Traditional English country-house hotels are trading their stiffness for an increasingly informal vibe.
With its thatched roof and a portico with wooden columns made from actual knobbly tree trunks, the charmingly humble Hex Cottage, on the edge of a forest in Suffolk, would have appealed to Hansel and Gretel.
Inside, the décor is appropriately rustic, with rough-hewn tables and chairs, unpainted plaster walls, brick floors, and a wood-fired range that you have to keep lit if you want to have hot water. When I arrived, I felt beside the door for a light switch, only to realize that there wasn’t one. I fought a moment of panic when I realized there would also be no power supply for my laptop or cell phone.
Welcome to the new breed of English country-house hotel. In the 1980s, both Britain and the U.S. fell hard for the rural-aristocratic look, following the successes of Brideshead Revisited on television and the “Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In response, owners of traditional English estates—many of which, like the fictional one in Downton Abbey, had been battered by history—began restoring their properties to their former splendor and opening them to guests.
That trend has shown no sign of subsiding in the decades since, but properties like Hex Cottage—part of Wilderness Reserve, a collection of cottages, farmhouses, and manor houses on 5,000 pristine acres—reflect a shift toward quirky, laid-back country-house experiences.
At the new Soho Farmhouse in Great Tew, in the Cotswolds, guests stay in a group of 40 cozy cabins by a stream. Likewise, the effortlessly cool Pig hotels have turned historic buildings throughout southern England into rustically stylish inns centered around hyper-local, often foraged food. In Cornwall, Sir Ferrers Vyvyan has turned a cluster of old cottages on Trelowarren, his family’s 15th-century estate, into eco-friendly lodgings. In Yorkshire, Lord Masham has reimagined Swinton Park, his ancestral castle, as a hotel and cooking school, with luxury camping in yurts and tree houses on the grounds.
The owner of Wilderness Reserve is billionaire businessman Jon Hunt, who uses the financial return from renting out the traditional buildings to subsidize conservation efforts such as planting trees, installing nesting boxes, and creating ponds for wetland birds. There are 10 clever dwellings for guests to choose from. These include the Gate Lodges, a pair of bijou 18th-century gatehouses connected by an ultramodern underground living space you’d never guess was there. A gardener’s bothy has been converted into the partially glassed-in, eight-bedroom Walled Garden, inspired by the estate’s original vegetable garden. Moat Cottage, a Tudor farmhouse, really does have its own moat.
All of the properties offer optional butler service, and some, like Hex Cottage, come provisioned with local delicacies. Good pubs, castles, churches, seaside villages, bird sanctuaries, and the Snape Maltings Concert Hall can all be found a short car ride away. But the best course of action is to borrow one of the Pashley bicycles and roam the estate.
At the center of Wilderness Reserve is Heveningham Hall, whose history illustrates the vicissitudes that have struck so many English country houses. Built in the late 18th century, it was once a swaggeringly glamorous mansion, but by the 1980s it had fallen into disrepair thanks to a series of disasters, including a fire that gutted the east wing. Hunt purchased it in 1994 as a family home and spent years restoring it to its former glory, while executing a never-realized plan by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, one of the great English landscape architects of the 18th century, on the surrounding grounds. Though it remains a private residence, it hosts several public events, including an annual fair.
I found a similar tale of transformation at Holkham estate, on North Norfolk’s coast. It is home to Holkham Hall, one of the grandest of all English country houses, which was famous in the Georgian age as the home of Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester, one of England’s great politicians and agricultural reformers. Surrounding the imposing Palladian mansion, which is approached by avenues of stupendous length, is an Arcadian landscape where fallow deer graze beside obelisks and temples. The grounds were designed by William Kent, another great English landscape architect of the 18th century. The interior has just as much power to amaze, beginning with Marble Hall, a soaring space ringed by ancient Roman statuary and columns of Raspberry Ripple–like alabaster. The richness and scale made me nearly quail to enter. I felt like a pygmy treading in the footsteps of giants.
