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For as long as I can remember, British historical costume dramas have painted a picture of perfect gentility: of lunch on chamomile lawns, of pale-skinned girls in long white dresses playing croquet, of tail-coated butlers in white gloves pouring afternoon tea from translucent Coalport porcelain. Brideshead Revisited and, more recently, Gosford Park have perpetuated this image of British culture to such an extent that travelers come to our shores expecting to enjoy this kind of splendid pageantry and ancient architecture from the stately comfort of a country-house hotel.
What outsiders fail to understand about the British, however, is their attachment to understatement. Unlike sensation-seeking filmmakers, British aristocracy is inordinately fond of shabbiness in all its forms, and behind the most imposing manor-house exteriors are private rooms filled with well-worn sofas and homely clutter. This is what most British country-house hotels resemble—and, indeed, aspire to. Even the most meticulously updated and refurbished of them are still housed in aristocratic country piles that, although grand, were never designed with air-conditioning or power showers in mind.
Britain also specializes in sacred cows, names so revered that nobody would dare point out that they are no longer very good. Though others vehemently disagree, I believe that Cliveden, for instance, the famed Berkshire estate of the Astor family, lends itself perfectly to historical and horticultural sightseeing, but should not attempt to combine hotel-keeping with tour buses. After all, one should not have to pay $500 or more a night only to be gaped at over lunch by camera-toting hordes.
As a full-time hotel critic who stays in up to 100 luxury hotels a year around the world, I hold British hotels to international standards of excellence. This, I am told, makes me a somewhat demanding guest. While many guidebooks rave about the charms of peeling paint and worn furniture, I merely see a lack of maintenance and poor housekeeping. Like my American friends I look for plumbing that works, beds that are comfortable, food that is fresh and flavorful, and service that is professional, heartfelt, and unpretentious. I dislike hotels where the staff consider themselves superior to the guests; flaunt their Michelin stars as proof that they know best; and decide that your fish should be barely cooked or your lamb merely stunned, or that you should drink their choice of wine rather than your own. I believe that a guest should feel relaxed, respected, and welcomed, rather than intimidated into compliance.
Here are seven of my favorite British country-house hotels, from a contemporary hideaway to a simple Victorian house and the full Monty of gilded aristocracy. In their own unique ways, they are all stars.
Babington House, Somerset. If you're looking for a fun atmosphere that's more Four Weddings and a Funeral than Gosford Park, Babington is for you. This is casual charm at its very best—no dress code, no attitude, no whispering—which may be why it's so chic among the media elite. On the weekends, bright young things down from London cluster around the bar with the locals or unwind in the unique Cowshed Spa.
But that's not to say Babington isn't steeped in history. The estate dates from the 14th century and the main house is Grade II Listed, early Georgian—all Bath stone and tiles, with an original 15th-century stained-glass window on the main stairs. However, with its shabby chic decor, private movie theater, Philips wide-screen televisions, and massive beds (ours was seven feet wide), Babington is more about relaxation than pomp and circumstance.
The cuisine, while nothing fancy, uses excellent organic produce, most of it grown in the estate's huge walled kitchen garden. The staff is enthusiastic and helpful. Children are genuinely welcome and provided for here, which is rare in Britain; there's even a kid's club called The Little House.
The 28 rooms are set in the main house and in the Stable and Coach House annexes, which are incredibly charming and beautifully terraced cottages of Bath stone. The Stable complex is perfect for a family: a loftlike interior with wooden floors, exposed beams, and, of course, Babington's huge signature beds, which are dressed in crisp white waffle and piled high with goose-down pillows and bolsters.
The bathrooms are unusually spacious, with roll-top bathtubs, wood-burning fireplaces, granite hand basins, wall-mounted televisions, and enormous walk-in rainfall showers with slatted teak floors. They are stocked with all-natural Cowshed toiletries—aphrodisiac bath oil, after-sun lotion—made right on the estate. The pièce de résistance is the Cowshed Spa and Gym, where a large heated indoor pool merges into an infinity-edge outdoor pool that sends curling wisps of steam into the chilly air.
Babington is a hugely refreshing British country-house hotel designed for the young at heart. It can be a little messy at times, especially on Sunday, when ashtrays overflow and newspapers fill the library, but it is well worth a visit.
Rates: $300-$535. Babington near Frome, Somerset; 44-1373-812-266; fax 44-1373-812-112; www.babingtonhouse.co.uk.
The Jewel in the Crown
Chewton Glen in Hampshire sets the standard not merely for country-house hotels but for hotels throughout Britain. You will not find better suites—or better bathrooms—in all of London. Chewton Glen is so utterly in touch with everything that is going on in the world that even with yearly visits I find it hard to keep up.
