Not long ago, your average English country-house hotel was just making do, offering the same old formula of roast-beef dinners and overstuffed wing chairs to a fading clientele. After all, most of these hotels date from an era roughly contemporary with Fawlty Towers—when doughty Basils and Sybils began buying up ancestral piles, installing reception desks, and inviting in hoi polloi. During the 1980's the duke-for-a-day experience was a big draw with status-seeking Americans, but when they started to roam farther afield, complacency set in. More recently, a new breed of establishment, including mavericks such as Cowley Manor and Seaham Hall, is ushering in a renaissance in the country-house hotel's appeal. Spurred by these upstarts' success, the savvier old-timers are vying to attract a new generation eager to experience service that's impeccable without being obsequious, and a life devoted to ambling aimlessly around manicured grounds and drinking scotch over a postprandial game of whist. Some of these classic hotels have never stopped striving to stay au courant, while others are getting a shot in the arm from fresh management. Here, four examples that prove sometimes, as with old wines, old friends, and old books, old hotels are better than new ones.
When Chewton Glen opened in 1966 on the edge of an ancient royal hunting ground, a short walk from the Channel coast, it was one of England's first country-house hotels. From the beginning, though, it's had an uphill climb trying to stay on top of the heap. "When I arrived, there were eight bedrooms—and only two bathrooms," says Martin Skan, a distinguished-looking man who owns and runs the hotel with his wife, Brigitte. Martin's first project: six more bathrooms in just six months.
Over the years that followed, the couple has expanded the original house—a rambling Georgian affair with a red-brick façade and tidy green shutters—and in 1990, they opened a spa that was a revelation at the time, with its indoor pool under a trompe l'oeil mural of blue sky. The spa is now twice its original size, thanks to such recent additions as a hydrotherapy pool and moody Molton Browndesigned treatment rooms. The Skans have also finished work on the Poacher, a suite whose design departs from the staid floral curtains and Chippendale chairs in the other guest quarters. Its walls are paneled in grained blond wood; the furniture is covered in tactile fabrics—bouclé, velvet damask, linen weave—in cool shades of celadon and jade.
Perhaps the main reason that Chewton Glen has been so successful is that it has perfected the Jeeves-like ability to sweep you up from the moment of arrival—when you're likely to find a smiling manager and two bellmen in position at the front door—and to deposit you in a bubble, untroubled by anything other than the immediate gratification of whims: glide from the spa to the Michelin-starred restaurant, where deftly cooked classics such as Emmentaler soufflé and Dover sole are laid before you; murmur something about movies, and a woman bearing a list of DVD's appears. Squint, and you might just convince yourself that you actually are master of all you survey. New Milton, Hampshire; 44-1425/275-341; www.chewtonglen.com; doubles from $600.
If this hotel were a soap-opera character, it would be the mousy librarian who inherits a bundle from a wealthy aunt and turns into a decked-out vamp overnight. In the fall of 2003, the boutique-hotel chain Red Carnation bought the 18th-century manor house, which dominates an out-of-the-way Dorset village. Enter Beatrice Tollman, the company's colorful South Africanborn founder, in the role of wealthy (and far from dead) aunt.
On my visit, Tollman met me for tea (a delectable buffet of cakes and homemade scones with clotted cream) on an outdoor patio overlooking the hotel's green lawn. While her dachshund barked at birds and happy families knocked croquet balls about, she showed me photos of Summer Lodge's drab former self and talked with passion about turning the place into a bona fide destination resort. It's clear she's well on her way. She has added seven rooms to the original 17, and every inch of the place has been transformed, at a cost of some $9.5 million.
Summer Lodge wasn't terribly grand to start with: it's a modest white stucco structure whose main claim to distinction is that Thomas Hardy, a trained architect as well as a novelist, designed a drawing-room extension for it. But Tollman has decorated each room with an attention to detail that makes visitors feel as though they were guests in an opulent private mansion. My room had a clubby air, with touches of chinoiserie, heavy curtains, an imposing four-poster bed, and a bedspread embroidered with crewelwork flowers. The new bar is a plush British fantasia of plaid-upholstered chairs and paintings of faithful-looking setters and spaniels.
Fresh contributions to Tollman's country-house ideal spring up all the time. Last fall, a boutique spa with two treatment rooms opened next to the hotel's conservatory pool, and a smashing one-bedroom honeymoon suite recently came to life in an 18th-century cottage. On the whole, Summer Lodge might be a bit flashy, but—as with the soap-opera vamp—you can't help watching to see what happens next. Evershot, Dorset; 44-1935/482-000; www.summerlodgehotel.com; doubles from $353.
You could hardly get further from the chrome-andwenge wood minimalism of many contemporary hotels than the Lygon Arms (pronounced "liggin"). A tidy stone edifice that anchors the main street of the Cotswolds village of Broadway, it has one of the most illustrious histories of any hostelry in England—tradition has it that King Charles I and, later, his nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, stayed here. Furlong Hotels, the family-run firm that bought the place nearly two years ago, has taken on the task of bringing it into the 21st century.
