Review by Fiona Duncan, published 27th January 2008.
I've rather avoided Hartwell House until now. That's because I remember the mammoth pile in a previous incarnation. No, not, as my children cruelly suggest, during the time it was occupied by the exiled Louis XVIII, but in the 1970s, when it was a girls' finishing school (remember them?).
Hartwell House is one of Richard Broyd's Historic House Hotels
My previous school having politely requested that I never darken its doors again, I needed to be housed elsewhere for sixth form, and still vividly remember the show-round at Hartwell House, where glacial, glossy-haired girls sat on their beds coolly painting their nails and curling their eyelashes. They gave not a glance in my direction as I was ushered into their magnificent but threadbare dormitory.
But that was then. For the last 19 of its 400 or so years the current Hartwell House (substantial antecedents have existed here since William the Conqueror's day) has been a hotel. Along with Middlethorpe Hall in York and Bodysgallen Hall in Wales, it's one of Richard Broyd's carefully restored Historic House Hotels.
As I say, my heart wasn't in this visit. Memories of its vast, forbidding bulk, the frightful people inside it and the beastly discomfort of their existence made me almost dread what I would find in the hotel version.
I needn't have worried. Genial manager Jonathan Thompson greeted us at the door. In the great hall we found a roaring log fire, comfortable sofas and a satyr on the plasterwork ceiling holding what looks like a giant lolly. A warm welcome, chatty staff: I was intimidated no more. As for our Friday-night fellow guests, they included a group of giggly girls who'd come for a spa break, a hirsute Lothario canoodling with his tattooed girlfriend and a pair of polished metropolitans whose faces were vaguely familiar. In other words, a healthy mixture, plenty of bonhomie and no ties necessary at dinner. A good thing it was busy: the public spaces are too big to be comfortably alone.
There are four large, impressive drawing rooms, though unfortunately three of them only have sterile gas log fires. The most alluring original feature is the beautiful ceiling in the Georgian Morning Room that depicts the Four Seasons. Least alluring, though highly important, is the extraordinary Jacobean staircase, lined by statues of the Knights of Europe guarding the way to bed. Louis XVIII's queen, who died here of drink brought on by the misery of living in Britain, had them removed because their candlelit shadows frightened her as she stumbled, half-cut, to bed. They gave me the creeps too, as I stumbled, half-cut, to bed and the green splodgy carpet and mauve walls (in Strawberry Hill Gothic style) did nothing to help the situation.
There are other things that should be improved to keep Hartwell House up to the mark, not least the cork-tiled bathroom floors (it's bad enough living with my own without having to pay for one); the tiddly bottles of shampoo and bath gel provided in even the most palatial of the bedrooms; some furnishings and fittings in the public spaces; and the food, which wasn't remotely up to the prices demanded (pushing £30 for a main course). Natural, easy-going hospitality, though, despite the splendour of the surroundings, is something they don't need to work on.
Oxford Road, near Aylesbury (01296 747444; www.hartwell-house.com). Doubles from £290 per night, including breakfast.