Its critics, who prefer the reassurance of traditional shabbiness, claim that Chewton Glen is a little too much like an American resort; but I would much rather avail myself of good plumbing and a 21st-century spa than take the authentically sulfurous waters of the 19th century.
This is an ever evolving property—a place that surprises on each visit, and yet manages to retain an aura of English traditionalism, with its very proper staff, sophisticated ambience, and all-embracing warmth, under the ebullient direction of general manager Peter Crome. Large walk-in showers—very rare in most British hotels—are just one of the attributes that put Chewton Glen in an entirely different league. There's also the extraordinary range of amenities: indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a nine-hole golf course, and a recently expanded world-class spa. Longtime executive chef Pierre Chevillard prepares sophisticated home-style cuisine, while prescient service nannies you from breakfast to supper.
Set on 130 manicured acres a perfect two-hour drive from London, Chewton Glen has 37 rooms and 22 suites, each with an uninterrupted view of the Hampshire countryside. There are no bad rooms. I have seen all of them, and each is wonderful, although my favorites have to be the spacious Duplex Suites, which have cushy sofas, well-placed desks, dimmers, and wall-mounted Bang & Olufson CD players. My only gripe is the absence of mini-bars, but even this, I gather, is under consideration.
It is the detail, though, that never ceases to amaze. I always seem to focus on something gloriously trivial, such as the exquisite hatbox of chocolates left by our bedside. When I read the label, it dawned on me that these were handmade at Chewton Glen using the finest Valrhona chocolate. How many hotels make their own fresh chocolates—and to the level of the best Belgian? I just wish that the rest of Britain would take lessons from this place.
Rates include service. $380-$1,100. Christchurch Road, New Milton, Hampshire; 800-344-5087, 44-1425-275-341; fax 44-1425-272-310; www.chewtonglen.com.
A Tom Jones Weekend
Hambleton Hall, Rutland. On the banks of Rutland Water, a vast and lovely lake, sits this pristine Victorian house elegantly decorated with antiques. Run by Tim and Stefa Hart, it's a perfect quiet retreat with exceptionally warm hospitality and top-notch cuisine. You do not check in, but merely sign the visitor's book, then sink into a big, cushy sofa with a glass of light, fruity Chardonnay from southwest France. After that, amble past the walled outdoor pool, through the gardens, and on down to the lake, then return for tea—a pot of leaf Earl Grey served from Villeroy & Boch in the flower-filled sitting room.
The 17 rooms, each individually decorated, are small but delightful. Ask for a water view or, if you are travelling en famille, for the Croquet Pavilion, a two-bedroom suite near the main house.
Aaron Patterson's cutting-edge cuisine, served in Hambleton's gracious dining room, is an inspiration. Be sure to try the assiette of citrus-fruit desserts: imaginative creations with sublime textures and flavors, from lemon tart to orange soufflé.
Although simple and unpretentious, this is a hotel of real quality—a proper British country house that does not take its historic charms for granted.
Rates include breakfast and service. $315-$1,000. Hambleton, Oakham, Rutland; 44-1572-756-991; fax 44-1572-724-721; www.hambletonhall.com.
Hartwell House, near Aylesbury. You sense the grandeur of Hartwell the moment you start the long drive up through 90 acres of parkland, past statues, obelisks, and a tiny restored church, and finally to the stately house itself: three centuries of history miraculously preserved and painstakingly refurbished, with every detail a triumph of correctness. Weeping willows graze a trout-filled lake, swans and ducks drift peacefully, and a lone heron stalks on the bank, while an exceptionally courteous young man in formal attire awaits your arrival at the front door.
There are 34 rooms and 13 suites, but the best are the huge fourposter rooms. As you ascend the grandly restored Jacobean staircase, floorboards creak softly underfoot and a distant clock chimes the hour. Upstairs, panoramic windows look onto the soft English landscape. On marble-topped tables you'll find fruit, mineral water, and little lacquered boxes of homemade shortbread. Everywhere are elegant prints, paintings, and china. With salon after salon of museum-quality antiques and paintings and big bowls of flowers filling the air with fragrance, is it any wonder that Louis XVIII made this his home when he was exiled from France? It's not all ancient history, though. Just outside sits the Hartwell Spa, complete with an arcaded indoor pool, a restaurant, and an exercise room.
The only drawbacks to Hartwell are the small, spartan bathrooms and the tendency of guests to whisper, as if they were in a museum. But this is a supremely polished hotel with great aplomb, fast, round-the-clock room service, laundry, and all of the other amenities visitors can expect from one of the best.
