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English Country-House Hotels

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Photo: Simon Watson

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The English may or may not have invented the countryside, but they damn well near perfected it. When we imagine some bright-green Arcadian idyll, this, so often, is the landscape we picture: the sylvan expanses of the New Forest; the regal horse-riding parks of Berkshire; the sheep-dotted nooks and crannies of the Cotswolds. We picture fuzzy-grass meadows tangled with wildflowers; weekend markets exploding with plums and black currants; hillsides as wrinkly as a shar-pei’s face. We imagine creaky-floored taverns redolent of peat smoke; pale sunlight streaming through casement windows; ruddy-faced men lunching on stargazy pie and treacle tart. (Like the land itself, English menus are both familiar and strange.) And come evening, when the horses and men are all in for the night, we picture ourselves by a hissing fire, in the oak-trimmed parlor of a country-house hotel.

The latter actually was an English innovation, advanced in the mid 20th century at grand old piles like Gidleigh Park and Sharrow Bay, where the term was purportedly invented (along with, legend has it, sticky toffee pudding). Most country-house hotels were private estates that their owners converted and managed themselves, negotiating a balance between opulence and what the British call “homeliness.” They catered to city dwellers out to reclaim country-gentlemanly pursuits: walking, riding, hunting, fishing, billiards, and the requisite glass of fizz before a Sunday roast. For decades they got on just fine.

By millennium’s end, the bloom was off the rose-patterned bedspreads. Country-house hotel had become associated with squeaky beds and taps, wonky tech, and cloche-bearing footmen dishing up overcooked sirloin. While London (and its hotels) became ever cooler, nattier, and more cosmopolitan, the old rural retreats struggled to keep up. No chic young Londoner would stay in such a place without her tongue in her cheek (and perhaps a firm pillow from home smuggled in her suitcase).

But a curious thing happened on the way to the ash heap. Over the past decade or so, the country-house hotel has unexpectedly reinvented itself. An early harbinger came in 1998, with the opening of Babington House, an outpost of London’s Soho House in rural Somerset. Its success showed that the cool kids, too, could play lord of the manor, and that country retreat didn’t mean forgoing city sophistication. More upstarts followed. So began the second wave of the English country-house hotel.

What’s changed? The new breed has raised the style quotient, spruced up the mod cons, and learned to embrace chill as a verb. They’ve filled their country piles with emblems of urban(e) living—sans-serif fonts; quick-fill tubs—along with a measure of irony. Where once hung a tasseled do not disturb sign is now a placard reading kindly go away. Constable oils have given way to Tracey Emin canvases; horse-and-beagle prints to lithographs of Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. Once your neighbors were periwinkle-haired pensioners, and now…hey, look, it’s Jarvis Cocker himself.

But this isn’t just Shoreditch with wellies. The best hotels convey a profound sense of place, embracing the singular charms of the English countryside. In Hampshire, Berkshire, and Gloucestershire, I checked in on four standouts.

Lime Wood

Eighty miles southwest of London, just inland from the marshy Hampshire coast, the New Forest was created in 1079 by William the Conqueror, who used it as his private hunting ground. With its 500-year-old oaks, dense wealds, and shaggy-haired wild ponies, this mostly primeval woodland must look quite the same as in William’s day, but for the occasional convoy of mountain bikes.

At the Forest’s green heart stands Lime Wood, a 29-bedroom hotel that opened, after a $50 million investment, in 2009. (Key collaborator: Robin Hutson, cofounder of the pioneering Hotel du Vin brand, and erstwhile chairman of the Soho House Group.) Interiors are by David Collins, designer of Claridge’s Bar and the Wolseley in London. For the main building, Collins has enlivened a stolid Regency manor house—all pale ash and limestone—with colorful accents and contemporary finishes. Raw-silk wall coverings change hue from lavender to cornflower blue as daylight shifts. French chairs upholstered in moss-green velvet sidle up to sleek 1960’s-style end tables. A fireplace framed in delft tile harks back to an earlier age, while provocative artwork from London’s Carl Freedman Gallery brings us up-to-date. In the airy central atrium, olive trees grow beside the glittering bar and sunlight pours through a retractable glass roof. Throughout the hotel, playful touches (like the boys and girls signs on the lobby bathroom doors) underscore that Lime Wood has been calibrated for a more youthful—if not necessarily younger—clientele.

They’ll certainly like the Nespresso machines in the guest rooms, the yoga DVD’s in the amenity kit, and the full-size bottles of Bamford eucalyptus-and-geranium bath products. (Hoarders, rejoice!) Rooms themselves are comparatively simple, designed for comfort as much as for show: whitewashed walls, soothing accents of driftwood and greige, and bead-board paneling channel breezy beach house more than grand country manor. Each evening while we were at dinner, our butler would build a fire in our woodstove; all we had to do upon returning was strike a match.

