Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th December 2011.
There are around 45 TripAdvisor reviews of Ellenborough Park, which opened in March. They are, even for that repository of hyperbole, total raves; the guest who mentioned the noisy proximity of the B4362 and a housing development stands out like a sore thumb. The rest describe something close to paradise.
Paradise, it turns out, is a big place. So big, in fact, that as my sister and I snaked our way up the drive at dusk, we thought we had stumbled across a discreetly floodlit secret world, an immaculate, impenetrable private resort that might conceal a modern-day version of The Prisoner.
The place is huge, part new, part restored, a mass of scrubbed-up Cotswold stone bristling with turrets, arches and towers. Dating from 1500, it has been the home of the Earl of Ellenborough (in the 1830s), a private girls’ school and a hotel that became progressively more tired until it was bought by the present owners, a group of investors, in 2008.
Millions of pounds later, it has reopened, with new wings, 62 bedrooms, a rather exposed outdoor pool, a lovely, intimate spa and a path to Cheltenham Racecourse, which is visible from many of the rooms. There is surely nowhere else an owner or trainer would prefer to stay. But what of us? Is this our paradise too? There have been some very clever moves in reinventing Ellenborough Park as a luxury hotel. The owners could so easily have entrusted a tricksy interior designer with the job; they could have cut corners and made every room the same; or they could have gone to the metallic wallpaper and velvet devoré fabric shop as so many similar hotels do when they want to introduce a contemporary look. Instead, they turned to Nina Campbell.
For me, Ellenborough Park isn’t paradise because it’s too new, too disciplined in feel, too lacking in soul. But how much more lacking it would have been without Campbell’s talents. Bedrooms are classically English, replete with real or reproduction antiques, but the opposite of fusty or dull, and the Great Hall and its minstrels’ gallery have a rich, exotic feel that recalls Ellenborough’s governorship of India and the scandalous adventures of his ex-wife Jane Digby, who fetched up in a Bedouin tent.
As for the staircase, it’s been transformed by a beautiful wall painting – a magical Arcadian forest that recalls Titian’s Death of Actaeon.
The “fine dining” (how I hate that phrase) restaurant was closed on our visit, so we ate in the brasserie, almost alone, but kindly attended. The food was unmemorable; breakfast was better.
A South African hotel group, Mantis, operates Ellenborough Park. Most staff are local and sweetly attentive, but I could do without the badges and the doors that have to be unlocked with your key card (though with £300 Dubarry boots for guests’ use in the Boot Room, I can see that security is needed). In many ways, this is an exceptional new address, but there’s something missing. Perhaps it just needs bedding down and “a bit of bird poo”, as my sister so charmingly put it.
- Southam, Cheltenham, GL52 3NH (01242 545454; ellenboroughpark.com). Doubles and singles from £210 per night, including breakfast. Adapted rooms for guests with disabilities
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
To ring the changes from Ellenborough Park, try the Royal Well Tavern in Cheltenham (5 Royal Well Place; 01242 221212;theroyalwelltavern.com), which has a Michelin Bib Gourmand; or The Royal Oak, Prestbury (43 The Burgage; 01242 522344; royal-oak-prestbury.co.uk), a local pub with a nice atmosphere and good food in what’s known as the “most haunted village in the country”.
There’s a half-hour stroll to Cheltenham Racecourse (during race weeks, transport is also provided), which has a superb atmosphere. During meetings, there’s an entrance fee; at other times you can join a guided tour or take in a show at the Centaur Centre there.
Other good walks in the area include Belas Knap, a long barrow situated in Winchcombe near Sudeley Castle. A seven-and-a-half mile round trip from the hotel will take you to the top of Cleeve Hill, right behind the hotel, then on footpaths through the golf course to Belas Knap.
WHAT TO SEE
Local places of note include Sudeley Castle, whose gardens are very pretty; Painswick Rococo Garden; and Longdole Polo Club, where you can have lessons, and Ian Coley Shooting School. Shopping in Cheltenham rivals any in the country.