Today, the family of the eighth Earl of Leicester owns Holkham. Early in the last decade, Lord and Lady Leicester transformed the Victoria Inn, a lodging house erected in 1837 on one of the main drives, into a boutique hotel. It was such a hit, particularly with affluent Londoners, that it almost single-handedly turned North Norfolk into a phenomenon. Now they have transformed it again, into an estate hotel like the ones that were common in previous centuries, when many landed estates ran inns to provide quality accommodations to visiting farmers, businessmen, and tourists. The Victoria’s restaurant is now a step up from a classic pub (a back bar serves delicious Adnams bitter, made with malted barley from Holkham), without the froufrou of a high-end dining establishment. “Don’t expect an amuse-bouche with dinner,” said Holkham’s estates director, David Horton-Fawkes. Many ingredients come from the grounds, including venison and other game in season (Holkham has a celebrated wild-bird shoot). Much of the waitstaff is made up of young people from nearby villages. Dogs are welcome.
“Very flat, Norfolk,” observed Amanda in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. This makes Holkham, like Wilderness Reserve, ideal for biking. You can ride to the 9,200-acre Holkham National Nature Reserve, one of the largest in England, where you will find marshes, pine trees, sand dunes, and beaches. If you’d rather stroll, you can wander through Venetian gates into the Walled Garden. Once, its produce fed the big house, providing hothouse luxuries, such as grapes and peaches, never tasted by the masses.
Holkham Hall itself is open to the public, which is welcome to peruse its paintings, tapestries, furniture, and textiles. One of the courtyard buildings houses a museum celebrating Holkham’s long-standing association with farming. Next to it is an excellent, recently revamped shop and café. But who wants to stay indoors? On fine days, the park is crowded with walkers and bicyclists. What you can’t do, however, is tour the estate by automobile, as cars are mostly banned. The internal combustion engine doesn’t belong to the world of places like Holkham and Wilderness Reserve. When visiting, we know that eventually we’ll have to return to the tempo of modern life. But time seems suspended in these private kingdoms, where for a brief, precious moment, nature and beauty transcend electronic gizmos and infernal machines.
The Details: What to Do in Norfolk and Suffolk
Victoria Inn at Holkham A renovated inn on the 25,000-acre estate of Holkham Hall, one of the most famous country houses in England. Explore the pastoral property, which is largely off-limits to cars, by bicycle or on foot. Wells-next-the-Sea; holkham.co.uk; doubles from $155.
Wilderness Reserve Choose from a collection of cottages, farmhouses, and manor houses on 5,000 acres in Suffolk. Hex Cottage, the property’s romantic hut, sleeps two and has a thatched roof and columns made from tree trunks. Sibton; wildernessreserve.com; doubles from $265, two-night minimum.
Blakeney National Nature Reserve This park is the spot for animal lovers: watch seal pups, go crabbing, or bird-watch along the Blakeney Freshes, a 400-acre grazing marsh. Morston; nationaltrust.org.uk.
Holkham National Nature Reserve One of England’s largest nature reserves, occupying more than 9,000 acres of dunes, salt marsh, and grazing marsh beside the sea. Wells-next-the-Sea; holkham.co.uk.
Houghton Hall Built in the 1720s for Great Britain’s first prime minister, this is one of England’s most spectacular stately homes. It’s surrounded by a magnificent park and has a collection of contemporary sculptures. King’s Lynn; houghtonhall.com.
Orford Castle A 12th-century castle in Suffolk where visitors can explore the many passages and halls. Don’t miss the display of Roman brooches, coins, and medieval seals in the Upper Hall. english-heritage.org.uk.
Orford Ness National Nature Reserve The place to explore the U.K.’s military history. A stroll along the trails will bring you to multiple military structures, from old administrative bases to atomic test sites. nationaltrust.org.uk.
Snape Maltings Developed as a music center by composer Benjamin Britten, this complex of Victorian buildings was retrofitted to also include galleries, shops, restaurants, and a concert hall on the edge of the marshes. It holds many performances and festivals throughout the year. snapemaltings.co.uk.