Lime Wood’s restaurant was thoroughly revamped this past February, with fabulous results. The renamed Hartnett Holder & Co. finds the great Angela Hartnett (of London’s Michelin-starred Murano) teaming with Lime Wood executive chef Luke Holder. I’d dined at the original restaurant two years ago; elegant as it was, the room was too stiff and formal, with synchronized service and everyone whispering. Smart move, then, to rip up the carpet, install a bar in the middle of the dining room, and put in bare wooden tables and tufted settees you’re inclined to curl up on. The room is now roaring day and night with both guests and locals, and everyone feels at home, from the burly guys in rugby shirts polishing off marrowbones to the dowagers in pearl-buttoned cardigans on their third round of Pimm’s Cups.

Matching Hartnett’s bold-flavored Italian inflections to Holder’s locavore devotion was another wise choice. Charcuterie—vermouth-cured chorizo; spicy coppa; silky prosciutto—comes from Holder’s own curing room and smokehouse, just downhill beside a pond full of ducks. Speaking of which, a starter of roasted duck hearts, served on sautéed greens with crisp lardons and a velvety soft-cooked duck egg, tapped into something primal. And the spaghetti with lobster is on a whole other level of good: tangles of toothsome pasta, swathed in a chile-flecked tomato sauce and studded with nuggets of sweet briny lobster from the nearby Isle of Wight. Delivered in a copper pan and plated onto butterfly-patterned Portmeirion china, it was the best dish I had in the countryside.

Outside are manicured lawns and reflecting pools, swings dangling from oak trees, some decidedly wacky lawn sculptures, and a pair of tricycles tricked out like vintage Vespas. (Families will do well here.) You can borrow wellies from the mudroom—they come in all sizes and patterns, from hunter green to pink polka-dot—and ramble through the New Forest in search of ponies, or scour the estate for morels and nettles with Lime Wood’s “forager-in-residence.”

Then again, you could just check in to the spa and never leave. The Herb House offers some exceptional scrubs and massages using ingredients from its rooftop garden. Raw & Cured, the spa’s breezy café, had not only the expected smoothies and wheatgrass shots but a leg of prosciutto proudly displayed on the counter. (My kind of wellness.) Best of all, the slate-lined swimming pool, steam room, and sauna all have floor-to-ceiling windows onto the surrounding forest, so you never forget where you are. On a cool and drizzly spring morning, nothing could be cozier than a long soak while watching the rain fall through a dripping canopy of green.

Coworth Park

Crunch up the gravel drive, past the swans with their cygnets and the newborn hares bounding across the lawn. Wildflowers bloom in the adjacent meadow, where the grass grows knee-high, in contrast to the tightly trimmed croquet lawn. A crisp white Georgian façade soon comes into view. Pull around to the porte cochère, where you’re greeted by a doorman looking every inch the country valet—natty brown tweed; ruddy pink cheeks—except he’s also wearing a glowing Bluetooth earpiece. Welcome to Coworth Park.

The Rolls-Royce dealership you passed a few miles back might’ve given it away: this is the country without the “try,” only the “succeed.” Set in the posh, pony-speckled environs of Ascot, Berkshire, 45 minutes from central London, Coworth Park is part of the Dorchester Collection—the sultan of Brunei’s hotel fiefdom—and is by far the glitziest of the new breed. This is certainly England’s only hotel with its own helipad and high-goal polo fields. (William and Harry have both played here.) There’s a harpist in the tea lounge. Room keys are shaped like caviar spoons.

Coworth opened in 2010, with 30 rooms in the main Mansion House and another 40 in nearby outbuildings, including a row of converted stables. The interiors, by Fox Linton Associates, skew equal parts city and country: our second-floor room in the main house was outfitted with some corporate-looking glass-topped coffee tables, a massive flat-screen TV over the hearth, and sleek curved-glass fire screens by Sägi. Nothing folksy about it. One might easily—and quite happily—believe he was ensconced at the Dorchester, with Hyde Park outside those tall Georgian windows. But no: they offer a commanding vantage over Coworth’s expansive lawns and tidy walled gardens, stretching far into the distance. In the bathroom, a regal-looking, copper-clad soaking tub enjoyed the same grand view. There were whimsical elements as well, including spindly bedposts evoking tree branches. Perched on a reading rack above the tub was The Book of Idle Pleasures, a charming little tome with chapters on napping, cloud-watching, and lying in hammocks.

