Review by Fiona Duncan, published 23rd February 2004.
Have you ever stayed in a welcoming hotel, loved it, but wished you had friends there with you, rather than strangers? Not many hotels fit the bill as venues for house parties, but some do so perfectly that weekend group bookings have become their core business. Others attract only the occasional group, though just as successfully. They cater for weddings (some of the hotels listed below hold a wedding licence), birthdays and anniversaries, shooting parties, hen and stag parties, or simply for friends and families who want to mix the luxury of hotel service with the pleasure of being together in a gracious house.
Most of the hotels listed here require a minimum booking of two nights at weekends, but only one night on weekdays. Methods of costing ‘exclusive use’ vary from hotel to hotel; prices given have been quoted by the owners, but should be regarded as a guide rather than final.Bark House, Oakfordbridge, Devon (01398 351236).
If you are looking for somewhere homely, low-key and inexpensive in lovely surroundings, look no further than Bark House, where Alastair Kamine has worked hard to create one of the most endearing guesthouses in the West Country. Everyone’s idea of a Devon cottage, particularly in spring when smothered in wistaria, the building was originally used to store bark for use in tanning. Around the house there are woodland paths and small gardens. Inside, guests congregate in a cosy sitting room with open fire, and a pretty dining room, candlelit at night, where Alastair serves his innovative, carefully presented food. Breakfasts are superb, justifiably winning the AA’s latest Best British Breakfast award. The bedrooms and bathrooms reflect the essential simplicity of Bark House, but they are also comfortable. Above all, the atmosphere is gentle and relaxed. Sleeps 10 people. Price guide: £720 for 10 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast.Combe House, Gittisham, Devon (01404 540400; www.thishotel.com) The romantic Caroline interior – elaborate plasterwork, panelled walls, ancestral paintings and antiques – of this Grade 1 listed Elizabethan manor house makes the perfect venue for a wedding or an anniversary party. So does its setting: reached by a long winding drive and surrounded by a 3,500 acre estate which includes the unchanged hamlet of Gittisham. Groups of eight to 12 can dine in the restored Georgian kitchen with its wood-fired stove, cast-iron cooking range and gleaming copper pots and pans, lit by candles and tilley lamps. Or you could hold a party of up to 80 in the beautiful reception rooms. Bedrooms are lavish, many with lovely views. Sleeps 30. Price guide: £5,600 for 30 people per night, including dinner, with wine, bed and breakfast.
Cotswold House, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire (01386 840330; www.cotswoldhouse.com).
It’s rather a surprise and definitely a relief to step inside Cotswold House, situated in the heart of this lovely old wool town, and find not the usual chintzy decoration beloved of Cotswold hotels, but something altogether cooler and more contemporary. Getting your guests to leave their bedrooms at all might be tricky here, once they have ‘designed their perfect stay’ by selecting their bedding for the luxurious king-size beds, their ‘bath menu’, minibar contents, special gifts and beauty treatments. Downstairs, there’s a beautiful central staircase, stylish British food in the lovely Garden Restaurant and Hicks Brasserie, and the helpul, hands-on owners, Ian and Christa Taylor. Sleeps 44 people. Price guide: £8,000 for 40 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Crazy Bear, Stadhampton, Oxfordshire (01865 890714; www.crazybearhotel.co.uk).
If you like your hotels flamboyant and funky, then this eclectic place, lurking in the unlikely setting of a well-heeled village close to Oxford, might be the answer. When they gather for dinner, your friends will spend at least ten minutes describing their bedrooms to each other: “mine’s got a sunken bath/mirrored ceiling/zebra carpet/cone-shaped headboard/electric blue walls/Art Deco bed” and so on. They all have state-of-the-art bathrooms, and most are compact. There are also two private cottages. Home-made frozen vodkas are a house speciality, along with champagne on tap and a humidor. As well as the bar, there’s a restaurant (serving modern British food) and a Thai brasserie. And a garden that is just as funky (naked shop dummy in tree, waterfall, statues) as the interior. You could eat together in the restaurant and dance afterwards to a disco in the brasserie.Sleeps 29-39. Price guide: £11,000 for 39 people per night including dinner, with wine, bed and breakfast.
Eagle House, Bathford, Avon (01225 859946; www.eaglehouse.co.uk).
