BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, England — I steadied the gun on my shoulder, carefully looked down the barrel, and pointed to the sky. There was no way this could possibly have a happy ending.
“You’re going to shoot just as the clay pigeon reaches its peak,” my instructor told me. He stood back a bit because he could sense my comfort level with the gun was akin to holding a porcupine while balancing on a unicycle.
“Now!” he commanded.
I shot, and, somehow, I hit it. We tried again, and once again it shattered in the air. It continued this way through the lesson.
“Are you sure you’ve never handled a gun before?”
Perhaps I really was cut out for the aristocratic identity I usurped for a weekend in the English countryside. I was at Holland & Holland, the shooting club where both Prince Harry and Prince William learned to skeet shoot. My instructor told me that Princess Diana would come with her sons because a shooting club was the one place the paparazzi would not bother her.
I thought coming to a shooting range was a logical thing to do because I was staying at a nearby 18th-century hunting lodge that reopened this summer as a hotel. The Langley — properly called the Langley, a Luxury Collection Hotel — was built for the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and I decided I needed to stay there after visiting Blenheim Palace, which also belonged to the Marlborough family.
Blenheim is a ridiculously opulent Baroque palace that requires several hours to explore. Some may think it’s a bit over the top, perhaps even gaudy. But honestly, if you’re going to build a palace, shouldn’t it be over the top? I don’t think restraint should be a word allowed on the grounds. The gardens, designed by the gentleman who also designed the gardens at Highclere Castle, are slightly more subdued.
By comparison, the Marlborough family’s hunting lodge-turned-hotel is a marvel of modern elegance infused with just enough cues to remind you that you’re staying at a place where Winston Churchill came to unwind. With rooms starting at $362 a night, the Langley isn’t necessarily a bargain, but it is a fun splurge if you visit Windsor Castle or any of the other nearby estates and suddenly develop a taste for an English aristocratic experience topped with a healthy dollop of clotted cream. Because it’s 2019 you also get a 17,222-square-foot subterranean spa and a 53-foot, marble-lined indoor swimming pool, plus an outdoor pool and a tennis court.
Before opening, the Langley underwent a six-year, multimillion-dollar renovation. I tried to find out exactly how many millions, but I think the question may have been a tad too American because the staff would politely point out the renovations rather than talk numbers. My room was modern, but in a way that didn’t belie the history of the mansion. The oversize headboard gave the room a feeling of grandeur.
I had a view of the 40 acres of parkland where the hotel sits. Downstairs, I had the same view on the night I sat outside on the terrace of the hotel’s restaurant and watched the sunset over dinner.
The Langley is located between London and Windsor Castle. I’ve already been to the castle a few times before, so I decided to try something different, and far more tame than shooting a gun at slabs of clay hurtling toward the sky. There are 40-minute cruises on the Thames that run from Windsor to Boveney. I happened to be there on an evening that was nothing short of perfect. Sun reflected off the water as children fed a bevy of hungry swans on the riverbank.
A cruise on the Thames in Windsor is very different from the London river cruise. Here, the river is narrower and lined with colorful barges of holiday makers who kindly wave as you cruise along. I love walking through the town of Windsor, but the river cruise, especially if you’re able to experience it on a perfect summer night, is absolutely sublime. Particularly when the staff begins circulating to take drink orders.
I suspect that when the Marlborough family came to the hunting lodge in the 18th and 19th centuries the main purpose of the trip was leisure. Coincidentally, that’s the one activity I’m quite good at. So I went to tea (the Langley serves high tea every afternoon), and enjoyed the civility of finger sandwiches and petit fours. It was my personal Belle Époque and I made sure to savor every drop of peppermint tea I could before being torn from my temporary Anglophony existence and dropped back into a world where castles and palaces primarily exist in fairy tales and high tea refers to beverages infused with CBD oil.
The Langley, Avenue Drive, Uxbridge Road, Iver, Buckinghamshire. 011-44-20-7236-3636, www.marriott.com/hotels