Goji is scanning me with huge, dark, unblinking eyes, his nonchalant expression giving way to the slightest flicker of intrigue. I return his inquisitive stare, taking in his long neck, shaggy hair and the total stillness of his body save for the repetitive circular motion of his jaw chewing on hay.
As first encounters with a llama go, this one is about as surreal as it gets.
Not because of the intensity of our silent stand-off, but where it’s taking place: rather than among the hills of Peru, we’re in a little paddock behind the Merry Harriers, a country inn in the picturesque Surrey village of Hambledon.
Not only is it charming – if you asked someone to draw a picture of the quintessential village inn, this place, with its wild flowers and 16th-century fireplace, would be it – but its green and glorious surroundings make you feel a million miles away from the city, as opposed to just 45.
And then, of course, there are its unusual fluffy residents.
Llamas have been subject to much media attention recently thanks to the fact their antibodies could be used to help develop a treatment for Covid-19 (fingers crossed…), but these weird and wonderful creatures have been big news at the Merry Harriers for a few years.
While many visit to see them grazing at the end of the pub’s pretty lavender-scented garden, if you really want to get to know these adorable critters, heading out on a llama trek through the surrounding countryside is an absolute must.
The Harriers’ nine specimens each have their own distinct personalities, which become apparent the more time you spend with them.
As we arrive in the paddock for a pre-trek briefing, we’re introduced to Toffee, an auburn-haired youngster with an inquisitive streak, handsome Mungo – who strikes me as the strong and silent type – and of course Goji, who’s renowned for being particularly cheeky.
Meet-and-greet completed, we set off on the three-mile, four-hour ramble with one llama per two people (we’re a group of four, plus guide) at a gentle pace. It’s a joy – not to mention incredibly relaxing – to watch the oddly elegant creatures amble through the lush trails of the Surrey Hills, stopping every now and then to nibble at a patch of grass or overhanging leaf.
Food isn’t forgotten and each llama is fully loaded with a hearty picnic, complete with a bottle of local sparkling wine. We’re surrounded by sun-soaked fields of golden corn, woodland teeming with technicolour butterflies, and grassy plains that stretch far and wide.
We stop to breathe in the country air and it’s a truly glorious moment.
Later, we head back to our ‘room’, but as with much else at the Merry Harriers, accommodation comes with its own surprises, too. In addition to four rooms in the inn itself, and six cosy garden rooms, there are five stylish new shepherd’s huts positioned around a pretty pond in a field opposite the pub, and a cuter – and more socially distanced – country stay you’d be hard-pressed to find.
The huts are the perfect addition to this traditional-with-a-twist rural retreat – totally in keeping with their bucolic surroundings, but appointed to the highest of standards with sheepskin rugs, cosy blankets, underfloor heating, slick bathrooms and, of course, nods to the llamas in the form of embroidered cushions and sweet ceramic statuettes. It’s like a luxury boutique bedroom but in the middle of a field.
Each hut even has its own firepit and outdoor loungers to cosy up on as you watch the sun slip behind the horizon – and raise a toast to the llamas, the best country companions you could hope for.
Shepherd’s huts from £185pn B&B, llama treks from £55.20 adult, £27.60 child (minimum age eight).
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