Ellenborough Park’s gloriously sprawling estate spans several centuries and architectural styles, from its early Tudor beginnings, via the 19th century folly, complete with grand tower, to Woodland Gate, the newest wing, built around a pretty, flower-filled courtyard and outdoor heated pool. Their unifying factor? Gorgeous, golden Cotswold stone.
After a couple of glasses of water from a jug brimming with cucumber and mint – a refreshing welcoming touch as we sign in – we are shown to our tower room by the hotel’s historian. More about the room in a bit, but I do love a hotel with a historian – and if ever a hotel benefitted from one, it’s this.
In 1485 a tenant farmer found an excellent place at the top of a hill on which to build a new house. The arriviste did pretty well for himself and soon Henry VII was a regular visitor, depicted with his Queen Elizabeth (of York) in the darkly evocative panelled dining room.
We are shown several bullet holes in the original sturdy oak front door which are said to have come from Cromwell’s gun; try as they might, the Roundhead rabble failed to gain access to the house (excellent, bunch of miserable buggers). The estate passed from generation to increasingly wealthy generation, its intricate panelling, stained glass windows, beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces revealing layers of history as each added its mark.
In 1833 the 1st Earl of Ellenborough, former Governor General of India and good friend of the Duke of Wellington, bought the place, having recently divorced his wife, scandalous society beauty Lady Jane Digby. Lord Ellenborough, whose handsome portrait hangs above the reception desk, was responsible for the most dramatic of the estate’s many extensions – the magnificent folly with its tall tessellated tower.
(In a fascinating historical footnote, Lady Jane remarried three times and had countless lovers, including Austrian nobleman Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, his son King Otto of Greece and a firebrand Albanian freedom fighter – whom she left due to his infidelities. Nice one. She died aged 74 in Damascus, where she had been living for six months a year with a Bedouin tribe as the wife of Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, 20 years her junior.)
From 1947 to 1972 the Oriel Private Girls’ School occupied the premises – just imagine the midnight feasts and associated shenanigans such a place would inspire! – before they were sold again to become the Hotel de la Bere, which closed in 2008. The transformation of Ellenborough Park to 21st century five-star luxury getaway started that year and took many more to complete, the final changes taking place in 2017. Was it worth it? You bet.
The historian shows us our room, up steep, carpeted narrow stairs, winding and winding their way to the top floor of the tower. He opens the door with a flourish and from relative darkness we emerge, blinking, into a space flooded with light.
‘Here you have the best views in all the Cotswolds,’ he says, and I can well believe him as I gaze from our elevated position across endless rolling fields and trees, through mullioned windows in three of the tower walls – the fourth is the marble bathroom, all double basin, thundering power shower, fluffy robes and high end toiletries – although the claw-footed, roll-top bath is in the bedroom itself, with afore-mentioned panoramic views. Heaven.
One of the wide windows looks directly over the pool and courtyard, and we see that the cottages that share Woodland Gate with the gym and spa each have their own front garden, leading out onto the pool. The sense of light, space and saturated green from almost every angle is joyous; Cheltenham Racecourse is visible just beyond the acres of hotel grounds.
The colour palette is a soothing combination of eau de nil, faded coral and old gold, and when we wake in our sublimely comfortable cloud of a bed the following morning, the blinds (sumptuous heavy fabric featuring fruit, birds and flowers) open via a bedside switch to let in the sunshine of a perfect Cotswold summer.
Somebody has thought this through.
Due to a wedding, “The Restaurant” is closed the night we visit so we eat at The Horse Box, the hotel’s ‘own five-star country pub’. We start with very good G&Ts (Chase Distillery, Fevertree, balloon glasses chinking with ice) on the pleasant terrace at the front of the hotel. Nibbles of feta and watermelon hit the spot nicely.
Inside it’s cosy and convivial, with low beamed ceilings, circular wooden tables surrounded by comfortable upholstered chairs and a long, curved bar with blue-painted woodwork. On a Monday night, it’s packed (presumably due to The Restaurant being out of action); the happy chatter of contented diners fills the room.