Rates include service. $345-$1,100. No children under eight. Oxford Road, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire; 44-1296-747-444; fax 44-1296-747-450; www.relaischateaux.com/hartwell.
Sense and Sensibility
Lucknam Park, near Bath. Unlike most of Britain's stately homes, Lucknam has made a conscious effort to eschew flowery pattern books while maintaining the glory of its 1720s origins and gracious Palladian architecture. Gone are the chintzes and flounces; instead there are elegant ecrus with splashes of red, bold flower arrangements, artful objets. Cool marble bathrooms have double sinks and plumbing that actually works; some sport separate walk-in showers.
The 28 rooms and 13 suites overlook either the garden or the 500-acre grounds, with paddocks of grazing horses and an archetypal English rose garden. Choose the curvaceous Tower Suite for its panoramic views, or ask to stay in the Coral Room, which has a working fireplace and a high fourposter bed with Frette linens and goose-down pillows. Two emerald sofas, plump with taffeta cushions, afford a view through large picture windows of Lucknam's ancient allée. During World War II, this mile-long avenue of beech and lime trees was actually used to conceal fighter aircraft.
Lucknam offers everything from tennis instruction to croquet, horseback riding, or golf at the nearby Bowood estate. Near a charming walled garden from the 1830s is a sensitively designed spa that's homey rather than swish. The cuisine—which uses consistently fresh, local produce, much of it grown at the hotel—tends to be overly fussy, although the extensive cheese selection is superb.
Rates include service. $310-$1,070. Colerne, Chippenham, Wiltshire; 44-1225-742-777; fax 44-1225-743-536; www.lucknampark.co.uk.
Shakespeare in Love
Mallory Court, Warwickshire. It is not difficult to fall in love with the glorious rolling hills of Middle England, where the Cotswolds meet Shakespeare country. Near Stratford-upon-Avon and Kenilworth, the Lutyens-style Mallory Court, built in 1915 of golden Cotswold stone and crowned with high chimneys, is one of England's most relaxing escapes. However, with the absence of any visible general manager, this 18-room hotel can seem a little impersonal at times.
Ask for one of the new individually decorated Master Rooms, where mullioned bay windows look out on ten acres of roses, formal gardens, an outdoor pool, and a velvety croquet lawn. The design is blissfully uncluttered, with thoughtful touches here and there: four perfect plums artfully arranged on a Wedgwood Citron plate; African violets and a single exquisite glass bowl set on a dark bamboo coffee table.
King-size beds have fine white-on-white embroidered linen and intricate swirling tapestry cushions handsewn by owner Jeremy Mort's sister. French Grange armoires conceal state-of-the-art electronics, and smart Art Deco bathrooms gleam with chrome, marble, or floor-to-ceiling tiles, with etched Conran water glasses by the sink. Even the alarm clocks are collectible Deco.
Mallory Court's aim is comfort, which means no dress codes and no insistence on multicourse gourmet meals at night. At breakfast, be sure to try the local honey "gathered from the Warwickshire countryside by the bees of John Home."
Rates include service and a Continental breakfast. $300-$500. Harbury Lane, Bishops Tachbrook, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire; 44-1926-330-214; fax 44-1926-451-714; www.mallory.co.uk.
Kinnaird, Perthshire, Scotland. Kinnaird is the best hotel in Scotland—but it's so much more than that, given the enormity of the 9,000-acre estate that overlooks the Tay valley. All the country pursuits of the Edwardian house-party era are at your beck and call: shooting clays, salmon and trout fishing on the River Tay, or simply walking through the yellow gorse-strewn moors. The original house, built in 1770, was expanded by the Ward family in 1927. In 1990, Constance Ward, a New Yorker, completely renovated Kinnaird, managing to retain its Edwardian aspects while creating a luxurious retreat for the 21st-century traveler.
Kinnaird is wholeheartedly Scottish—warm and friendly in every respect, from Fionn, the elderly golden retriever, to the crackling fires in the Cedar Room lounge and the dark, rich hues of the Billiards Room. Cozy gas-burning fires warm each bedroom; if that doesn't do the trick, try the little bedside decanter of Highland Heater, a marvelous elixir of whisky, herbs, spices, and ginger made by Marion, Viscountess Thurso, the daughter of Mrs. Ward. The unusually airy bathrooms have deep tubs, rainfall showers, Bvlgari toiletries and thick white monogrammed towels and bathrobes. In the morning, a big Scottish breakfast arrives with real leaf tea, fine espresso, rich pots of homemade marmalade, excellent porridge, and oven-warm pastries.
