Country House Hotels: New Life in the Country
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th December 2009.
Journey to the centre of the New Forest, Hampshire's ancient heath and woodland, where ponies, pigs, cattle and deer still freely roam, and you will find a dazzling new attraction. Late last month, Lime Wood, a bespoke 29-bedroom, £30 million-plus luxury country house hotel opened its doors. A dodgy moment to be opening such a hotel, with rates starting at £225 and going up to £725 per night, you might think. And you'd be right, except that I'll give up drink if Lime Wood isn't a sure-fire hit. British notions of the spoiling country house hotel are changing and Lime Wood fills a growing gap in the market.
Very much a post-war concept, the country house hotel became popular among the growing number of city workers seeking rest and recuperation, and as the idea took hold, more and more private homes were converted into hotels by hands-on owners who specialised in welcoming guests into their cosy, personal world.
Francis Coulson, creator of Sharrow Bay in Cumbria in 1949, is credited with coining the phrase 'country house hotel', while other famous early examples of the genre included Peter Herbert's Gravetye Manor in West Sussex and Paul Henderson's Gidleigh Park in Devon.
Throughout the ensuing decades, country hotels, large and small, luxury and inexpensive, continued to multiply – of an estimated 46,000 hotels and guesthouses in Britain today, 5,000 are country house hotels. What is noticeable, however, is how few have opened in recent years. Those that have are noticeably different in character.
"Gone are the days when you went to a country house hotel, however luxurious, and just sat there with a cup of tea and a newspaper," says Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association. "Nowadays, people regard them as bases for activities such as walking, attending literary festivals, or using the spa and sporting facilities, but they also want that base to be somewhere they can talk about to their friends."
They demand ever-higher standards, too. "Urbanites choosing a luxury retreat are used to stylish city hotels and they have stylish homes themselves. What they want for their weekend away is something at least equal to, preferably better than, they have at home," Cotton says. "Most important, though, it has to have a 'twist'. It might be a food twist or a design twist or an activity-based twist, but people are definitely looking for something different. Location and easy transport links are vital – within two hours of London offers by far the greatest catchment of potential consumers."
In London, the new style was kick-started by Gordon Campbell Grey's innovative One Aldwych hotel, and by Tim and Kit Kemp's Firmdale Hotels (Covent Garden, Soho, Charlotte Street and Haymarket). In the shires, no other luxury British country hotel fills the same glamorous, buzzy, A-list-attracting role as
Babington House, though there are contenders on the horizon.
Barnsley House, recently bought by gifted hotelier Richard Ball of Calcot Manor, is almost certain to get it right when it reopens next spring. Cowley Manor, also in the Cotswolds, has always had its aficionados, though it's no beauty, while among the more expansive, resort-style hotels, The Grove, along with Four Seasons Hampshire, also has pulling power. Coworth Park, with Brunei money behind it and its own polo fields and equestrian centre, has lured top chef John Campbell from the Vineyard at Stockcross and is using state-of-the-art environmental technology in its construction.
Stately Lucknam Park, near Bath, now with a sleek new spa, can also be included in the line up. Olga Polizzi's Tresanton remains a chic haven on the Cornish coast and Gidleigh Park, now owned by billionaire businessman Andrew Brownsword, a glossy one in Devon. When he bought Gidleigh, the much-loved but fading fiefdom of Paul and Kay Henderson, Brownsword – together with chef Michael Caines – brought the hotel into the 21st century. They correctly read guests' new requirements and set the hotel on course for success.
Country house hotels depend, as with any product, on the people behind them. Which is why Lime Wood has a particularly good chance: its dream team includes a local millionaire backer, a local Michelin-starred chef and arguably Britain's most inspired hotelier, also a local.
The backer, Jim Ratcliffe, used to eat at diminutive Le Poussin, the New Forest restaurant of the chef, Alex Aitken, and agreed to buy a hotel and restaurant for Aitken when it came up for sale a few years ago. Neither, however, had more than a passing acquaintance with the hotel industry. Admiring the Orchard House at Highgrove, Ratcliffe tracked down its elusive architect, Charles Morris ("a true gentleman, one who hasn't yet heard of email or the internet").
