To call Heckfield Place a labor of love is more than an understatement. It has taken more than 15 years, 100 building applications, and millions and millions of dollars to turn an 18th-century Georgian manor house on 435 acres in Hampshire, England, into an intimate countryside hotel.
The owner, Gerald Chan, a Hong Kong–born, Massachusetts-based billionaire and philanthropist (in 2014, his family made the largest gift to Harvard University in the school’s history) wanted to create something special when he bought the estate in 2002. Over the years it had been occupied by various prominent families, but by the 1980s it was being used as a corporate training center. Still, Chan didn’t do anything with the property for a long time. In 2012, he met Skye Gyngell, an Australian chef who made her name at Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, London, which earned a Michelin star for her seasonal, sustainable dishes. Chan hired her to be the hotel’s culinary director, and he also became the main investor in Spring, her popular farm-to-table London restaurant, which she opened in 2014.
In the past decade, Chan has assembled a dream team of designers, architects, chefs, woodworkers, gardeners, and arborists to realize the vision for Heckfield Place. “We didn’t want this to be just a posh country house hotel,” says Gyngell, who was helpful in finding like-minded people who were passionate about taste and design as well as sustainability. Overseeing the two restaurants—Marle, a more formal space with a seasonal menu, and Hearth, a casual spot for open-fire cooking—was just part of her plan. She has also been creating a biodynamic farm to supply nearly everything for the property, from a herd of Jersey dairy cows that provide milk for the morning yogurt to fresh-cut flowers. “Eventually I want to make everything we offer in the minibar from the farm,” she says. Gyngell, who counts Alice Waters as a close friend, wants Heckfield Place to be an agrarian utopia.
For the interiors Chan hired Ben Thompson, of BWT in London. Thompson, who worked on several hotel projects under designer Ilse Crawford, started his own firm in 2010 and was originally slated to do only the hotel pub. But soon he was tasked with breathing new life into the entire property. Despite the scale, Thompson’s brief was to create something that felt familiar—“like a relative’s country house.” You get that sense of intimacy as soon you enter the foyer: there’s nothing hotel-like about the space. The grand staircase leads to 12 guest rooms spread on three floors, the top ones under the eaves being the coziest.
Thompson looked to English country living of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a starting point. “The golden era,” as he refers to it. “You think of those amazing weeklong parties, the Bloomsbury Group,” says Thompson of the bohemian aristocrats and bon vivants, including Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, who found a lively escape from World War I in the Sussex countryside. “I love that generosity of spirit.”
However, Thompson took inspiration only from the Bloomsbury Group’s attitude, not its aesthetic, which was slightly tattered and twee. Instead of layering the rooms with Persian rugs, chintz wallpaper, and heavy antiques, he stripped the building to the basics and then started with warm earth tones and humble materials. “I wanted simple things, but of the highest quality,” he says. He contacted makers and craftsmen from all over the region. The handsome oak wardrobes and other furniture were custom-made by Benchmark, Terence Conran’s woodworking company in West Berkshire, which sources wood from sustainable forests. He also worked with Felicity Irons, a master rush weaver in Bedfordshire, to create hand-woven rugs and headboards. The labor-intensive process, in which reeds are cut from the river, dried for weeks, and then sewn together using jute twine, dates back to the Iron Age. “You get such a great, grassy smell from the rush,” says Thompson. He commissioned local potters to create dishware for the restaurants as well as bases for lamps, and he dressed the beds in cashmere, Jacob’s wool, and Irish linens. The artwork is homegrown as well: Thompson selected from Chan’s massive collection of fine art. “Gerald literally has thousands of paintings in storage, but he has a good eye,” says Thompson, who fittingly enough hung a portrait of Virginia Woolf over the fireplace in the Long Room, a suite complete with a marble-and-oak kitchen, an antique Welsh oak dining table, and a terrace that overlooks the walled garden.
Olivia Richli, the general manager who came aboard last year—she had been at Soneva Jani in the Maldives—led me on a tour of the grounds: acres and acres of rolling hills, lakes, meadows, bridle paths, and gardens, including a 220-year-old arboretum. For the past five years a team of 24 has been pruning, primping, and shaping the landscape, much of which was designed by the noted gardener William Wildsmith in the late 19th century. “We want it to be about slowing down and getting back to nature,” said Richli. She pointed out hidden copses as well as some rare gems, including a hulking Lebanon cedar, one of the oldest in England, and an ancient monkey puzzle tree, a topsy-turvy evergreen. After an hour of strolling the grounds, I couldn’t help thinking I’d stepped into a Thomas Hardy novel. I was ready for a picnic in one of the glades or perhaps a dip in the lake.
Richli and I headed past a pond to the farm, where one farmhand was shearing sheep and two others were breaking up the soil with hoes. There is an orchard of 700 fruit trees (apples, plums, quinces) and plots of vegetables and flowers, which are planted according to the lunar calendar, a biodynamic principle. Greenhouses—including a hothouse for bananas and pineapples—hold even more fruits and vegetables.
Richli quietly introduced me to Belle, a very pregnant Saddleback pig that was trying to survive the early summer heat. Farther afield, Jersey cows, Rhode Island Red chickens, and Southdown and Hampshire sheep were handling the weather better. “I’d love to turn this into a food and agriculture laboratory so people get to really see where the food is coming from,” said Gyngell.
Eventually the plan is to repurpose a cluster of old barns and stables into workshops where chefs, artists, and various makers can do residencies. “It would be great for families to come down here,” said Richli. “Someone can learn how to pickle while their children learn how to carve a spoon.” She pointed to a brick tower near the house, which is where they burn a lot of waste to create heat.
Richli would eventually like to build a glassblowing studio to upcycle the glass bottles that the property uses. (She did this at Soneva Jani.) Like Gyngell, she sees Heckfield Place as a launching pad for other ideas.
“We want to tap into people’s passions and stories,” said Lucy Hyslop, who will oversee the Assembly, Heckfield Place’s cultural program. As a former codirector of the Port Eliot Festival, an arts and literary event in Cornwall, Hyslop can curate a wide-ranging program for the hotel—whether it’s screening a film in the cinema or flower arranging or talking about the “value of scent and memory.” For Hyslop, Heckfield Place represents a new way of thinking about hospitality: “This is a redefinition of luxury, where there is plenty of time and all things are considered.”