For a modest price you can occupy this fine Georgian house designed by John Wood the Elder, outwardly grand, inside a welcoming home, full of family possessions and old furniture. John and Rosamund Napier’s guesthouse has long been appreciated by people who want a tranquil alternative to the bustle of staying in nearby Bath. They share their visit with a friendly black Labrador and talkative cat and bring their dogs and their children (there’s a tree house, Tarzan swing and grass tennis court). If you wish, you can take the house on a self-catering basis, and either cook your own dinner, or arrange for an outside caterer; you will find the Napiers friendly and flexible.Sleeps 16, plus 4/5 in cottage. Price guide: £70-£80 per person per night.
Fingals, Dittisham, Devon (01803 722398; www.fingals.co.uk).
Owner Richard Johnson calls Fingals a ‘hotel and restaurant’, but in practice it’s something much less formal, a convivial place where it’s normal for guests to share a table at mealtimes, to pour their own drinks and to eat breakfast at any time of the day. Children and dogs wander freely and there’s snooker, ping-pong and croquet as well as an indoor pool and sauna. Those who insist on everything being just so are likely to be disappointed, but those who love it really love it, and Richard’s laid-back but professional and well-tested style (he’s been running Fingals for 23 years) perfectly suits relaxed house parties. The manor farmhouse has plenty of charm, and meals in the wood-panelled dining room are modern in style, competent in execution and ample in quantity. Richard will hire you a band if you want to dance afterwards, or you can curl up in the cosy sitting room, a former 16th-century kitchen with inglenook fireplace. Sleeps 22-34. Price guide: £175 per person for two nights including dinner, bed and breakfast.Garthmyl Hall, near Montgomery, Powys (01686 640550). “We’re very discreet”, says Tim Morrow, owner of Garthmyl Hall. “We don’t go in for websites and email bookings; we prefer to deal directly with our guests”. Former urbanites themselves, Tim and his wife Nancy attract “mainly thirty-somethings, often with their children, who want a rest from the city”. Hen parties, too, are popular. “We can pamper them by bringing in someone to do beauty treatments, yoga and the like”.
Even without the yoga, Garthmyl is a pampering sort of place. The house is a Georgian gem, flanked by cedars, backed by a walled garden and woods, and with enough height to look back across gently cultivated countryside towards the River Severn. The open stone-flagged hall and sandstone staircase are immediately arresting, and the vast drawing room with its gilded ceiling is balanced by a smaller, more intimate library. As for the bedrooms, with their array of antique bedsteads, crisp sheets, bouncy towels, flowers and chocolates – they are divine. You can indulge in the Morrow’s fresh ‘modern eclectic’ dinners or, if you prefer, take the house on a self-catering basis. Sleeps 16, plus four children. Price guide: £1,100 for 16 people per night including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Hipping Hall, near Kirkby Londsdale, Cumbria (015242 71187; www.dedicate.co.uk/hipping-hall).
So adept are the Skelton family at welcoming house parties to their gracious, easy-going country hotel that they will send you their ‘house party package’ when you phone. It starts with afternoon tea, includes two three-course dinners and ends with champagne brunch served at 10am on the second day. Calm, welcoming and filled with period pieces, it would suit a golden wedding celebration, as well as groups who wanted to make the most of the superb walking country all around. After a strenuous day on the fells, you can sink into sofas in front of a wood-burning stove in the Great Hall. Sleeps 14. Price guide: £190 per person for two nights including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Kilcamb Lodge, Strontian, Argyll (01967 402257; www.kilcamblodge.co.uk).
Set in lawns and woodland running down to the shores of Loch Sunart, this calming bolthole is the perfect choice for nature lovers: sea otters, seals, pine martens, red and roe deer, golden eagles and many wild flowers can all be seen. Kilcamb has a wedding licence, and later this year or early in 2005, the bridal couple can spend the night in a wonderfully romantic tree house suite being constructed in a dell overlooking the loch and the mountains beyond. The rest of the party can stay in smart country house-style bedrooms and everyone can enjoy Neil Mellis’s sophisticated, much praised cooking.Sleeps 18-26. Price guide: £105 per person per night including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Langar Hall, Langar, Nottinghamshire (01949 860559; www.langarhall.com).
The delightful Imogen Skirving now calls Langar Hall, her beautiful Georgian family home that evolved into a hotel, a ‘restaurant with rooms’ in deference to the huge popularity of the cooking. House parties remain a feature, however, and excellent value too; guests dine in the private Indian Room while the main restaurant, in an elegant pillared hall, remains open for business to non-residents. “Many people,” says Imogen “prefer a buzz, and private parties here seem to work very well”. It’s hardly surprising. The house stands in quiet seclusion beside the early English church, overlooking lovely gardens, ancient trees and sheep grazing in the park. Below the croquet lawn lies a romantic network of medieval fishponds stocked with carp. There’s a quiet study, well-stocked library, bar, white sitting room, and gracious bedrooms. Under Imogen’s benign command, service is very friendly, yet polished. Sleeps 12-20. Price guide: £100 per person per night including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Plas Bodegroes, Pwllheli, Gwynedd (01758 612363; www.bodegroes.co.uk).