Alas, idle pleasures were far from mind for some of our fellow guests. Proximity to London means that many of the hotel’s midweek clients are businessmen here for meetings or corporate retreats. Fortunately, my wife and I were not so encumbered, and had 240 acres of grounds on which to roam. Down a pretty allée of lime trees runs a path to the polo fields, which see 10 matches a week in-season (April to September). In another direction sits Coworth’s sprawling equestrian center, which boards up to 20 horses. On two handsome Irish Draught horses we spent the day riding (or “hacking,” in the British parlance) past ponds and over stone bridges, across rippling meadows and through bee-buzzing woodlands. In one corner of the estate we passed the hotel’s “underground energy center,” where a biomass heating plant burns sustainably grown willow for fuel. (Does your country hotel do that?)

With knees wobbly and backs slightly sore, we ended back at the clubby Drawing Room lounge off the lobby. We were greeted by two bartenders who were up for a cocktail-making challenge. Playing off our tastes for elderflower and black currant, they improvised some fantastic gin coolers. We took them out on the terrace and watched the sun set, savoring the grass-scented breeze and, not least, the silence.

Barnsley House

The success of Coworth Park and Lime Wood has inspired some more-established country-house hotels to refresh their acts. One of the originals of the second wave, the decade-old Barnsley House, was bought by new owners in 2009. The next year saw an upgrade of the guest rooms and common areas; last year the restaurant was reconceived as well. Today it’s once again the most stylish and of-the-moment hotel in the Cotswolds. (There’s even a 30-seat screening room.)

The Cotswolds, of course, are one of England’s ur-landscapes, with undulating hills, hedge-rimmed sheep meadows, and Saxon-era stone villages. Into this tranquil Elysium has come an armada of cornpone shoppes selling scented candles and things-decorated-with-cats. But the area is still worth visiting for its enduring natural beauty—and Barnsley House makes a fine refuge from encroaching twee-ness.

Barnsley’s last resident was the landscape designer Rosemary Verey, whose four acres of Arts and Crafts–style gardens are legendary. After Verey passed away in 2001, the estate was converted into an 18-room hotel. Those gardens remain Barnsley’s crowning glory, highlighted by ornate Celtic-knot topiary, a lily-pond-fronted temple, vegetable and herb gardens, and some resplendent weeping cherry trees. Stroll down twisting paths to Barnsley’s excellent spa, where a shroud of steam hangs over the outdoor hydrotherapy pool. If elves took the waters, this is where they’d do so.

The main house, built of locally quarried Cotswold stone, dates back to 1697. Lest its grand façade give you a case of the stiff-backs, there’s now a folksy wooden farmer’s cart parked beside the entrance and piled with fresh-picked flowers and greens. Relax, it seems to say. You’re in the Cotswolds.

The line on Barnsley’s previous incarnation was that it was perhaps too modern and citified for its locale—a familiar complaint about those early second-wave hotels. The redesign has wisely softened the edges, bringing the contemporary elements into check for a more traditional and timeless look.

The best rooms are scattered across two upper stories of the main house, down a labyrinth of creaky-floored hallways. Room 1, the standout, is a light-flooded study in milky whites and mushroom grays, with a cloudlike four-poster bed, a generous sitting area, and an enormous bathroom outfitted with a two-headed stall shower and his-and-hers tubs. Mullioned windows provide three exposures over the gardens; cozy window-seat nooks might as well come with a Nick Drake soundtrack.

Last year, as at Lime Wood, Barnsley’s Potager restaurant got a well-considered make-under, bringing the food and the room back to the earth, in both senses. Out with the linens and silver-rimmed chargers, in with knotty-pine tabletops and rattan trivets! Out with servers’ neckties, in with louchely open-collared shirts! Our waiter was a gregarious Hungarian who took particular joy in deboning the Dover sole tableside. “Look!” he said, presenting the immaculate skeleton. “Just like Top Cat!” (Yes, the Hungarian server made a Top Cat joke.) The sole was sublime. One thing that hasn’t changed since day one: the Potager’s signature dish, vincisgrassi, a tomato-less lasagna that’s a specialty of Italy’s Marche region, made with Parma ham, truffles, porcini mushrooms, and an insanely rich béchamel. It’s not the least bit English, but it’s as deeply satisfying as ever.

The Pig

Just five miles down the road from Lime Wood is its more casual and affordable sister property, the Pig, which occupies a rambling Georgian hunting lodge flanked by gardens and working farmland. An immediate hit upon opening in 2011, it quickly spawned a sequel, the Pig in the Wall, in nearby Southampton. Two more will soon join the fold: the Pig near Bath, arriving guess-where this December; and the Pig on the Beach, set to open next spring on the Dorset coast.

