Review by Fiona Duncan, published 18th June 2006.
I’m going back to Chewton Glen, and that takes courage. Last time I was there, I pitched up with my overnight belongings in a straw basket with fraying handles, perhaps as a subconscious act of rebellion against the coifed perfection of the place. As I was leaving, the then manager, famed for his attentiveness, raced over and insisted on taking the basket. There was a brief tussle, the handle snapped and bra and knickers, toothbrush, toiletries and teddy bear pyjamas spilled out across the plush carpet. Whereupon he insisted on picking them up for me, one by one, and putting them back.
I still get flashbacks. A return visit hasn’t been high on the agenda, but if I want to make a study of successful, long-lasting hotels, I can’t ignore this 58-room doyen of country house establishments, now in its 40th year.
Chewton Glen is an object lesson in hotel keeping. Beginning its career with just eight bedrooms and two bathrooms, its standards have never slipped, and it has paid back its massive investment with sky-high occupancy rates and a long list of accolades. And all this despite drawbacks that would send most country house hoteliers running for cover: the much-extended building is no beauty; there are no views; and it’s in one of the most mundane places on the South Coast. New Milton…who wants to spend a weekend there?
Truckloads – or rather, purring carloads – of people, that’s who. What it lacks in character it makes up in an astonishing array of amenities for a fairly small hotel: orchestrated service delivered by a total of 210 staff; a new state of the art spa (attached to a pillared swimming pool straight from Footballers’ Wives); private golf course; indoor and outdoor tennis courts. Not to mention the lavish bedrooms. My recently revamped mid-price room was evidence of the contemporary touches that are stealing through the hotel, gradually replacing yesterday’s floral swags and drapes: black and gold walls, cool lighting, plasma screen TV, wireless internet connection, and a glamorous bathroom. It positively groaned with extras: even the postcards had already been stamped.
There have been other changes since my last visit. Then there was a lot of nonsense with silver domes being whisked away in unison to reveal the food, and ‘gentlemen’ were required to wear jacket and tie. Nowadays domes and dress code have been banished, there are sparkly lights in the conservatory dining room and a new limestone floor with contemporary rugs in the lobby. The current manager, thirty-something Andrew Stembridge tells me that 65 per cent of the guests are his age. I know the spa is a draw, but I’m surprised: there’s something terribly cloying about Chewton Glen.
Its popularity, however, is undoubted, and continuity is the key. Andrew Stembridge was promoted from deputy, while Luke Matthews has worked in the kitchen since 1993, becoming head chef ten years later and retaining the hotel’s Michelin star. And the future? Owners Martin and Brigitte Skan recently announced that they are privately selling their adored hotel…to a regular guest. Continuity assured.
Chewton Glen is hard to fault, so why do I feel trapped? Why does the rebel in me always want to burst out here? It’s so posh-but-not-posh, if you see what I mean, so groomed. As I make my escape across the hall, my grip tightens on my overnight bag.
New Milton, Hants (01425 275341; www.chewtonglen.com). Doubles from £310 to £945 including breakfast.