There’s something intrinsically British about taking a sojourn in the countryside and there’s no better place to explore it than from one of the UK’s sumptuous country house hotels. The perfect country retreat for the modern day traveller strikes just the right balance between opulence and cosiness with a nod towards urbane hipness. Here are my top ten.
COWORTH PARK, Ascot
Offering a ramped-up version of rural living, the Dorchester’s country outpost, Coworth Park, is the perfect spot for urbanites not wanting to stray too far from city life. Just 30 minutes outside of London, the utterly glamourous hotel, carved from a 17th century mansion, is set in a 240-acre estate on the edge of Windsor Great Park. From the outside, wildflower meadows and manicured croquet lawns co-exist to set the quintessential English scene. Meanwhile, inside, the design by Martin Hulbert gives a distinctly knowing nod towards the sophisticated crowd that decamp here: there are quirky photographs by Julian Wokenstein in the bar, an oversized bronze chandelier by Dernier and Hamlyn in the lobby and Mitchell and Peach products next to free-standing copper tubs in the bathrooms. For a true taste of Georgian living with all the 21st century updates you’d require then check into one of the 70 mansion rooms (rooms may have four-poster beds but there’s also WiFi, Bang + Olufsen TVs, underfloor heating). There are also converted stables and cottages in the grounds, perfect for horsey types pulled here by the equestrian centre and on-site polo fields. The real draw at Coworth Park though is the stand-alone eco-luxury spa. Take a dip in the heated outdoor pool with its underwater music. Wonderfully refreshing.
01344 876600; www.coworth park.com
GILPIN HOTEL AND LAKE HOUSE, Windermere, Lake District
For a tranquil escape to one of the UK’s most scenic spots, then head to the family-run Gilpin Hotel and Lake House on the banks of Knipe Tarn in the Lake District. With its roaring fires and cosy nooks and crannies, this stylish country house has all the vibe of the countryside but none of the stuffiness. The main Gilpin Hotel has elegant, modern interiors, think hand-painted wallpapers and lacquered furniture, and six of its 20 suites boast their own private gardens and hot tubs. Those that really want to get away from it all should decamp to the delightful six-suite Lake House, the sister property just one mile away. Here you’ll find the new, secluded Jetty Spa. Its two cosy treatment rooms, with stunning views over the private lake, can be transformed into a romantic hideout for couples. You can indulge in aromatherapy treatments beside an open fire, take a private swim in the indoor heated pool, chill out in the salt snug and have a glass of bubbly in the Boat House before being chauffeured back to the hotel for dinner. It’s a charmed version of countryside living.
01539 488818; www.thegilpin.co.uk
BELMOND LE MANOIR AUX QUAT’SAISONS, Oxford
There’s no better time than now to be checking into Raymond Blanc’s stellar 15th-century manor house. Celebrating its 30th anniversary the hotel has planned a non-stop roster of culinary events, from wild mushroom hunts to themed tasting dinners, until the end of the year. The ultimate foodie retreat, Le Manoir is renowned for its Menu Découverte, an exceptional nine-course tasting menu, and is one of the few restaurants in the world that has retained two Michelin stars for 29 years. Much of the produce here is sourced from the two-acre kitchen garden with Raymond Blanc long being a champion of the organic movement. While you’ll undoubtedly be wowed by the food on offer, you’ll also be just as seduced by your surroundings. The extensive grounds include a Japanese tea garden, a wild flower meadow and an apple orchard. Inside, the 32 rooms and suites have been individually designed to offer a choice of characterful space to rest your head. Our favourite is the Blanc de Blanc superior suite – a cavernous all-white space with hand-carved furniture, crystal chandeliers and the finest white linens.
01844 278881; www.manoir.com
LIME WOOD, New Forest, Hampshire
When Lime Wood opened in the New Forest in 2009, travel insiders went into a frenzy singing the praises of its David Collins’ designed interiors, its locally-sourced and foraged food and its cooler than cool approach to hospitality. Five years on and Lime Wood’s star is still shining brightly. This is one of the UK’s best examples of a modern-day country house hotel. From the lushest organic beauty brands to the most switched-on chefs, Lime Wood’s knack is to pull together the most relevant British names on the hotel scene, thus creating a true ‘of the moment’ buzz. The Main House offers sleek and sumptuous rooms with flashes of bold colour, provocative artwork and youthful design touches. There’s the newly revamped Hartnett, Holder & Co restaurant, which sees chef Angela Hartnett team up with executive chef Luke Holder to offer a relaxed but upscale ‘fun dining not fine dining’ approach. The Herb House spa also reflects this innovative approach with yoga classes in the rooftop herb garden and signature Voya seaweed wraps. Meanwhile, the new rustic Forest Cottages and Forest Cabin offer a luxe Hansel and Gretel sensibility and are the sweetest places to escape.
