If a new wave of country hotels is anything to go by, these are shaky times in England for cabbage-rose chintz. Neither is the outlook very bright for overstuffed upholstery, bouillon fringe, frills, or furbelows. Take that, Nancy Lancaster.
It was bound to happen. Throughout the nineties, marquee places like the Hempel and St. Martins Lane redrew the London hotelscape by being aggressively literate in contemporary design and vigorously courting a young, restless, style-conscious traveler.
Now the hinterland is rushing to catch up—and well-loved institutions such as Cliveden House and Chewton Glen are watching their backs. Encouraged by the runaway success of Tresanton and Babington House—country properties that were among the first to dare to reject convention—hotels are hanging cheeky modern art instead of tacky fake Gainsboroughs, imposing a blackout on botanical porcelains, zapping guest rooms with electronic gadgetry, and painting walls in colors joyously uncertified by the National Trust.
It's not just traditional decorating that's on holiday. Overcooked roasts and three soggy veg are giving way to mountains of arugula heaped with regulation Parmesan shavings. If you want to put your feet up on the coffee table in the lounge after dinner, no one's going to tell you not to.
And one more thing. Leave your tie—or tiara—at home.
Cowley, the Cotswolds
You know you're in a new-generation English country-house hotel when the young City types next to you at lunch finish their beetroot Tatin, pluck the bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé off the table, and then stride laughing into the bar to finish it. While such laissez-faire behavior is what Cowley Manor is all about, it certainly wouldn't go down very well at Cliveden.
The bar itself is a spoof, with cartoonish papier-mâché sculptures of baboon and gazelle heads posing as hunting trophies. Other indicators that your English grandmother might not be totally comfortable here are the staff (mostly under 30), the staff uniform (T-shirt, sleeveless pullover, corduroy jeans), and the furniture (benchmark pieces by Arne Jacobsen and the Eameses). No antiques, please, we're British.
The ban on old things at Cowley—which has 30 guest rooms and is 12 miles from Cirencester, the capital of the Cotswolds—seems heartless to some because Cowley itself is old and pedigreed: Georgian mirrors and William Kent consoles might have been a no-brainer, they argue, but appropriate. Inspired by Rome's Villa Borghese and begun in the 1850's, the building is largely the work of George Somers Clarke, a student of Sir Charles Barry, who built the Houses of Parliament in London. If the manor's 17 rhyming arched bays don't do anything for you, you're even more blasé than I am. In the late 19th century, it is said, 1,000 trees were planted on the property every day for two years. With woods, cascades, a chain of lakes, a wildflower meadow, and ornamental gardens, Cowley's 55 acres are one of its most seductive attractions. (Just don't venture a walk without Wellingtons, set out in the front hall for guests to borrow.)
No, antiques never had a chance. For as everyone knows, they enforce undesirable comportment, such as sitting up straight and minding your manners. Besides, say Cowley's owners, Jessica Sainsbury and Peter Frankopan, English decorating has moved on from the gilded ideal held by people like the Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Sainsbury is the daughter of former Tory MP Sir Tim and a member of the Sainsbury supermarket dynasty, and Frankopan is a Croatian prince and medieval historian. Both are 33, graduates of Cambridge (where they met), and first-time hoteliers. Wearing a T-shirt espousing a fashionable political cause, and with two-year-old twin daughters hanging off her, Sainsbury hardly looks the part. She might not even read Tatler.
Overseeing a platoon of furniture makers, consultants, and architects (including the popular London firm of De Matos Storey Ryan), Sainsbury created a contemporary atmosphere for people with a fear of contemporary design. With their oeil-de-boeuf windows, cantilevered mezzanine bathrooms, and original ironwork, rooms in the old stables are spectacular enough. But what you really want is one in the manor house, preferably number 17, 18, or 19, all with balconies and views resembling Constable landscapes. Furnishings run to blond four-posters with leather headboards and taut cotton canopies; puckered bedcovers that might have been recycled from a Comme des Garçons collection; and armoires with doors like shoji screens. I've auditioned 137 new-hotel bathrooms in the past 29 months and Cowley's—with their aquamarine glass panels and cleansing Nordic vibe—take the award for best designed.
Now, if they could only work out the chinks in the service. What's the biggest sin a hotel can commit?I nominate closing down the switchboard at 11 p.m., an occurrence Cowley swears was a freak. And there's too much good food in the area for the restaurant to think it doesn't need to work harder. Bringing up the score is the C-Side spa, whose treatments were designed by Michelle Roques-O'Neil of the leading London day spa Pure Alchemy.
Cowley also gets high marks for not making tradition-minded guests feel like aliens. The hotel understood perfectly that I had no interest in pouring, let alone transporting, my own wine.
