In rural England, four venerable properties have received a new lease on life as some of Britain’s most beguiling new hotels, combining 21st-century country style with a pervasive sense of history.
By Christopher P. Hill and Will Hide.
1. The Newt in Somerset
Two decades ago, Babington House, an outpost of London’s exclusive Soho House in the Somerset hinterland, set the standard for a new breed of English country-house hotels with its relaxed and chintz-free take on a Georgian manor. So it’s only fitting that an equally game-changing property has opened just 30 minutes down the road. Perhaps there’s something in the air?
At The Newt in Somerset, that “something” is just as likely to be the spicy scent of freshly crushed apples at the on-site cidery as it is the aroma of wet meadow grass, the herbal tang of the kitchen gardens, or the whiff of mud-caked Wellingtons. This is country air as you can only imagine it, as befits a working farm. And it’s but one of many reasons to visit this magical alignment of Georgian charm, singular vision, and pastoral bounty.
Spread across 300 hectares of woodlands, orchards, and parkland near the town of Bruton, The Newt is centered on an 18th-century Palladian pile (formerly Hadspen House) built of honey-hued local limestone. When South African media mogul Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos bought the estate in 2013, their initial focus was on restoring its famous gardens—which in the 1970s had been the stomping ground of British gardening authority Penelope Hobhouse—as a visitor attraction. The manor house remained a private home for two years, until the couple finally decided to convert it into a hotel. It was an ambitious project, but not unprecedented: back home, Bekker and Roos had also transformed an old Cape Dutch farmstead in the Cape Winelands into Babylonstoren, their much-lauded hotel and garden restaurant.
The results, in any case, are fabulous. Roos, a former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa, oversaw the interiors herself, complementing period elements (and a lot of meticulously restored plasterwork)with the playfulness of contemporary furnishings from the likes of Tom Dixon and Sebastian Herkner for Ames. The 13 guest rooms in the main house are kept serene and simple with walls of aqueous green or gray and not a drapery or extraneous cushion in sight. There are another 10 rooms in a onetime granary and in outbuildings flanking the estate’s old horse yard. This is where I stayed, in a former stable whose original clay cobbles, hay feeders, and tack pegs had somehow been reworked into a cozy chamber complete with all the mod cons. Adding to the quirk, mounted above my bed was a tapestry-covered horse head by French artist Frédérique Morrel, whose “taxidermy” sculptures are also hung in the drawing room next to gilt-framed Georgian portraits and flower-petal-like chairs by Milan-based designer Patricia Urquiola.
Across the graveled yard, stone cow barns have been rebuilt as a spa with seven treatment rooms, a hammam, sauna and steam room, and a heliotherapy chamber lined with bricks of Himalayan salt. I could have spent hours here between steam sessions and dips in the heated outdoor hydrotherapy pool, but a burst of sunshine through the late-autumn clouds sent me scurrying outside for a look at the rest of the property. From the main house, a hedge-fringed path leads through a trio of gardens planted in single colors (red, blue, white) and then to a cascade of iris-edged ponds where children leaped and danced in front of water-spraying cement toads. This is the public part of the property now, and it includes a thatched gardener’s cottage surrounded by Gertrude Jekyll–inspired plantings, a Victorian-style glasshouse, and the Parabola, a sloping, 19th-century walled garden that—under the guidance of French garden architect Patrice Taravella, who has helped re-landscape the entire grounds—has been laid out like a baroque maze to best show off The Newt’s collection of espaliered apple saplings, which represent more than 250 cultivars from around the United Kingdom (Somerset is apple country, in case you were wondering.) With apples on my mind, I stopped by the nearby cider press and cellar for a tasting of the estate’s cold-fermented, pure-juice cyder—emphatically spelled with a “y” in the old English manner to hark back to a time when the beverage was crafted with skill and passion, as it is here.
You could say the same for the food. Set beside a copse above the Parabola, the Garden Café is a celebration of the seasons and the produce grown on the estate: whole roasted cauliflower sprinkled with cumin in a bed of lentils and almonds; grilled mushrooms from the garden’s own mushroom house; winter squash with spelt and cave-aged cheddar. Back at the hotel, young tattooed chef Ben Abercrombie makes good use of the on-site butchery and farm shop at the Botanical Rooms, which comprises a glass-covered courtyard and an oak-paneled former billiards room. Over dinner, I debated which wine to pair with my dry-aged venison, plated with Jerusalem artichoke, poached quince, and pickled-walnut sauce. But in the end, I couldn’t think of a more fitting accompaniment than a glass of The Newt’s crisp golden cyder.
Bruton, Somerset; 44-1963/577-777; doubles from US$328
More information here.