My great-great-great-grandmother was a Lygon, and I was eager to consider how my ancestors would have viewed Furlong's efforts. I concluded that their reactions would have been mixed. The Lygon today is a somewhat schizophrenic, though charming, blend of ancient and modern. No one would dare suggest that anything should change in the public areas—a maze of small rooms with low, beamed ceilings, where patrons take tea with the daily papers. Most of the guest rooms, too, are arch-traditional in style, but Furlong's major refurbishment of one wing has brought flat screens and futuristic shower fixtures to 19 of the hotel's 69 rooms. Sadly, these additions may have removed too much of the rooms' character: despite what seems like a winning concept—contemporary furniture mixed with a few antique pieces—the results feel a little cold and provisional.
What has truly made the Lygon into a destination once again is the hiring of one of the U.K.'s best-known chefs, Martin Blunos. Lured to the Lygon last year, he has brought whimsy to dining in the hotel's baronial Great Hall (his pre-dessert is a replica of a soft-boiled egg that turns out to be vanilla cream with a mango purée center). The Lygon Room, formerly the Great Hall's Siberia, has been turned into a candlelit space where a handful of couples can indulge in the chef's classic-French-meets-Eastern-European comfort food.
Blunos's efforts recently earned the hotel a Michelin star; however, there's still work to be done, especially on the spa. Its slightly institutional dressing rooms and so-so facilities fail to measure up to spas at other top-rung British hotels. But for now, Furlong's plan is to focus on simply enhancing the Lygon's time-tested appeal: cherishing the building while introducing great service. I feel sure the Lygons would have agreed with that. Broadway, Worcestershire; 44-1386/852-255; www.thelygonarms.co.uk; doubles from $460.
A collection of ancient stone buildings in the mellow Cotswolds, Calcot Manor originally began as a farm, constructed by Cistercian monks in the 14th century. After the Ball family bought the property in 1984 and turned it into a seven-bedroom hotel, it went on leading a quiet, rural life. All the time, though, the Balls were working to keep Calcot relevant, converting barns and other outbuildings into guest rooms (there are now 30) and creating a formal restaurant that held a Michelin star from 1986 to 1993.
During the past two years, the hotel has taken big leaps forward with the opening of a 17,000-square-foot spa (try a spell in a flotation bed followed by a massage on a heated mosaic hammam table) and an indoor recreation area for kids that has PlayStations and a mini cinema. After a recent rethink, Calcot's Conservatory restaurant is also making a strong comeback. The food is simpler and more Mediterranean-inflected, focusing on quality produce (fruits and vegetables often come from the Prince of Wales's nearby organic gardens), and dishes (such as roasted veal chop with rösti potatoes and porcini mushrooms) are cooked in a wood-burning oven.
Despite all the changes afoot, Calcot Manor never seems to be trying too hard. Sipping a cappuccino while rockabilly music played on the stereo, I could have been in the Rockies, far from these gently rolling hills and the jacket-and-tie mentality that has sunk lesser English establishments. "When people come here, they don't want to be steeped in the grandeur of the place," says managing director Richard Ball, who stayed on even after his family sold the property in 1992. "They just want to take their ties off, put their slippers on, and throw themselves into a weekend of relaxation." And considering it was a place founded by monks, Calcot certainly knows how to soothe the soul. Near Tetbury, Gloucestershire; 44-1666/890-391; www.calcotmanor.co.uk; doubles from $385.
SUSAN WELSH is the London correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
THE SCENE Well-to-do English and American couples of a certain age
GREAT BASE FOR Spotting the ponies that roam freely in the New Forest, and walks along the coast
FAIR WARNING Breakfast for two is not included in the room price and will set you back at least $76
DON'T MISS Lolling beneath fiber-optic stars in the spa's huge new hydrotherapy pool
BEST ROOMS The more modern ones, like the Poacher suite
THE SCENE Tweedy couples who've been coming here every year since their honeymoon
GREAT BASE FOR Visiting Stratford-upon-Avon
FAIR WARNING Service can be inconsistent
DON'T MISS The kippers at breakfast
BEST ROOM The Great Chamber, with its 17th-century four-poster bed
THE SCENE Families and weekending executives
GREAT BASE FOR Exploring Tetbury and Malmesbury
FAIR WARNING Toddlers may be on the premises
DON'T MISS A dip in the outdoor hot tub
BEST ROOM The Deluxe Family Suite, with private garden
THE SCENE Average-joe English couples floored by such luxury in dreamy Dorset, and high-rolling foreigners who expect a lot and get it
GREAT BASE FOR Just hanging out, perhaps on your way to Bath, 50 miles away
FAIR WARNING The smell of the Penhaligon's toiletries tends to be pervasive
DON'T MISS The wine dinners organized by the hotel's champion sommelier, Eric Zwiebel
BEST ROOMS Those in the main house with working fireplaces