The English have a thing for their countryside, just as New Yorkers yearn for their summers in the Hamptons. But there’s a romantic notion that we Brits tend to think is unique to our pastoral escape. King Arthur and Jane Austen came from these parts. So did Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Its fern-flecked hillsides, mythical woodlands, and cobblestoned towns are all we need in a getaway, even if they’ve gotten more crowded in recent years than we care to admit. So it was with this sense of retreat—and the lure of four new hotels—that I set out on an English countryside road trip strewn with great restaurants, history, and landscapes.
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I left London for Kent, passing through the suburbs toward country roads lined with oasts—conical structures once used for drying hops to make beer— and fields of apple orchards where tree branches bowed with the weight of juicy Cox’s Orange Pippins and sweet Egremont Russets. It takes a little more than an hour on the A2 to reach Canterbury and its 1,400-year-old cathedral, a looming presence with its Gothic towers and handsome stained-glass windows. Fifteen minutes beyond that, the Pig at Bridge Place sits among immaculate vineyards.
The newest property from the cult Pig brand has a rock-and-roll past, having once hosted Led Zeppelin in its former life as a private club. Today the vibe is more home-on-the-farm, with gardens bursting forth with neat rows of kale and heritage carrots and cages full of chirping quail. Colorful Hunter boots lined the entrance hall, and in the dining room, the shelves were stocked with jars of preserved veggies and pickled everything. I nibbled on a tray of welcome cookies in my room, decorated with curtains in William Morris’s Strawberry Thief fabric. In the manor house, I stumbled upon a rural museum: Paintings from William Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress” and old hunting photographs sat under warped original wooden beams.
It’s easy to sleep well in such a transporting setting—so well in fact that I overslept. I checked out late the following afternoon, then drove 100 miles west via the M25, skirting London along the commuter belt. Past the gray town of Slough (famously demonized by the poet John Betjeman) sits the Langley, a Luxury Collection Hotel, which opened last June on 150 acres of Buckinghamshire parkland. It’s hard to imagine that such a place could exist just 20 miles outside London, but the former hunting lodge of the Duke of Marlborough is exceptionally isolated, glamorously decorated, and abundant in Churchillian temptations, with a plush restaurant, a wine cellar, and a bar named after the onetime prime minister. I was all too obliged to channel the spirited leader with an 1893 Cognac and a Montecristo 1935 on the bar’s terrace. There was more luxuriating to be done at the Langley Spa, a marble-clad space with a room for almost every wellness trend (crystal room, hammam, and Himalayan salt room), but the urge to wander got to me before long. It was impossible to stay put amid so much natural beauty, and walks on the estate’s private grounds and surrounding Langley Park turned up fields of azaleas and gardens designed in the 18th century by Capability Brown, Britain’s most famous landscape architect.
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A few days later, after a breakfast of smoked salmon and homemade granola, I was back on the road—but not for long—traveling a dozen miles west on the M4. I passed the turreted Windsor Castle and preppy boys scurrying to class at Eton College before landing in the village of Bray for a stop at Heston Blumenthal’s Hind’s Head for its famous triple-cooked chips and a pint of beer. (Those with four hours to kill should instead book a tasting menu at Blumenthal’s Michelin three-star Fat Duck down the road.) Nearby, across a small footbridge, is Monkey Island Estate. The little idyll, located in another Duke of Marlborough bolt-hole (this one his former fishing lodge), is the kind of place where you could lie under a willow tree and watch the boats pass by all day. You can imagine the duke’s old quarters—the landmark-protected house still has the same cluster of small rooms it had 300 years ago—but Champalimaud Design has brightened each of the 41 suites with deft touches, such as marble bathrooms and, in the Monkey Room, ceiling murals depicting scenes of frolicsome primates. Just as playful was the floating spa, a reproduction of the 18th-century apothecary barges that traded on the Thames, where my masseuse followed the rhythm of the water’s movement with her every stroke.
I could have stayed at Monkey Island for days longer, but Somerset—the pinnacle of English countryside sojourns— awaited. Heading west on the M3 to the A303, cars started to slow, not because of the pace of rural life but rather the rubbernecking that comes with any drive past the petrified totems of Stonehenge, set back just a few hundred yards from the road. I continued 30 more miles past the undulating hills of Wiltshire and Dorset before arriving at the home of cider and cheddar. Somerset has become a favorite of smart urbanites trudging the hills in their pristine Barbours and seeking out artisanal ceramics in the little shops opened by ex-Londoners yearning for a simpler life. There is much to enjoy in Bruton, from At the Chapel’s sourdough bread to the artful knickknacks a few doors down at Caro. I dropped in for lunch at Osip, a new restaurant where the dishes that day included shiitake mushrooms with nettles and vin jaune and oca root with raw scallops, which I consumed with a flight of local perry and cider. From there, it was a stroll to Hauser & Wirth, which is equal parts art space and farm with sheep and gardens.
Minutes away, the Newt in Somerset is perhaps the most anticipated English country hotel in years. The Georgian estate has been transformed by Karen Roos and Koos Bekker, the elegant patrons of Babylonstoren hotel in South Africa’s Cape Winelands region. Proof of what impeccable taste (she is a former Elle Decoration South Africa editor) and heaps of cash (he is a media tycoon) can make, the Newt is at once chic and Arcadian, with designer furnishings by Patricia Urquiola and Gordon Guillaumier set alongside white tank bathtubs and wooden rocking chairs. It’s also a place where farm-to-table makes perfect sense, thanks to its gardens, orchards, cider house, and resident buffalo herd. Depending on the season, the menu at the Botanical Rooms restaurant might feature braised beef with grilled mushrooms from the on-site mushroom house, or dry-aged Creedy Carver free-range duck breast with damson sauce. After dinner, I was certain I couldn’t take another delicious bite, but I stopped by Newt’s gelateria anyway. The buffalo-milk ice cream was spectacular.
Before long, I was back on the A303 and headed for home, but en route I made an impromptu stop at Stourhead Estate. The fairy-tale garden was inspired by the landscape paintings of the 17th century and almost outrageous in its very Jane Austen–ness, with its boating lake and carpets of rhododendrons. Part of the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was shot on the grounds: Mr. Darcy declares his love to Elizabeth at the Temple of Apollo, a limestone tower surrounded by greenery that is undeniably romantic. You needn’t be an Austen fan to appreciate it. But you will be an English countryside fan by the time you leave.