Review by Fiona Duncan, published 29th January 2012.
Want to live like a princess? Or at any rate like a Wernher? Then make your way to Luton Hoo. Don't stay in the annexes (a fleet of London taxi cabs take guests from the annexes to the mansion). For the full effect, book one of the magnificent rooms or suites in the mansion itself. It's expensive, I know, but special treats don't come cheap.
And treats don't come more special than at this breathtaking pillared Robert Adam house (later remodelled by Robert Smirke) and its Capability Brown formal garden and park. It's a particularly fine example of something that the hotel industry has allowed this country: the chance to stay in historic buildings to which only the aristocracy and the super rich once had access. And if you can't afford a night, at least you can pile in for afternoon tea parties with the rest of Bedfordshire, particularly popular on a Sunday.
Talking of money, this Grade I-listed mansion has seen it all, a roller-coaster of triumphs and tragedies. Built by the Earl of Bute, it was bought at the end of the 19th century by Sir Julius Wernher, who made his fortune from the South African diamond mines. It was passed on through the family, including the formidable Lady Zia Wernher, who was a descendant of both Tsar Nicholas I and of Pushkin, until its upkeep became an impossible burden for Nicholas Phillips. He, as Zena Dickinson, Luton Hoo's long-serving archivist, put it during her fascinating tour of the house, "died as a result of his financial problems in 1991".
Zena and the head gardener were the only two employees left when Elite Hotels bought the run-down, empty property in 1999 and pumped millions into the project, furnishing it from scratch, including copies of the family's most important artworks. Modelled on The Ritz, its interiors are even more ravishing than Cliveden, a stunning parade of public rooms, all now in use, culminating in a quite spectacular dining room.
Up the graceful curving staircase (down which a bevy of stars, from Kate Winslet in Quills to Jimmy Nail in a pair of boxer shorts have tumbled or trotted in the days when the house earned its living as a film set), the bedrooms are unchanged, some with their original bathrooms, many with fine plasterwork. Ours, Lady Zia's boudoir, has a fireplace painted by Angelica Kauffman.
Zena is touchingly grateful to Elite Hotels for having saved her beloved Luton Hoo, and so we should be too, but why, oh why did they have to furnish it without an iota of panache? The brown furniture, velour sofas and nondescript wallpapers are drab beyond belief when they should be singing with elegance and style. Such a shame.
Not that many of the other guests minded much – they were too busy having fun; hoteliers themselves enjoying a break in someone else's establishment during a conference organised by Pride of Britain, a consortium of privately owned, mainly family-run hotels of which I am particularly fond.
There was a gala dinner in the tapestry-hung dining room that night; Luton Hoo, bought for entertaining in 1903, was en fête once again.
- Luton, Bedfordshire JU1 3TQ (01582 734437; lutonhoo.co.uk). Doubles and singles from £230 per night, including breakfast; Mansion House rooms from £280 per night. Access possible for guests with disabilities.