Sourcing most of its food from right on the property, the Pig functions as a less hands-on agriturismo—a fantasia of the Dirty Life for would-be back-to-the-landers. (Your bedside reading: vintage clothbound volumes on hen-keeping and homegrown vegetables.) Guests can tour the gardens, picking bog myrtle and cavolo nero, or visit the farm’s rare-breed hogs and chickens. The agrarian motif extends to the shabby-chic main house, where galvanized watering cans and antique farming tools are displayed on burnished antique tabletops. If Lime Wood is a pair of polished Hunter wellies, and Coworth Park a scuff-free pair of Lobb riding boots, then the Pig is an earth-caked pair of Carhartts.

There lies the hitch. While Lime Wood is a full-service hotel, with countless staff attending to every detail, the Pig is more of a self-service inn. You park your own car (even, as I discovered, in a torrential downpour); find your own way to reception; and schlep your own bags. I suppose I could’ve requested help, but I just couldn’t ask the teenage night clerk to carry her weight in luggage up two flights of stairs.

This is probably fine with the Pig’s target demo, which tends to skew younger (and presumably fitter) than the typical country-house clientele. Indeed, at first glance the Pig seems a bastion of hipsterdom: the wumpathump music; the weekenders in from Bermondsey; the waitresses in oxfords, skinny ties, and Chuck Taylors. (They look like they’re starring in a high-school production of a play about an inn.) But the Pig also draws plenty of older folk from the area, who treat its convivial bar as their local. This makes for a refreshing, if sometimes comical, intersection of cultures. Witness the coiffed septuagenarian flirting with her silver-fox date while Kanye West sings “Let’s have a toast for the douche bags!” on the stereo.

As you’d expect from a place that bills its trade as “Rooms & Kitchen Garden Food,” the guest quarters are secondary—comfortable enough, but nothing too special. After a room change we wound up in the Pig Hut, 100 yards from the main house in the erstwhile stable yard. There were dust bunnies in the rafters, peeling paint on the steam radiators, and, for some reason, no washcloths in the bathroom. On the plus side: a Lefroy Brooks rain-shower head and a pleasingly firm bed. We slept extremely well, waking only at sunrise to the clucking of hens outside our window.

And what of the food? The Pig justly plays up its “25-Mile Menu,” sourcing whatever isn’t grown on site from local purveyors, farms, and fisheries. Those enviable ingredients—oysters; pheasant; New Forest venison—are a fine starting point, but the execution is uneven; best to stick to simple dishes such as pork cracklings with applesauce or Dorset snails in garlic-parsley butter.

But damn, those breakfasts—I could’ve eaten three a day. Each morning two long farm tables are laid with a Sunday brunch’s worth of house-made treats: prune and pear compotes, berry preserves, billowy loaves of country bread, silky yogurts, granola, meats, and raw-milk cheeses, plus a bowlful of multicolored hen eggs—fresh from our backyard flock—to cook yourself in a suitably old-school egg boiler.

“Can I tempt you with any cooked bits?” asked our waitress, the morning sun glinting off her nose ring. Why yes, we replied, and out came ethereal scrambled eggs with house-smoked salmon and chives from the garden. Through the windows, we watched as a strawberry-blond farmhand in gingham and overalls carried flats of geraniums in from the nursery. You couldn’t have cast her better for a brochure.

There’s a line in the Pig’s actual brochure that reads: “Meals are served in an authentically reproduced Victorian greenhouse dining room, complete with bare-wood tabletops and mismatched bone-handled cutlery.”

I love the “complete with,” as in “complete with Blu-ray players and Frette linens”—as though mismatched cutlery and bare-topped tables were some sort of perk that discerning guests would appreciate, nay demand.

Then again, is that so far-fetched? If we’ve learned one thing from Downton Abbey, it’s that the folks belowstairs are having much more fun than the terse lot up top. Could the current generation be forgiven for choosing to dine at Mrs. Patmore’s table, rather than at the business end of Carson’s tongs? For latter-day aristocrats, good service sounds less like a stentorian “And for sir?” and more like a cheerful “Whaddya fancy, luv?”

So too has gone the country-house hotel, as audiences shift and tastes evolve. What once seemed proper and luxurious now feels to many of us like hard labor, while what used to seem rough and inelegant—a well-worn bench, or a bowl of cook-your-own eggs—feels entirely inviting. This is especially but not only true among younger travelers, who, at places like the Pig, have remade the country house in their image: earthbound, unpretentious, accessible, fun. Tellingly, it’s the Pig brand—not the $50 million Lime Wood—that’s being replicated around the countryside (even at Lime Wood itself, with its newly proletarian restaurant).

Is this, then, the future of the breed? The Pig’s success says a lot about what we might call the “third wave” of English country-house hotels, and about what guests now expect—and don’t expect—from a rural retreat. It turns out that today’s urbanites aren’t in the country for push-button fireplaces, Scandinavian flatware, and other city things—they’re here for the humble-and-homely icons of the pastoral life, muddy boots and all.

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