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The Glorious Playground for all generations

3 July 2018
A boy in a blue jumper drives a mini Land Rover replica
Daniel Pembrey

When I was a student at Edinburgh university, Gleneagles was a faraway place. It was where people of my parents’ age (including world leaders) went to play golf. I imagined it to be the sort of world in which Hercule Poirot would descend the grand staircase with various answers to life’s mysteries up his double-cuffed sleeve.

Arriving here two decades on, it still boasts its famous golf course, and the elegant ‘20s interior could not be better suited as a backdrop for a timeless Belgian detective.

And yet, this is also one of the world’s foremost outdoor playgrounds, where the young-at-heart are very much favoured. Let’s start with gundog training, which I try on my first morning. The Labradors are impeccably trained and lovable but this is no passive pursuit. As pack and prey animals, they need to see leadership mettle before they will accept my commands. “Walk with purpose,” calls out Deanne, one of the experienced instructors; “be confident.” Soon we’re on the obstacle course – a lane of jumps resembling those found in the wild – and I can only marvel at my dog’s eager explosions of energy as he clears each jump easily.

Archery similarly exercises mind as well as body. I grew up near Sherwood Forest so assume I have an advantage at the range beside the shooting lodge, but to hold the bow flexed, trained on the target – with the arrow steady so that it doesn’t spiral or ‘fishtail’ – can only make me appreciate how easy Robin Hood made it look. There is no greater satisfaction than witnessing the arrow thump home into a centre ring of the target. Falconry equally favours the alert. The falconry school lets you take a Harris hawk on the glove. These are unusual for birds of prey since they are sociable, but it pays to have your wits about you in the presence of such a predator. First the male and then the larger female perch on my raised fist.

A young girl in a red jacket pats her pony

I send them away and lure them back with a piece of raw beef placed on the glove. It’s like channelling the area’s wildness, to which various birds of prey – most famously golden eagles – are indigenous. This extraordinary playground offers plenty of choice – fishing, clay pigeon shooting, off-road driving, horse riding – but whatever your pursuit, it’s nice to come home to a soak in the spa (or a bathtub in the room). That is not the end of the day’s fun, however. We’re just getting ready for a night out. This hotel is in fact a small town: half-a-dozen restaurants and bars, and enough corridors to get truly lost in. I live in London and have experienced what owners Ennismore have done with their hip Hoxton hotels there.

The American Bar here is more fin de siècle Paris, or Venice even – sumptuous with its dark, rich décor and low lighting. My Smoking Gun cocktail is made with 12 year-old Balvenie malt and presented with gunpowder, lit before me. In the formal Strathearn Restaurant, my father and I savour beef carved tableside. Around a neighbouring table, an extended family laughs away.

Finally it dawns on me: that whether you are taking hawks on the glove, quaffing Smoking Guns in good company or slumbering before the lobby’s fizzing and popping log fire, this is really one big family home – for all generations.

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