As a schoolboy, James Thomson was told he was “a dreamer” and the exquisite evidence of that was all around us as we enjoyed the finest of dinners at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh.
It was no surprise to hear our host’s favourite subjects at school were drama and art because Prestonfield is theatre and its sister The Witchery a masterpiece.
James, OBE, philanthropist, and owner of both prestigious establishments, is excellent company, being charismatic and funny, distinguished and yet modest.
History and treasures
Talking to him is like opening a portal to another world and another time, a bygone era of sea captains and treasures, an Edinburgh of black and white photographs and oil paintings.
Guests are invited into that world, with a story behind every tapestry, artwork and objet.
The vine that climbs over the summer house was a cutting from Highgrove; the 17th Century design is by Sir William Bruce, ‘the king’s architect’ who rebuilt the nearby Palace of Holyrood House; guests have included Winston Churchill, Boswell and Johnson and Benjamin Franklin.
You could spend a week here just discovering its history, walking the beautiful gardens and enjoying the finest, no really, the absolute finest, of food and drink.
Raven and Treacle
Yet for all its heritage, its centuries of stories, Prestonfield remains relevant, exciting and downright sexy.
It is sumptuousness on steroids, decadence to the nth degree, opulence off the scale and yet, upon check-in, I am told to look out for a little black cat called Raven and a Highland coo by the name of Treacle.
There is no stuffiness, this is five-star, friendly service that truly puts a person at ease in such dazzling surroundings.
The cat is a year-round resident, but he is especially fitting this season as both Prestonfield House and The Witchery have tailored their offerings to coincide with Halloween and the Winter Solstice.
Halloween drinks and home-made cookies
I was invited for autumnal cocktails at 6pm but first I was shown to my room.
The desire to throw myself on to the sleigh bed, piled high with velvet pillows and simply listen to birdsong from the garden was strong.
But so too was my excitement about the Nespresso machine and its enticing selection of coffees, the DAB retro radio, the state-of-the-art plasma hidden within the antique armoire, the welcome drinks chilling in the ice bucket, the jar of home-made cookies, the fancy chocolates…
The room was so thrilling I didn’t know what to do.
I pulled up a footstool, snuggled into a winged leather armchair, switched on the television and selected a Tunnock’s Teacake.
Minutes later I was opening the divine Penhaligon’s toiletries and eyeing up the luxurious bath.
Minutes after that, I was outside, walking the grounds, passing statues and pretty seating areas, while keeping an eye out for Raven and Treacle. I’d leave the room for later.
Cocktails and mocktails
After changing for dinner I met my fellow travellers in front of the fire in the Whisky Room.
Drinks experts Lucas and Lewis talked us through five bespoke cocktails, created for the season, then five more, created on the spot for yours truly after I broke it to them that I’m teetotal.
A gin-based Scary Sour and a Trick or Treat featuring Baileys and vodka were transformed with the flick of a wand into refreshing non-alcoholic potions using purees, teas, syrups and leaves.
Rhubarb and pumpkin
At dinner in the renowned Rhubarb Restaurant, innovative alternatives accompanied my delectable Roast Pumpkin Velouté with chestnut crème fraîche, golden raisins, seeds and curry spices and North Sea Hake with saffron potato rouille, roasted salsify, charred cucumber, Grénobloise garnish and Marsala wine jus.
The Pink Lady Apple Tarte Tatin with Calvados caramel and vanilla ice cream was a knock-out, and while I had peppermint tea, my companions moved on to a lovely Sauternes dessert wine.
The word was quietly spread about my no-alcohol preference and I was invited to try exotic and imaginative drinks, even the next day with afternoon tea while my companions had champagne.
The Autumn Harvest Afternoon Tea was almost too beautiful to eat, with delicate spun-sugar leaves adorning Maple and Pecan choux buns, and caramel apple cakes disguised as miniature glossy red apples.
After a last stroll around the garden grounds we were whisked away for the next stage of our adventure – The Witchery by the Castle.