With display cases of carefully chosen artifacts and framed family photographs everywhere, Kinnaird feels like a private home—and one with great style. The decor is continually refurbished with impeccable attention to detail, from the Spode china and sparkling silver to the crisp monogrammed linens by Peter Reed of Lancashire.
The main dining room (formerly the drawing room) has delicate Italian painted arabesques, crystal chandeliers, and heart-stopping views across the River Tay. Trevor Brooks' cuisine is even better than before—so sophisticated that it could easily pass for two-star Michelin. Chef Brooks even smokes his own salmon. The wine list, too, has marvelous international vintages, thanks to general manager Douglas Jack, who remains the consummate host.
With just eight individually decorated rooms and one suite, all of which are excellent, you must book well ahead.
Rates include service, a Scottish breakfast, and dinner. $450-$790. No children under 12. Dunkeld, Perthshire; 44-1796-482-440; fax 44-1796-482-289; www.kinnairdestate.com.
Eight to Watch Out For
These hotels are not yet on a par with the preceding grandees, but they do offer unique attractions that could make for an enjoyable weekend.
Langshott Manor, near Gatwick, Surrey. If you fly into Gatwick, spend your first night at this unique 22-room "airport hotel" from the late 16th century. It will give you a real taste of British history and hospitality, complete with fourposter beds and roll-top bathtubs. Ask to be picked up at the airport, just five minutes away. Rates include service, breakfast, and a car to the airport. $280-$440. Langshott, near Gatwick, Surrey; 44-1293-786-680; fax 44-1293-783-905; www.langshottmanor.com.
Sharrow Bay Country House, Penrith. Far from the madding crowd, this 19-room waterside mansion is moving away from its formerly tired, pink, and frilly interiors and toward a new level of sophistication, with posh bathrooms and duplex suites. Rates include service, breakfast, and dinner for two. $460-$610. Lake Ullswater, Howtown, Penrith Cumbria; 44-1768-486-301; fax 44-1768-486-349; www.sharrow-bay.com.
Gravetye Manor, in West Sussex, is a 16th-century Elizabethan manor with 18 simple but immaculate and comfortable rooms. The cuisine is first-class and the English natural garden, designed by William Robinson, extraordinary. $ Rates include service. $290-$490. Near East Grinstead, West Sussex; 44-1342-810-567; fax 44-1342-810-080; www.gravetyemanor.co.uk.
The Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath. An elegant terraced crescent dating from 1775 with a leafy internal courtyard garden and a cutting-edge spa called the Bath House. Insist on one of the 16 suites. Cuisine varies. Rates: $275-$1,200. 16 Royal Crescent, Bath; 44-1225-823-333; fax 44-1225-339-401; www.royalcrescent.co.uk.
Lords of the Manor Hotel, Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire. Tired, grubby interiors are gradually being refurbished at this 27-room, 17th-century Cotswold house. The real lure is new chef Toby Hill's superb cuisine, which quite deserves its Michelin star. Rates include a full English breakfast. $230-$460. Upper Slaughter, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; 44-1451-820-243; fax 44-1451-820-696; www.slh.com/lordsmanor.
Buckland Manor Hotel, Broadway, Gloucestershire. The best hotel in the heart of the Cotswolds, this gorgeous 13-room, 13th-century manor welcomes you with comfortable salons, a reasonably good kitchen, and fantastic water gardens. Your very proper host, Nigel Power, will take care of all your needs. Rates include service and breakfast. $330-$530. Buckland near Broadway, Worcestershire; 44-1386-852-626; fax 44-1386-853-557; www.bucklandmanor.com.
Glenapp Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland. Recently opened by Graham and Fay Cowan, this beautifully decorated 19th-century castle is still finding its way when it comes to service and cuisine, but is well worth visiting. The 17 rooms, especially the Master Rooms, are very fine indeed. Rates include meals and house drinks. $630-$770. Ballantrae, Ayrshire; 44-1465-831-212; fax 44-1465-831-000; www.glenappcastle.com.
Cowley Manor, Gloucestershire. The latest, hippest addition to the Cotswolds is this 30-room Victorian pile with very modern interiors. It has a spa with outdoor and indoor pools and 55 acres of formal gardens and parkland, including three ornamental lakes. The dare-to-be-different attitude is aimed at the thirtysomething set. After just four weeks of operation, the cuisine and service proved exceptional. Highly recommended. Rates include breakfast. $310-$600. Cowley, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; 44-1242-870-900; fax 44-1242-870-901; www.cowleymanor.com.