Three English country hotels that don't feel like Masterpiece Theatre sets
A leaded casement window, a jar of homemade jam and a garden full of hollyhocks will always make the Anglophile happy. But a person can take only so much chintz. What if you don't want to sleep in a Masterpiece Theatre stage set? Luckily, there's a new kind of English country house, which dispenses with the olde charms in favor of a more modern style--in terms of both interior design and food. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding is fine, but roasted leg of lamb with salsa verde is better. Skip the teatime scones, and save room for rum panna cotta with a gazpacho of berries. These three hotels show off what Britain has become, not what it once was.
Combermere Abbey Cottages
Of the new breed of hotel, Combermere Abbey Cottages, on a 1,050-acre property in the rolling green hills of northern Shropshire, is perhaps the most suitable for the unreconstructed Anglophile. It is the brainchild of Sarah Callander Beckett who, in 1992, inherited her great-grandfather's estate, which was founded in 1133 as a Cistercian monastery. She immediately planted the world's only maze of fruit trees, which will reach its full growth this summer, though, she claims, "people have already got lost in it."
The maze has a complex design based on the shape and idea of the apple, incorporating the apple of one's eye, Eve's apple and the five petals of the apple blossom, and encompassing the four ancient maze symbols: the Labrys (the double-headed Minoan ax from which the word labyrinth is derived), the Tree of Life, the Minotaur's Head and Icarus Falling to the Sea. Making up the maze are 12 varieties of apple tree, five of pear tree, and bushes that produce red and white currants or gooseberries. Much of the fruit ends up in jams and jellies put up by Combermere's owner herself.
Callander Beckett spent 10 years in New York City as North American public relations director for Laura Ashley, a company that sets the standard for packaging Englishness. Both strands of the experience--the American lifestyle and floral-sprigged frocks--came together in her conversion of the Jacobean stable block on the estate into 11 country cottages, each with its own kitchen, library and interior design.
To tour the cottages is to follow a primer in English history as it was lived by Combermere's chatelains and overlords. The Wellington Cottage is named after the Grand Old Duke himself, a friend and mentor of Lord Combermere. He stayed here in 1820 and planted an oak tree to prove it. The cottage is unashamedly British, with a Gothic wrought-iron bed and a bathroom in a turret. The bathroom, however, does come complete with a powerful shower--evidence of the owner's American years. The Poole Cottage has a sweet story. An ancestor of one of the estate's former owners had a "romantic liaison" (as the brochure euphemistically puts it) with a woman named Isabel Poole "in a small cottage in the Big Wood across the Mere." Not surprisingly, the Poole Cottage, outfitted in pale-blue plaid, is perfect for trysting. However old-school the trappings of the cottages may seem, the work of Callander Beckett's decorators (famous names all, including Nina Campbell, Jane Churchill and Tricia Guild) is anything but hackneyed.
Intrusions at Combermere are kept to a minimum, but for your dinners, momlike cook Diane Banton will stock your fridge with delicious, unfussy meals--pheasant casserole, say, followed by a treacle tart or an apple pie made, naturally, with fruit from one of the maze trees. As a new amenity, the staff can also deliver a hamper of Shropshire foods straight to your door--with cheeses, bread, butter, cakes, jams, sausages, ham and eggs.
Babington House is an offshoot of Soho House, the exclusive London club known for its membership list of young literary-artsy-celebrity types. Actor Hugh Grant and novelist Will Self can be spotted roaming Soho House's three floors--though only by fellow members and their guests. A couple of years ago, the owner felt the need to send the exhausted habitués for rest cures in the country and so acquired Babington House, a Queen Anne-era manor house in Somerset. Happily, he decided to open the 22 bedrooms of this most unhotel-like of hotels to nonmembers too.
"It's a country house all right--but not as we know it," is the line Babington employs to tip off vodkatini-drinking urbanites that they are going to feel okay--even though they're not allowed to use their cell phones. Yes, there is a bar with low-slung chrome-and-leather seating; there are Victorian bathtubs sunk into the slatted, sauna-style wooden floors or perched in the middle of spare, bright bedrooms; the beds are huge and have all-white cotton-and-goosedown comforters. For playing--or working, given the clientele--there is a high-speed modem line in every room, a movie theater, TVs with access to almost every channel on earth, an art studio and a dance studio. There are two swimming pools moodily lined with black tile; the Little House, a place for children to play; croquet, cricket and archery for the lord-of-the-manor fantasist; and five-a-side football (a form of soccer) for the rough-and-tumble set. There's even a spa in the so-called Cowshed, where facials are dubbed Cowgirl and Cowboy, Speedy Cow (half an hour) and Hot Cow (hot oil).
Best of all, there is fantastic food. Speckled Maran hens supply your breakfast eggs, their mates your wake-up call. Chef Johnny Ricketts (formerly of Alastair Little in London) and executive chef Paul Pavani run the restaurant. An extraordinarily jaded person who can't choose between wood-oven roasted rabbit, grilled lemon sole with brown shrimp butter, and pappardelle with wild mushrooms and truffle oil can collapse onto a taupe suede cushion and go for the Bring Me Food option (as the menu calls it). You don't have to decide what to eat: the dressed-down staff will simply serve you course after course--for as long as you want them to.
Olga Polizzi used to be known for her chintz. Her brother is Sir Rocco Forte, her father Lord Forte, both of Trusthouse Forte, which was the United Kingdom's biggest hotel group until a headline-making hostile takeover in 1997. Many a swagged floral drape was designed by Polizzi in Forte's heyday, but all along her heart was in quite a different place, as is clear to any guest at her one-year-old Hotel Tresanton. Perched on the seashore of the southernmost, far-western county of Cornwall, in the quaint--this is the only word to use--fishing village of St. Mawes, its 24 rooms and two family suites are located in a collection of houses that were once a yachting club. Indeed, Cornwall is one of the chief sailing centers of the United Kingdom, and Tresanton offers all shapes and sizes of sailboats for guests' use. The Gulf Stream warms these shores, making Cornwall the vacation hot spot of the British Isles--it's referred to as England's riviera--and meaning that within easy reach of Tresanton are semitropical gardens.
The Polizzi decorating style is tailored to the Cornish feel. Bathrooms have aquatic mosaic tiles or planks painted bright white, and sand-colored bedrooms feature wood floors, maquettes of lighthouses and giant fossilized nautilus shells in lieu of oil paintings. The hotel lacks pretension, but it does already have one of the best restaurants in this part of England. Transplanted Londoner Jock Zonfrillo learned his trade from celebrity chef Marco Pierre White and is doing great things with the Cornish cornucopia of seafood; gentrifying it--but not too much--into such dishes as crab ravioli with scallops in ginger sauce, and sea bass served on de Puy lentils with braised celery.
Polizzi's commitment to food is further proven by the inauguration this fall of cooking classes, with visits to Tresanton by some of London's most influential culinary innovators: Alastair Little of Alastair Little; Peter Gordon of Sugar Club; and Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of the River Cafe, performing their first-ever teaching stint.