Prestonfield enjoys an idyllic countryside setting at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, sheltered from the bustle of the city, yet just moments away from it.
The drive to The Witchery, at the top of the busy Royal Mile, took less than 10 minutes.
As a Harry Potter fan, this is as close as I’ll get to using the Floo Network, leaving one fantastical venue to reappear at another moments later.
Famous and fabulous
The Witchery has hosted too many VIPs to mention and it strives not to, priding itself on being discreet and professional, providing a secret sanctuary away from cameras and autograph hunters.
Only once an A-lister has left the building might it emerge they have stayed here, the clue being the guest book.
Patrons have included Leonardo DiCaprio, Vivienne Westwood, Princess Anne, Kate Moss, Emma Thomson and JK Rowling to name but a few.
I was gobsmacked to discover a certain Hollywood actress, perhaps currently the most famous woman in the world, had been a recent guest.
As Barbie achieved global domination, its star Margot Robbie stayed here and no one was any the wiser.
In the guest book she wrote: “We had the most magical time here! I felt like I was at Hogwarts. The restaurant is also incredible. I’ll be dreaming of that tarte tatin for years.”
I stayed in The Heriot Suite which overlooks George Heriot’s School, said to be the inspiration for JK Rowling’s school of wizardry and James’s alma mater.
I’d say it was like staying in Gryffindor Tower but I feel it’s no exaggeration to say The Witchery is so richly layered, so magical, so steeped in history it makes Hogwarts look like the Novotel.
As Dumbledore might remark, this is very old magic, and like Prestonfield House, it’s like stepping into another world.
Panelling and four-posters
The nine suites are individually styled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, with lacquered cabinets, velvet sofas, antique mirrors, artworks, panelling, Persian rugs, four-posters and all manner of quirky and dramatic features.
They have names such as Turret, Library, Inner Sanctum and Armoury, with one more astonishing than the next.
I gasped when I saw the painted, cathedral-like ceiling, columns and mirrors and oversized slipper bath in my huge bathroom.
The Witchery was this year named Best Restaurant with Rooms Scotland at the AA Hospitality Awards and James recently named national Restaurateur of the Year.
In 1979, he set about rescuing the 16th Century building at Boswell’s Court and after some research into the site, named it The Witchery.
The Original Dining Room is where 400 years of history meet modern culinary greatness using the best of Scotland’s larder.
In this rich setting, for breakfast I tried Omelette Arnold Bennett, named after the author who ordered his with smoked haddock in 1929 at The Savoy.
It’s just one of the classic dishes created to perfection here and I chose another at dinner, Lemon Sole Meuniere, in the other dining room, The Secret Garden.
This is an equally characterful space, with soft light streaming in through the windows from the terrace.
Painted on to the wooden ceiling is every tarot card plus one extra, an angel playing the bagpipes as seen in St Giles Cathedral.
I’m sure I heard him chuckle during lunch when I said “yummy!” out loud at Haggis with Turnip Bhaji and Pineapple Chutney.
I’ll be dreaming of that, along with the Lasagne of Wild Scottish Mushrooms with Brioche Crumb and Parmesan Custard, for years to come.
All too soon I was back in the real world, blinking in the daylight at Waverley Station, wondering if the previous two days had been a dream – a dream I plan to return to just as soon as my broomstick is fixed.
Edinburgh is an ideal place to celebrate Halloween with tales of ghosts, witches and lost bagpipers and both Prestonfield House and The Witchery have embraced the spooky season with spectacular pumpkin displays and themed food and drink.
Winter will also bring Christmas, Hogmanay, Burns Night and other events, details of which are on the Prestonfield and Witchery websites.
Room rates for Prestonfield House start from £375 per room, per night and includes breakfast. For more information, visit www.prestonfield.com
Room rates at The Witchery start from £475 per room, per night and includes breakfast. For more information, visit www.thewitchery.com