Romantic and peaceful, Plas Bodegroes is a pretty white Georgian house on the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. Reached by an avenue of beech trees, it has a fetching veranda festooned with roses and wistaria and landscaped gardens. Inside, there are period features, such as the sweeping staircase, but also contemporary paintings on the walls and a Scandinavian feel to the decoration, with 11 attractive bedrooms of differing shapes and sizes (and prices), some with four posters. Primarily, though, Plas Bodegroes is a restaurant, where Chris Chown’s cooking is recognized as amongst the best in Wales and has earned him a Michelin star. Twenty-one people can sleep in the house, but the Chowns’ could cater for a party of 40 for dinner, with dancing afterwards.Sleeps 21. Price guide: £2,000 for 21 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast.
Plumber Manor, Sturminster Newton, Dorset (01258 472507; www.plumbermanor.com).
This handsome Jacobean manor house has been rolling along as a hotel – or rather restaurant with comfortable bedrooms – since 1973, still run by the three Prideaux-Brune brothers, and still a relaxed and welcoming place to be. “There’s one school of thought”, says Richard Prideaux-Brune, “that says we’re stuck in a rut. And there’s another that says ‘thank heavens you haven’t changed’”. Proponents of the latter will find a house that is homely and comfortable rather than smart: old family portraits hang on the walls, Labradors lounge in the bar. Plumber Manor makes a good choice if you want to take over the hotel and hold a larger party (up to 60) in the evening, with dancing to a disco.Sleeps 32. Price guide: £3,300 for 32 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast; £4,100 for 32 people staying, 60 people dining.
Pool House, Poolewe, Wester Ross (01445 781272; www.poolhousehotel.com).
Osgood Mackenzie would have been amazed. The founder of nearby Inverewe Gardens, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, once lived in this substantial lochside house, architecturally unremarkable, but with exceptional views. The exterior may not have changed much but inside, with house parties very much in mind, 14 bedrooms have been transformed into four suits and one single. And what suites: Diadem, for example, is based on the Titanic, while Campania, Mackenzie’s former bedroom, is decorated in lavish Victorian style with an extraordinary hand-painted bath and shower from the 1870s. Public rooms are no less opulent and the food has a respectable reputation. After dinner, guests can retire to the Billiard Whisky room for a spot of both. The ‘exclusive use’ package includes a five-course dinner and afternoon tea.Sleeps 9 people. Price guide: £2,000 for 9 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast.
The Samling, Windermere, Cumbria (015394 31922; www.thesamling.com).
Though this sybaritic, exclusive retreat now operates as a country house hotel, rather than as a venue solely for the use of private house parties, it remains the main business (the ‘house parties’ page of their website lists the details). With the look and feel of a London townhouse, and the rough edges removed from country life (it stands in 67 acres) The Samling acts as a home-from-home for spoilt but stressed-out city folk, only much quieter. Breakfast, it is generally agreed, is preferred in bed, while for lunch you might indulge in a champagne picnic laid out on the hillside overlooking Lake Windermere and the mountains beyond, before returning to a house that breathes luxury and modish good living. Sleeps 14-20. Price guide: £3,500 for 14 people, £5,000 for 20 people per night including lunch and dinner, with all drinks, bed and breakfast.
Stone House, Rushlake Green, East Sussex (01435 830553; www.stonehousesussex.co.uk).
This glorious manor house has been Peter and Jane Dunn’s family home since 1432. Their relaxed and friendly demeanour belies a very sure touch, and Stone House is run with great competence, making it much in demand for house parties for birthdays, shooting parties and Glyndebourne (luxury wicker picnic hampers can be provided). Outside, there is a Victorian walled vegetable garden and an 18th century-style rose garden, woodland walks and croquet. Inside, there are deep sofas, beautifully decorated bedrooms, log fires and billiards – and the atmosphere of a much loved home. Sleeps 12, plus four in cottage. Price guide: £1485-£1930 April to November, £1225-£1605 November to April for 12-16 people per night, including dinner, bed and breakfast.