Fiona Duncan loves hotels that do things differently
That once-thriving genre, the traditional English country house hotel, is in its death throes and I mourn its passing.
Plenty still exist, of course, but in a new guise: originally privately owned and personally run by their owners, most are now part of chains or the playthings of absent millionaires. You probably don’t care, enjoying their spas and brasseries and peculiar signature cocktails, but I think they’ve lost much of their character and a lot of their soul.
The country house hotel was born in 1949. Its parents were a splendid couple, Francis Coulson and Brian Sack, and its name was Sharrow Bay. Guests went there for nothing more than the view across Ullswater and the abundant hospitality of its owners. So shockingly new was their concept that people struggled to put a name to it, until one day Coulson explained, “It’s a country house that’s a hotel”: a literal description that spawned a phenomenon.
These hotels, usually listed buildings in glorious settings, were utterly idiosyncratic and all about their owners
These hotels, usually listed buildings in glorious settings, were utterly idiosyncratic and all about their owners — in the case of Sharrow Bay a riot of pink swirly carpets, fringed velveteen bedroom chairs, frilly loo-roll covers, electric coal-effect fires and brightly-coloured porcelain ornaments, plus Coulson’s sickly bedtime poem on the pillow and even more sickly Icky Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.
Dear old Sharrow Bay lives on, in a watered-down way. In 2003 a maverick called Andrew Davis bought it, adding it to a clutch of other traditional hotels until his Von Essen group went spectacularly bust. I had ruffled his feathers by likening him, in my Hotel Guru column in the Sunday Telegraph, to a sparrowhawk in the way his company gobbled up independent hotels, and was summoned to Battersea Heliport, which he then owned, for a “show round” of his south of England properties.
“You’re right I am a sparrowhawk”, he told me, warming to the description while peering through the window of his helicopter over Gloucestershire. “Pilot, what’s that estate down there? Sparrowhawk wants it. Sparrowhawk will buy it in the morning.”
The Hotel Davis was circling was the Elizabethan Gravetye Manor (below), which had been in the loving care of owner Peter Herbert from 1958 to 2004 but was on the brink of collapse. Davis stalked his prey, which would have been the jewel in the Von Essen collection, but at the last minute, longstanding guest Jeremy Hosking, who is also the benefactor of this publication, bought it.
Few country houses retain their spirit when they are sold; Gravetye, happily, has done. Hosking and his wife Elizabeth have kept its integrity intact while beautifully renovating and subtly modernising. The unhurried calm, polite but chatty staff, profusion of naturally arranged flowers, smell of linseed oil and wood smoke from the great open hearths are all still there. The famous William Robinson gardens have been restored to their former glory and a wall of glass in the dining room makes the most of them.
I can think of few similar establishments. Right up there is Georgian, apricot-washed Langar Hall in the Vale of Belvoir, family home of the irrepressible Imogen Skirving, who died in 2016 but lives on in the terrific portrait that graces the pillared hall, and in her granddaughter Lila, who took her place aged just 22 and continues to ensure that nothing, including the gently boho feel, has changed.
Then there is Hambleton Hall, overlooking Rutland Water, as enveloping as the day its owners, Tim and Stefa Hart, first welcomed guests 40 years ago. It offers sophisticated yet deeply comfortable classic English interiors, the locally sourced cooking of Aaron Patterson (the hotel has held a Michelin star for a record 35 years) and a joyous wine list. There’s a swimming pool, tennis court, kitchen garden and views that catch the breath. “We don’t have a spa,” says Tim. “A cup of tea in the garden is our spa”.
At Hambleton Hall, loyal key staff have notched up more than 200 years of continual service between them, and here lies the reason that most other country house hotels have lost their way and their raison d’être: when their original owners retired, died or gave up through exhaustion, they sold to those groups, chains and millionaires and the their soul and character dissipated in a plethora of spas, wedding fairs and teddy bears for sale in reception. The reliance in the hospitality industry on peripatetic staff, mostly from abroad, has also affected the rhythm, depth and continuity of country house hotels. But here there are signs of hope. The fear of losing cheap foreign labour after Brexit has made hoteliers across the country pay more attention to recruiting home-grown staff, properly paid, and tempting them to stay.
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