Chipping Campden, the Cotswolds
When Ian and Christa Taylor took over Cotswold House, there were themed guest rooms (military, colonial, you get the picture), sherry decanters on the nightstands, and cut-crystal bowls of boiled sweets at every elbow. Asking to have breakfast outside the specified hours was akin to asking for an elephant ride down the high street. Management was unyielding. The customer wasn't king; he was a serf.
He's king now. "Stuffy hotels in England are on their way out," says Ian Taylor, who spent nearly $1 million getting the starch out of Cotswold House, adding five stylish private-cottage rooms, recasting the existing ones in a brisk, tailored idiom, and hiring landscape designer Paul Williams to create the most romantic garden this side of Sissinghurst. "The last thing people want to be told at a hotel is that everything is done a certain way and that they must conform," Taylor adds. "If a guest here wants breakfast in his room at noon, he can have it. That might not seem like the most extravagant thing in the world, but in England it can be hard to find."
Built in the 17th century as a private residence, the 20-room hotel is snuggled in that quaintest and most beloved of Cotswold villages, Chipping Campden, 14 miles south of Stratford-upon-Avon. English hoteliers with long-running old-guard properties who feel they must move with the times yet are jittery about completely abandoning their roots need look no further for their blueprint than Cotswold House.
Though, as Taylor says, "the hotel is less about rejecting the old aesthetic than about rejecting the rules," it still looks fresh, sharp, new. And he did it without starting from scratch. Surveying the furniture that came with the place when he bought it, Taylor was relieved to see that not all of it was hopeless. For example, while clunky brass beds were carried away, to be replaced by exaggeratedly high, sueded-cotton headboards silhouetted by chunky nailheads, slipper chairs were retained, their florid shapes cleverly tamed by new coverings in a men's suiting houndstooth. Of course, knowing what to bag and what to keep, and knowing what to add to what you keep, is a talent. By stirring together graph paper-patterned curtains and one-armed chaises in terrylike fabrics (new), and wing chairs and mahogany writing tables (old), Cotswold House erases the line between past and present, between tradition and invention.
Personnel with an engaging, unforced manner and a restaurant that skillfully handles luxury ingredients, including squab and foie gras, make the hotel more than mere eye candy. For cod and chips there's the sleek Hicks' Brasserie-Bar, which replaced a slumbering tearoom next door when Taylor became owner. "The tearoom was very popular with locals, sixty percent of whom are over sixty, so obviously we were worried about losing them," he remembers. "But they're crazy about it. When their grandchildren come to Chipping Campden, they all say, 'You must see our hip new brasserie.' "
Windermere, the Lake District
There was something for every member of the local family that had come to the Samling for Sunday afternoon tea. From the hotel's gentle perch a few hundred yards off the water, Granny admired the humbling and tranquilizing view across Lake Windermere, one of the most famous and beautiful lakes in England. Helplessly chic in an old Jean Muir, Mother inhaled the hybrid tea roses prettying the Samling's brilliantly whitewashed main house; fashioned of traditional Lakeland stone in the late 18th century, the building is notable for its three gables picked out with charming scalloped fretwork, and for being the place where Wordsworth paid his rent on Dove Cottage in neighboring Grasmere. Finally, while the little girl in the party was lost in her third slice of lemon crunch cake, her brother wouldn't rest until he had seen the room occupied just a few days before by sports hero and Posh Spice consort David Beckham, surely the most universally loved man in England since Churchill.
Tea was served with a relaxed, friendly elegance. "That's right, no airs and graces," explains general manager Nigel Parkin. "We don't fall all over our guests. If people want to unload their own cars, we don't fumble around trying to wrestle their luggage from them. For a place like the Samling, it's a new way of thinking."
Indeed. Located 120 miles north of Manchester, the Samling delightedly bills itself as the "un-country house" hotel, one free of "snooty nostalgic stuff." According to Parkin, an executive decision was made not to put trouser presses and coffeemakers in the 10 guest rooms, "because we are determined to look as little like a hotel as possible." Also proudly and pointedly absent are a formal reception and an old-school, bells-and-whistles bar. Instead, the front hall has an antique escritoire whose drop front flips down when it's time to settle up, and the honey-paneled drawing room is furnished with a handsome marble-topped console crowded with drinks paraphernalia.
Drinks themselves are poured into the region's pride, Cumbria crystal, to guests stretched out on aristocratic Knole and proto-squishy sofas, their eyes trained on the latest number of Lakeland Walker or simply dreaming about dinner (the restaurant is one of England's great undiscovered tables). Of course, it's reckless for a hotel to use glasses this swell. But in its heartfelt dedication to domestic niceties, the Samling makes operating outside the law an honorable and luxurious proposition.