2. Monkey Island Estate
Set along a stretch of the rural Thames on the outskirts of Bray village in Berkshire, Monkey Island Estate may never have been a country house per se. But once you acclimate to the drone of commuter traffic along the nearby M4, you’ll begin to appreciate what inspired Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, to acquire this bucolic two-hectare islet as a fishing retreat in 1723. Indeed, I spent my first hour here just gazing out at the impeccably groomed grounds as blackbirds pulled worms from the dewy lawn and Elliott, the landscaper’s frisky spaniel, chased squirrels around the yew hedges and hydrangea beds.
At the heart of the property are the duke’s eccentric follies: the two-story Temple and the octagonal Pavilion, both of which are now grade one–listed buildings. There’s been an inn on the site since 1840, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Monkey Island became a full-fledged hotel, with its new owner extending the Temple with a wing of 30 rooms and building banqueting facilities and a ballroom around the Pavilion across the lawn. For a while it was a playground for London high society. But by the time Yeoh Tiong Lay, the chairman of Malaysia’s YTL group, first crossed the footbridge to the island a few years ago, the property had long since lost its luster. Entranced, he bought it anyway, adding it to an impressive hotel portfolio that already included The Gainsborough Bath Spa in Somerset. (Yeoh passed away in 2017 before the three-year renovation of Monkey Island was fully realized; a larger-than-life bronze statue of the man sits under a walnut tree in his memory, its bespectacled gaze fixed on the briskly flowing back stream of the Thames.)
As at The Gainsborough, YTL tapped New York–based Champalimaud Design to overhaul the interiors. Public spaces now sport beautiful bespoke wallpapers and leather accents, while the small guest rooms (most of which are in the Temple wing, with another 11 situated on the mainland riverbank) are furnished in a sleek country style. Mine was one of four with a riverside terrace or balcony, which helped calm my inner claustrophobe. The room to book, though, is the historic Wedgewood Suite, which occupies the top floor of the Temple. Agleam with oak paneling and filled with light from wood-framed windows on three sides, the suite gets its name from its ornate white-on-blue plasterwork ceiling—a confection of mermaids and garlands and chubby putti seemingly plucked from a plate of Wedgewood china.
You’ll also want to turn your gaze upward in the Monkey Room, the Pavilion’s original parlor. Dating back to 1738, the newly restored ceiling here is painted in the whimsical singerie style, depicting monkeys dressed in 18th-century finery as they fish and shoot for ducks. From here, a crooked staircase leads up to the octagonal den above, now a cozy whisky bar with a wraparound banquette.
Next door, the Monkey Island Brasserie is the hotel’s sole restaurant, a beautiful room with herringbone floors, French doors that open onto a riverside terrace, and gorgeous turquoise wallpaper inspired by the peacocks that once roamed the estate. In his open kitchen, chef Matthew Price turns out full-flavored British brasserie fare like fisherman’s pie and house-smoked Loch Duart salmon with wasabi-yogurt dressing.
There may not be countryside to wander here, but there is the river. An Edwardian-style launch is on hand for languid cocktail-and-canapé cruises on the Thames; you can even hire it to go down to Eton or Windsor, or up to Bray to dine at two of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants—Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and the Roux family’s Waterside Inn. The hotel’s spa is afloat as well: it occupies a purpose-built canal boat moored alongside the island. Novelty factor aside, the treatments are as serene as the riverine setting. I signed up for the Monk’s Elixir, described in the spa menu as a combination of “booze, botany, and beauty.” A tribute to the liqueur-making monks who fished here (and likely inspired the island’s name) in the 12th century, the herbal-oil massage is prefaced with shots of Chartreuse, Frangelico, or Bénédictine.
More evidence of the estate’s historic pedigree sits on the opposite bank: a 19th-century cottage called Long White Cloud. Now one of three neighboring residences available for exclusive booking by guests, the four-bedroom house was once owned by art patron Frank Schuster, who hosted the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw. It’s also where Edward Elgar composed much of his rapturous 1910 Violin Concerto, no doubt drawing on the rhythm of the river outside his door.
Bray-on-Thames, Berkshire; 44-1628/623-400; doubles from US$353
More information here.
3. Grantley Hall
Good things rarely come from divorce. Although if the rumors are true, the newly liberated and sprightly septuagenarian owner of Grantley Hall, Valeria Sykes, took £70 million from her settlement, which she pumped into a 17th-century country mansion in dire need of some TLC. In July, it opened as one of England’s most anticipated hotels of the year.
Grantley Hall lies just outside the Yorkshire market town of Ripon, not far from the undulating folds of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. To get here, it’s an easy two-hour train ride from London or from Edinburgh via York—itself definitely worth your time—then another hour by car.
