaming in no time.
You’re guaranteed an uninterrupted night’s sleep too atop your own cloud-like super king bed piled-high with cosy pillows. And if you needed any more help winding down after a hard day’s trekking the downs or riding rollercoasters at nearby Chessington World of Adventures, parents can always tuck into complimentary night caps of sloe gin (another signature touch at Peter de Savary family group properties) provided in generously sized decanters with clean glasses on trays.
A proper scene with a well-heeled country set over weekends, The Merry Harriers main restaurant never forgets what it is; a properly posh local pub with a glorious heart serving solid British fare.
While there is one dedicated section for diners, the laid-back nature of the place means guests can choose to eat lunch, dinner, afternoon tea and breakfast in the restaurant, a private games room with an extending table that can seat up to 15 or have meals delivered to rooms.
The serene rear garden features a covered marquee patio terrace and pretty spots perfect for alfresco lunches or dinners under the stars too. Your best bet is to sit in the main dining room for family dinners which offers lots of comfortable seating and a relaxed atmosphere.
With the back doors open, the children can enjoying playing outside before and in between courses while you comfortably chat without having to worry about keeping them quietly sat down with colouring pads or worse still, devices. A win-win for everyone.
Vegetables served are mostly home grown in the gardens and produce is sourced no further than 15 miles away. Traditionalists will love the steak and chips (cooked to perfection) and standard burgers are as juicy as they come. The shepherd’s pie is well executed (made using lamb sourced from Surrey) but then so is the Chickpea, sweet potato and coconut curry. You’ll be asking chef Sam Page to share recipes, guaranteed.
Kid’s will appreciate the no-nonsense fish and chips and sausage and mash and can order smaller portions of mains too. For dessert, the apple and pear crumble served with custard excellently balances sweetness with the sharp tang of both fruits and has a wonderful combination of textures.
You’ll find the kids won’t sit for long; they’ll likely take their ice creams outside to watch the llamas settle down for the night. In fact, in our case, the kids get to say goodnight to the llamas twice; once from the paddock at sunset and then again from their bedroom window which overlooks the llama field before snuggling up for stories.
Breakfast covers all the classic English fare. You’ll guzzle down a superbly cooked full English with crisped bacon or smashed avocado on toast and wash everything down with freshly pressed apple juice using apples from a local farm.
The kids slurp big bowls of cereal and oven-hot croissants (the biggest and most buttery you’re likely to find in the area) as the llamas continue chomping through the hefty and nutritious morning fare the kids helped to hand-feed them earlier.
A Whole Llama Love
The Llamas monopolise all our attention; the kids say goodnight to the llamas by the paddock each night and give them gentle hugs and strokes before parting ways. They open their bedroom windows before reading to blow kisses to the leggy creatures and catch a last glimpse before sleeping. We are asked if they can swap Llamas on another walk tomorrow or if not a walk, at least more feeding sessions.
The kids are totally besotted. The TV is only ever turned on the last night of our stay because it has chucked it down with rain and so we can’t sit outside toasting marshmallows (we settle in to watch a film with hand-popped popcorn instead which is lots of fun). The joys here are endless.
The kids (who are no strangers to some of the finest five stars) say it’s their best and most unforgettable UK holiday and ask if they can spend the entire summer here. They’ve continued evangelising about their weekend with the llamas ever since too.
What The Kids Will Love
- Fancy taking your marshmallow toasting game to the next level? There’s a full barbeque and a fire pit combo to get you started (but don’t worry, the staff can help set this up for you too). Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten to pop marshmallows on the shopping list either; a lovely signature detail at all Peter de Savary properties is that you’re gifted a generous jar of the sweet treats during your stay. On our first evening, when we realised the weather was too lovely not to have an evening of singing and toasting marshmallows under the stars, so Louise and the team popped out to bring us extra supplies (the kids had already scoffed the first bag in record time.
- Couples wanting a time out from the kids can recreate their own Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and chose to stay in one of five gorgeously romantic, fairy-lit Shepherd’s Huts conveniently located a hop away from the main building opposite and which cluster around a picturesque lake topped with with lily-pads.
- Alongside the table football and woodland walks, guests get to also enjoy stand up paddle-boarding at the River Way in Godalming.
How To Book
Visit The Merry Harriers, Hambledon Road, Hambledon, Surrey GU8 4DR. Prices from £275 per night including breakfast for two bedrooms in the Family Wing. Guided Llama treks with a luxury picnic start from £89.00 per person for adults, £55.00 for children or £220.00 for a family (2 Adults 2 Children). To book, visit www.merryharriers.com email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 1803 925034.