The proposition extends to the guest rooms, with the ones in the old stable block faintly redolent of an Aspen ski lodge (don't think "annex"—accommodations here are among the largest). Those in the main building have a more traditional English feel—Tyan is so suffused with blue-and-white throws, cushions, and skirted tables, I imagined myself inhabiting a giant piece of Willoware. A freestanding single-unit cottage has knockout garden and lake views, a lovely conservatory-sitting room, and a beguiling Victorian idea of a shower.
Despite the Samling's new-school ethos, it should be noted that much of the design is more Nina Campbell than Terence Conran. But this in no way represents a disconnect. In fact, it only enhances the allure.
Seaham, the North Sea Coast
If you prize fearlessness, you will have nothing but admiration for Tom Maxfield. The former financial director of a software giant, Maxfield was taking a flying lesson in 1998 when he spotted a down-at-heel estate near Newcastle. Without a clue as to what he might do with it, he bought the place, eventually transforming it into a hotel with two reasons for being: 21st-century design ("Cheerio, chintz," the brochure advises) and one of the most ambitious spas in England.
As hotel ventures go, it would be hard to think of a bigger gamble than Seaham Hall Hotel & Serenity Spa. Not that there is anything unusual these days about spending almost $16 million to mount a 19-room hotel, and another $15 million on a 44,000-square-foot, purpose-built spa. But Seaham, sister property to the Samling, is challenged. Waiting to see if it fails or flies has become a spectator sport. The whole British hotel world is watching.
Seaham's challenges include its architecture and location. The complex is sited on a cold stretch of North Sea coast—not exactly the kind of place Londoners think of as a weekend bolt-hole. Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke, who grew up here, in the drawing room in 1815, but the original building has an institutional feel that recalls its later stint as a sanatorium. And travelers from the United States have yet to put the area on their list of places in England they feel they must see.
"The classic itinerary for visitors from the States to Britain is London, then up to Oxford, then over to the Cotswolds or Bath, then on to York, then up to Edinburgh," says Jason Adams, Seaham's manager. "Since we're on the road from York to Edinburgh, we think we can get Americans to stop here."
He has reason to be hopeful. The spa is a hit on the scale of the facility itself. A series of round, interlocking redwood pavilions with flat and conical roofs, it features a Thai brasserie, a garden of rippling sand and granite spheres, and an exhaustive palette of original treatments. (If you've ever wondered why hotel spas are often so same-y, it's because they're farmed out to big spa-design companies with a set menu of treatments.) Wanting something truly bespoke, Maxfield enlisted his wife, Jocelyn, an international collector of haute spa experiences, to help conceive Seaham's temple to well-being.
Couples who sign up for rasul, a traditional Arab cleansing ritual, smear each other with detoxifying mud in a vaulted mosaic chamber; once dry, the mud is softened by jasmine steam, then washed away by a fine mist drizzled from a starry trompe l'oeil sky. Herbal snail showers have two settings: warm lavender mist and cold mint deluge. Instead of flotation tanks, there are entire flotation rooms. A relaxation lounge has silk-paneled walls and Le Corbusier daybeds. The sound-wave therapy theater is furnished with the electronic massage chairs by Stress & Motivation that every top U.K. footballer has at home.
While the spa is the star at Seaham, the hotel tries hard to keep up (sometimes too hard—my room looked spookily like a Baker Furniture showroom). Dark chocolate wood beds and desks, lamps with stacked-ball bases and dunce-cap shades, and colossal mirrors leaning against, rather than hanging on, walls serve as a résumé of recent design trends. When reserving, insist on one of the rooms in the old sanatorium: they have the most character.
Being the only one among my London circle of friends to have actually stayed at Seaham, I have a message for them: Get over yourselves. The north of England may be off the fashion map, but the hotel's service is a lot more professional than at those nightclubs that pass for hotels in the capital. Seaham's polished restaurant is filled with young locals who look as if they just stepped off the set of a Target ad. And the moody Byron legacy counts for something.
The one inescapable criticism is the climate, but then no one in his right mind goes to Newcastle expecting the Canary Islands. Still, with the right person, even the blustery weather can be kind of sexy.
Say "Nigella" and U.S. foodies go into paroxysms of enthusiasm, though it would be wrong to assume that America's new friendliness toward English kitchen personalities is indiscriminate. Having elevated and disseminated fish cookery in England, Rick Stein is enough of a celebrity at home for his marriage woes to be grist for the London tabloids, and for pilgrims to his restaurants to plead to have their picture taken with him. But the convulsive globalization of food culture has yet to make Stein a star in Sheboygan.
