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Fromage-free outings for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching (wahhhhh!). I always find it a tricky one to plan for, do you? I’m not massively keen on sitting in a restaurant along with a million other couples, playing romance-by-rote, being handed a rose (if you’re gonna do it, get me 24 will you?) gazing into Mr Muddy’s eyes and trying not to get too piddled, as this always ends up opening Pandora’s special Box of Resentments that I keep for special occasions. Those deliciously picky questions that you’ve kept the lid on because you haven’t had time to air them together fr a while – Who works harder? Why do I always end up buying the supermarket shop? Why does he get to zip off with his mates at a moment’s notice while a weekend away for me has to be planned like an escape from Colditz? Oh yeah, it’s all about the fun stuff in the Muddy house!

So if you’re a bit like me, and looking for something a bit less traditional and a bit more fun, here are some alternative, non-cheesy Valentine’s ideas that will help you feel the love.

 

A gorgeous country walk, far from the madding crowds

The beauty of Rousham House & Garden near Bicester – apart from the fact it’s, er, beautiful – is that not many other people know about it. Tourists tend to head for nearby Blenheim Palace, but if you’re looking for something off the beaten track for a romantic stroll, this 17th century privately-owned country house is a great bet. It has a walled garden, kitchen gardens, fruits trees, ponds, maze, woodland paths and river views, there’s no gift shop or tea room so it’s very low-key and uncommercial (take your own snacks) – and it doesn’t admit children under the age of 15 (ahhh peace). Garden entry is a bargainous £6 (house tours are available on request but are for groups only).

 

The naughty over-nighter

Looking to push the boat out this year? You need the super-luxurious Stoke Park, immortalized in film as the location for Bridget Jones’ iconic dirty weekend with Daniel Cleaver. They can’t magic up Hugh Grant for you but their Valentine’s package, which costs from £270 per person, does include 1 night’s stay at the five star hotel, a four-course dinner, breakfast, a bottle of Champagne and cake on your room on arrival, use of the pool and fitness facilities and a 12pm late check out the next day – in case you’re having a cheeky lie-in. Or, ahem, still scoffing the cake. What’s nice is you can avoid the 14th if you’d prefer – the package is available for various dates from 10 to 19 Feb.

 

Culture fix in Oxford

If your jaunts into Oxford tend to revolve around kids’ cinema or Natural History Museum trips, take the time to do something a little more grown-up with your significant other this Valentine’s day. The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1669, is open to the public, when it’s not being used by Oxford University for ceremonies and events. For just £3.50 entry free (£8 for the guided tour), you can gaze up in wonder at the jaw-dropping ceiling, painted by Robert Streater, or take in the 360 degree views of the city’s dreaming spires from the Cupola. Combine with lunch at Muddy favourites Gee’s, The Ashmolean Dining Rooms and a cocktail or two on the roof of TVC (relax, it’s heated!) and you’ve got a thoroughly civilized, relaxed day out.

 

London calling? Capital art

The Tate Britain’s major spring exhibition is well worth jumping on the train for: a comprehensive retrospective of British art giant David Hockney’s work. He’s now approaching 80, so there’s six decades’ worth of painting, drawing, print, photography and videos to enjoy, some of which have never been publicly exhibited. What better antidote to a grey February than gazing at gorgeously vibrant paintings of sun-dappled LA swimming pools? It runs 9 Feb to 29 May, and if you want to avoid the kiddie and tourist crowds, it’s worth noting the extended opening hours of 10pm on a Friday and 8pm on a Saturday.

 

Grown-up glamping (involving neither tents nor kids)

Can’t say I tend to find camping trips particularly romantic (trudging across fields to the loo at 5am with children, arguing about who was supposed to pack the teabags… need I go on?) but I’ll make an exception for the dreamy Badger’s Bower. This chic tabernacle-style retreat in Wendover, Bucks is camping but certainly not as I know it. For a start, it has a gorgeous freestanding bath, big enough for two. There’s hot water, electricity, a kitchen (with basics provided) and a decent bed, and it’s tucked away in a peaceful woody glade at Chiltern Yurt Retreat, a bijou glamping site. Just don’t accidentally put the children in the car.

 

His’n’hers spa treatment

OK, mea culpa, this one might be just a teensy bit ‘couply’ but only a fool would turn down a trip to the rarefied Danesfield House near Marlow. Its exquisitely relaxing spa has a double treatment suite for couple’s treatments, so you can giggle or niggle along together while you indulge in an aromatherapy, hot stone or lava shell massage. (Just make sure you’ve briefed him on spa etiquette: namely, phone off, pants on). Afterwards you can wake yourselves back up again with a stroll – or possibly float – around the country house’s 65 acres of landscaped gardens.

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