This Palladian hall certainly has a sturdy, imposing air as you drive in next to the babbling River Skell from the main gatehouse, which is softened by a friendly Yorkshire greeting once you’re inside. Turn one way from reception and you’re in a cozy, wood-paneled bar, while the other leads to a drawing room where you can settle down and enjoy a cup of Earl Grey tea and scones with jam and clotted cream.
Grantley Hall’s makeover took four years, and the results are both a testament to comfort and attention to detail. Most bedrooms have a traditional country feel, but come with paintings on the wall that scoot up at the touch of a button to reveal a TV hiding behind. And air conditioning—still a novelty in many British hotels—pumps silently from the back of closets rather than clanking out from an unsightly unit. (In a nod to the often-damp local weather, those closets come with both bathrobes and rain jackets.) Some rooms are in the main building, while others are in a new attached annex. The annex also houses the expansive Three Graces Spa and a swanky gym that would not look out of place in Manhattan or Mayfair. As well as cardio equipment and weights, you can freeze yourself to minus 85°C in a cryogenic chamber or work your muscles on an underwater treadmill.
There are several restaurants to choose from. I really enjoyed my meal in Fletchers, where the food is probably best described as traditional British with French flair. My celeriac soup with pumpkin seeds, lovage, and toasted yeast was delicious, as was a main of stone bass fillet accompanied by braised fennel, sea vegetables, and shellfish bisque. The fine-dining restaurant, Shaan Rankin at Grantley Hall, showcases the talents of its eponymous London-based Michelin-starred chef, while EightyEight serves Asian-themed dishes. Valeria’s is a classy—and, for a rural English hotel, wholly unexpected—late-night champagne and cocktail bar and nightclub named after the owner. It only closes when the last partygoer calls it a night and if the rumors are true, that would probably be Ms. Sykes herself.
Ripon, North Yorkshire; 44-1765/620-070; doubles from US$445.
More information here.
4. Heckfield Place
Travel an hour in any direction from central London and generally you get, well, more London. So, having left Waterloo Station at 10 o’clock on a showery autumn morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself deep in the English countryside and gazing out the window at a sheep-strewn corner of Hampshire just 60 minutes later. Before long, the big blue Land Rover Defender that picked me up at sleepy Winchfield Station was passing through the gates of Heckfield Place, which opened, after much delay, in September last year.
Surrounded by 160 hectares of woodlands and pleasure gardens, the revamped Georgian manor is the passion project of Hong Kong–born Boston billionaire Gerald Chan, whose extensive modern art collection is on show throughout. For the interiors, he brought in young British designer Ben Thompson—a protégé of Ilse Crawford—to usher the estate into the 21st century. Thompson’s eye for contemporary elegance has suffused the property with a discreet luxuriousness, from the two light-filled drawing rooms and the midnight-blue Moon Bar, to the 44 guest rooms spread across the original red-brick country house (built in the 1760s) and an adjoining annex called The Corridors.
Rooms in the main house are the grandest and rather traditional, with predominantly muted tones. They’ll certainly fulfill the wishes of those who not-so-secretly yearn to be in their own Jane Austen novel—one furnished, that is, with thick duvets, oversized TVs, power showers, and minibars filled with house-made cordials and snacks. Those in The Corridors have a more modern, urban design, which I preferred. Instead of carpets, some here have rush matting that is watered every two days to allow it to breathe. There are rush headboards too. The aroma—like a hayfield after a summer storm—may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it reminded me of youthful farm holidays, and I found it very sleep-inducing. Toiletries, by a skincare brand called Wildsmith, were created just for Heckfield and named after William Walker Wildsmith, the gardener who created the estate’s impressive arboretum and ornamental lakes in the early 19th century.
Downstairs, the Little Bothy Spa kneads the knots of the most jetlagged traveler in five wood-paneled treatment rooms. It will be replaced next year with a much larger facility in a separate building, complete with a pool. There is also a sumptuous 65-seat underground cinema that hosts movie screenings and talks.
Heckfield’s culinary director is Skye Gyngell, the Australian-born chef behind acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant Spring in central London. Here, she oversees two restaurants: Marle, which serves delicately wholesome dishes such as pan-roasted pheasant dressed in tarragon sauce; and Hearth, centered on an open fire and perfect for cold winter days when you just want to hunker down with a hearty plate of wood-fired lamb. Much of the food comes from Heckfield’s own kitchen garden and farm.
Presiding over it all is Olivia Richli, whose previous general manager roles have included Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Amangalla in Sri Lanka. She joined me for lunch, interrupted occasionally by vibrations on her phone indicating another tug on her precious time. When we finished, she left to make phone calls and conduct staff meetings. I sank into an armchair to check e-mails but soon drifted into a deep nap before climbing into the Land Rover to slip back into the maelstrom of London.
Hampshire; 44-118/932-6868; doubles from US$390.
More information here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“To the Manors Reborn”).