This is true even though he has been at it for 28 years, and even though he has a swollen portfolio of wide-ranging ventures. In the sweet if often overrun Cornish harbor village of Padstow, 49 miles east of Plymouth, Stein owns the Seafood Restaurant, his accomplished flagship serving mostly classic fish and shellfish preparations; a bistro; a café; a serious, spectacularly designed cooking school devoted entirely to seafood; a gift shop selling salmon tweezers and Rick Stein gooseberry jam; a prepared-foods shop where a taste of Stein can be had for as little as $3.50, the price of a haddock, leek, and clotted cream pasty; and four hotels, the newest of which is the six-room St. Edmund's House. Folded into a pair of connected 1860's cottages and with the crisp, fresh-scrubbed interiors of a Hamptons beach house, St. Edmund's is one of the most tonic hotels to open in the British Isles in a decade.
Do Stein's expansionist policies sound familiar?An ocean apart, Stein and Patrick O'Connell—whose Inn at Little Washington is consuming a tiny Virginia town in small bites—seem to be engaged in an omnivorous battle. But whereas O'Connell is often vilified for his voraciousness, Stein is by some accounts not simply tolerated but liked.
"He's not aloof," a taxi driver told me. "You see Rick at the local pub. There are no negative feelings toward him, because most businesses in Padstow profit from the interest he has created in the place. No holidaymakers, no money."
Stein does his own math. If he doesn't keep increasing the number of beds in town, many people will be reduced to day-trippers with time to spend money in some but not all of his outposts. St. Edmund's is his first hotel to flirt with luxury—and the most expensive in his group. As such, it is poised to up the spending power and glamour quotient of visitors to Padstow and put the squeeze on the tearoom trade.
The ground-floor rooms with terraces giving onto a robust, bracingly unsentimental garden overlooking the Camel Estuary are the ones to jockey for at St. Edmund's. Like all of Stein's hotels, it was designed by his estranged wife, Jill, who used nubby rag rugs tossed over sand-colored wood floors, lean four-poster beds in South African cherrywood, and ticking pillow shams whose grommeted flanges are a wink at the sailboats bobbing a couple of hundred yards away. One too many decoys and model boats would have been cloying; sagely, they were deployed with thrift. In the bathrooms, rich black marble is played off humble faux tongue-and-groove paneling to charming effect.
It's a big step up for the Steins, who, until St. Edmund's opened in 2001, were on nobody's list of England's most exciting hoteliers. Their St. Petroc's Hotel is frumpy. Rooms above the Seafood Restaurant are fresher but lack a point of view. And although the Middle Street B&B is perfectly pleasant (and well priced), you wouldn't travel all the way from America just to stay there.
But you just might for a night at St. Edmund's.
Cowley Manor Doubles from $320. Cowley, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; 44-1242/870-900; www.cowleymanor.com
Cotswold House Doubles from $275. The Square, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire; 44-1386/840-330; www.cotswoldhouse.com
The Samling Doubles from $230. Ambleside Rd., Windermere, Cumbria; 44-15394/31922; www.thesamling.com
Seaham Hall Hotel & Serenity Spa Doubles from $310. Lord Byron's Walk, Seaham, Durham; 44-191/516-1400; www.seaham-hall.com
St. Edmund's House Doubles from $345. St. Edmund's Lane, Padstow, Cornwall; 44-1841/532-700; www.rickstein.com
MORE COUNTRY COMFORTS
In the coming months, England's rolling hills will welcome two more country-house hotels.
The Grove (Chandler's Cross, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire; 44-1923/807-807; www.thegrove.co.uk; doubles from $375), the massive 18th-century former home of the Earls of Clarendon, was recently restored under the supervision of the English Heritage, with sensuous interiors by Mary Fox Linton—porcelain chandeliers, lacquered sycamore furniture, Portland stone floors. The mansion's real offerings are best appreciated in numbers: 45,000 trees, 7,170 yards of golf, 350 staff members, 300 acres, 227 rooms, 10 honeybee hives, six World War II air-raid shelters, three restaurants, two lakes, one heliport, and a donkey. • While smaller in scale, Whatley Manor (Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire; 44-1666/822-888; www.whatleymanor.com; doubles from $400), in the Cotswolds, is no less luxurious. The grand, nontraditionally English oak entrance opens onto limestone floors covered in Persian rugs. The 1920's-style landscaping—including a rose garden, an herb garden, and a yew walk—gives way to 23 guest rooms fitted with Bang & Olufsen electronics and Floris amenities; Spa Aquarias, with a wave-dream sensory room; a cinema with Italian leather seats; and two restaurants specializing in classic French cuisine.