Once found, Morris was commissioned to design lodges and pavilions housing indulgent rooms and suites (some with open fires or wood-burning stoves), in a charming "English country house style", but with a vernacular all of their own. Backing directly on to woods, these ancillary buildings surround pools of carp and brown trout that give an instant sense of tranquillity.
After a false start, Ratcliffe and Aitken lighted on star designer David Collins for the hotel's interior. Although Collins' distinctive, glittering designs – for The Blue Bar at the Berkeley, as well as Claridge's, The Connaught, The Wolseley and Nobu – are perhaps at odds with Lime Wood's natural surroundings, they contrast well with the timeless architecture and add another of today's must-have elements: pizzazz.
Five years into the project, Ratcliffe and Aitken had the design in place but no team and little idea of direction. Enter the third local, Robin Hutson. As former managing director of Chewton Glen, creator of the Hotel du Vin chain, and a partner of Nick Jones of Soho House, he knows a thing or two about today's requirements for success. Hutson agrees with Bob Cotton when he says that the new-style country retreat must have exactly the right mix of informal yet utterly professional service.
"It's Babington's most important asset," Hutson says, "and the reason it runs at 90 per cent occupancy, while most are at 60 per cent."
As a new "contemporary classic" country house hotel Lime Wood certainly has enough twists. But, as Cotton and Hutson assert, no twists can make up for unappealing atmosphere or inappropriate service, even if perceptions about what that atmosphere and that service should be may be changing.
So where does that leave classic country house hotels, as opposed to "contemporary classics"? Cotton fears that the climate is increasingly difficult for them, especially outside holiday periods, when the recent impetus to stay in Britain has helped to fill rooms. The customary "grey market" that takes over in low season is less stable than it was, given low returns on interest rates and pension problems; and the corporate market, good for many weekday reservations, has shrunk dramatically.
Perhaps though, this gloomy scenario has a silver lining. While the slew of refreshing new budget hotels has revived the domestic market, many traditional country house hotels have rested on their laurels for too long, offering creaky service and poor value for money (top-end country hotels have a habit of asking exorbitant London prices that are often hard to justify). Now they must raise their game and improve their appeal in order to survive.
FIVE TOP TRADITIONAL COUNTRY HOUSE HOTELS
Gravetye Manor, West Sussex (01342 810567; www.gravetyemanor.co.uk; from £220) Dignified and endearing; run in the same time-eluding way for over 40 years.
Hambleton Hall (01572 756991; www.hambletonhall.com; from £205) Nothing much changes either at this gracious hotel overlooking Rutland Water. Thank heavens.
Sharrow Bay, Ullswater (01768 486301; www.sharrowbay.co.uk; from £200) Like a country house hotel museum: preserved in aspic by new owners Von Essen, down to the velveteen armchairs and Coulson's "icky sticky toffee pudding".
Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno (01492 584466; www.bodysgallen.com; from £165) One of the many historic houses that were saved and given new life as hotels. This one has an unforgettable view, too.
Isle of Eriska, Argyll (01631 720371; www.eriska-hotel.co.uk; from £240) Once found, never forgotten, a Scottish country house/resort hotel run with a mix of warmth and professionalism.
FIVE TOP CONTEMPORARY CLASSICS
Lime Wood, Lyndhurst (023 8028 7177; www.limewoodhotel.co.uk; from £225) Fabulous, immaculately executed latest addition to the genre, bringing glamour to the New Forest.
Babington House, Somerset (01373 812266; www.babingtonhouse.co.uk; from £225) Nick Jones's Soho House outpost goes from strength to strength, especially for thirtysomethings.
Endsleigh (01822 870000; www.hotelendsleigh.com; from £200) A Regency lodge in its own valley, restored and run with panache by Olga and Alex Polizzi.
Hurst House (01994 427417; www.hurst-house.co.uk; from £175) A one-off, with spa, on the marshes at Laugharne. Music, poetry and good but green living feature in this atmospheric place.
Gidleigh Park, Devon (01647 432367; www.gidleigh.com; doubles from £310) A classic traditional country house hotel has, after a multimillion-pound makeover, become a classic contemporary one.
*All prices are for a double room with breakfast