023 8028 7177, www.limewood.co.uk
BOVEY CASTLE, Devon
If countryside living evokes aspirations of wafting around as if you were on the set of Downton Abbey, then you’ll undoubtedly fall under the spell of Bovey Castle. A former stately home in the scenic Dartmoor National Park, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything grander. Thankfully this doesn’t mean that it’s a hotel hideously out of date – far from it. It has married the best of its past with all the little luxuries you’d expect to find in a 21st century five-star hotel. While many of its splendid original features remain, including the oak-paneled Cathedral Room, you’ll also find, for instance, a modern, flagship Sundari spa. The Art-Deco dining room, with walls covered in hand-painted Chinoiserie wallpaper, serves contemporary British classics and the rambling grounds gives way to a pristine, 18-hole championship golf course. Afternoon tea is offered in genteel surrounds (and is a must) but so is a huge choice of outdoor pursuits– from crolf (a combination of croquet and golf) to rock climbing. With its high ornate ceilings, vast fireplaces and lush carpets, Bovey Castle is an opulent, cocooning kind of place – perfect now as it was when it was built at the turn of the century. 0844 474 0077; www.boveycastle.com
LUCKNAM PARK, Wiltshire
Set in a breathtakingly pretty 500-acre estate, Lucknam Park near Bath will have you sold before you even set foot through its Palladian entrance. The grounds offer a sensory overload with garden upon garden to be explored, exquisite archways to peak through to yet another lavender-filled idyll, ponds, lakes and scented corners to stumble across. The on-site equestrian centre offers horseback tours, although just ambling around is the best way to discover the charm of the place. Enter the house, and the serenity continues. The original 17th century mansion has been updated without compromising the period feel and features. Rooms are huge with slick, contemporary bathrooms and a classic yet chic design scheme. Surprisingly perhaps, Lucknam Park’s jewel in the crown is its state-of the art spa, located in the stable block. Highlights include the 20-metre indoor pool, the Japanese salt steam room and the new Well-Being House, which offers targeted solutions to modern-day problems through its sunlight therapy, sleep clinic and nutrition workshops. 01225 742777; www.lucknampark.co.uk
LUTON HOO, Bedfordshire
Step into the lavish hotel that is Luton Hoo, the ultimate country pile just an hour’s drive from London, and it may all feel oddly familiar. Don’t be surprised. Historic eye-candy for many a blockbuster movie, youmay well have seen the sweeping marble staircase and grounds designed by Capability Brown before, as Luton Hoo has been the backdrop to films such as Eyes Wide Shut, Enigma, Quills and Four Weddings and a Funeral. In fact, there’s a whole book in the hotel’s grand reception detailing the many films shot here over the years. As well as its celluloid fame, Luton Hoo is also steeped in history. Originally built in 1760 and modeled in part on The Ritz, this is where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh honeymooned and where Edward VIII proposed to Wallis Simpson. From the hotel’s spectacular dining room, and exquisite food, to the formal gardens that transport you back to a bygone era, Luton Hoo oozes a timelessness style, which has an eternal appeal to the modern-day guest.
01582 734437; www.lutonhoo.co.uk
DORMY HOUSE, Cotswolds
Having only opened last year, Dormy House is the newest addition on the UK’s country hotel scene. The traditional 17th century farmhouse was revamped by London interior designers Todhunter Earle who gave it a pared-back Scandi-cool feel. Inglenook fireplaces, Jacobean wood paneling and original flagstone flooring have remained but are now uplifted with statement mirrors, stripped beams and pretty wallpapers. Based on the 400-acre Farncombe Estate, the bedrooms have heavenly views over the countryside beyond and are wonderfully cosy retreats. Two restaurants The Potting Shed and The Garden offer exceptional, locally-sourced fare while other well-thought out details include a tablet in each room, hampers that can be made up for countryside walks and a secret Japanese garden (remember to ask for the key). Guaranteed to keep the well-heeled guests coming back for more is the just-opened House Spa. Dedicated spa bedrooms, an infinity pool, lavender sauna and thermal suite are just a few of the highlights.
01386 852711; www.dormyhouse.co.uk
When Gleneagles first opened its doors in 1924, it described itself as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. These days any hotel would be hard-pressed to live up to such a marketing claim, but as it prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary this year, Gleneagles can be sure that it has remained steadfastly loyal to its luxury ethos. Home to three championship golf courses (it will also host the 40th Ryder Cup in September), Gleneagles is just as well-known for its beautiful Perthshire setting as it is for the many attractions it has that keep the guests, including many of the world’s presidents, A-listers and royals, coming back. Its Andrew Fairlie restaurant is Scotland’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant, for instance, while the destination Gleneagles Spa by ESPA has a jaw-dropping 20 treatment rooms, a 20-metre swimming pool and a treatment menu big enough to calm even the most stressed-out executive. At 232 bedrooms, Gleneagles is also vast. It even has its own shopping arcade and extensive grounds offering all manner of outdoor pursuits (from off-road driving, falconry and tennis). While this is as swanky as it gets, the rooms are refreshingly understated with a nod to its Art Deco past and service is friendly rather than formal. For the true Gleneagles experience, check in and check out the new ‘Perfect Pour’ whisky package in which you can create your own blend of whisky. Heady stuff.
0800 704 705; www.gleneagles.com
BABINGTON HOUSE, Somerset
Regarded as the UK’s first truly hip country house hotel, Babington House was opened by Nick Jones, of Soho House fame, in 1998 and is credited for converting countryside chintz into countryside cool. Its picturesque setting is appealing, but at Babington House it’s the interiors of this Georgian mansion and its accompanying suaveness that hold your attraction. Whether you stay in the Main House, the Stable Block or The Lodge, designer Susie Atkinson has given bedrooms a unique stamp with her eclectic eye – each room is different yet equally stylish and all boast their own USP – from a tub on a private terrace to a huge, oversized bed. Local craftsmanship is showcased wherever possible and mixed in with vintage lamps and vases and classics, such as Roberts radios. Meanwhile, art works by Tracey Emin and David Salle hang in the turquoise and pink bar, and fulfilling Jones’ ‘whatever you want, whenever you want it’ ethos is an open-all-hours Deli Bar, a straight-out-of Miami infinity pool, library and cinema. The Cowshed Spa has become an iconic destination in itself, spawning its own range of beauty goodies and glorious after a day roaming about in your Hunters. But it’s the bar that sets the scene. Excellent cocktails, flattering mirrors and an alluring crowd gives the feeling that you could be in the middle of Soho, until you glance out over the Victorian walled garden, that is. And that is the secret to the most fabulous countryside retreat.
01373 812266; www.babingtonhouse.co.uk
This article also appears in this month’s issue of The Mayfair Magazine