I start with smoked mackerel rillettes with chicory, apple and cucumber, a great combination, the fresh crunch of fruit and veg cutting through the richness of the flaky fishy pate. Andy’s dill cured salmon with grapefruit and avocado is pretty faultless (if on the small side) – you can’t really go wrong with such classic pairings of flavours.
To follow, I throw caution to the wind and order sirloin steak with thin-cut chips, mushrooms and watercress and a choice of Béarnaise or peppercorn sauces (I choose peppercorn): sometimes, when faced with posh pub grub, only steak and chips will do. The steak is perfectly cooked, rosy pink inside, glistening dark brown caramelised exterior, fantastic flavour. It’s not particularly tender but the meat’s savoury richness more than makes up for that. Accompaniments are all exemplary.
Andy’s lamb shoulder with heritage tomatoes, courgette, Vidal onion (no, me neither) and salsa verde is a beautifully tender roundel, rendered of all fat, the summery vegetables adding a welcome lightness of touch: mysterious ‘Vidal onion’ turns out to be Vidalia, a particularly sweet allium of US origin, presumably grown in the kitchen garden.
We finish by sharing a chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream, totally yummy, perfectly melting hot dark lava meeting cold, sweet/salty unctuousness in some kind of unholy alchemy. As pub food goes this is very, very good and it comes as little surprise that the Horse Box is a destination eatery in its own right.
Out and about:
You could pull on a pair of Dubarrys (terribly smart wellies) in the Boot Room, which is heated to the perfect temperature for boots – who knew? – and explore the bucolic bliss of the Cotswolds; you could go for a flutter on the gee-gees – the racecourse is a mere walk away; you could visit the lovely Regency town of Cheltenham, which hosts a number of events including the Literature Festival in October and the Jazz Festival in April. Or you could, as we did, opt for extreme laziness, making the most of your room with a view, wallowing in the heated outdoor pool and gorging on all the delectable food and drink the hotel has to offer.
Who goes there?
Well-heeled, moneyed types up from London or the smarter neighbouring counties: slim tanned blondes in elegant frocks; men in jeans and jackets driving expensive convertibles; silver foxes with their silver vixen wives (they always look as if they’re having more fun than their younger counterparts). In the pub, a couple of middle aged Aussies were having a very foodie discussion about how to make game stock.
In the afternoon we caught a glimpse of the wedding guests milling around the lawn, and they looked exactly as you’d imagine English summer wedding guests in such a place to look – men in morning suits and designer shades, women flitting like multi-hued butterflies in printed silk.
The historian tells us that a fabulous-sounding Indian three-day wedding has been booked for November – one can’t imagine this hotel ever being short of punters, and its popularity is very well-deserved.
The worst thing:
Sadly, breakfast. Admittedly we got up late and caught the tail-end, but a place that offers a choice of oat, almond or cow’s milk should be able to do better than sliced white bread for the toaster, congealed scrambled eggs on a hotplate and greasy bacon. I settled for a bowl of branflakes (cow’s milk, since you ask) and three varieties of melon, which to give them their due were perfectly ripe and juicy.
The best thing:
The room at the top of the tower. During his tour, the historian showed us a couple of suites, which were quite a bit larger and grander. But as far as we were concerned, nothing could compare to our lovely, light-filled sanctuary with its claw-foot, roll-top bath, cloud-like bed and wonderful, sensational views.
Ellenborough Park, Southam Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL52 3NJ; 01242 545454; https://www.ellenboroughpark.com
Alongside The Horse Box, the hotel’s own country pub, the historic Cotswold manor house features a three-AA Rosette restaurant, relaxing spa and 61 luxurious bedrooms. An overnight stay costs from £209 per room (two sharing), including full English breakfast.
Call Pride of Britain Hotels on 0800 089 3929 (www.prideofbritainhotels.com).