For anyone who thinks of the National Trust as purely the caretakers of the Great British countryside and its few remaining historic houses, it may come as a surprise to learn that they are also hoteliers. A handful of their most beautiful country houses are open to the public, not just as places to while away the day soaking up history, but as luxury hotel venues in their own right. The splendid Hartwell House – a swift hour on the train from London – is such a venue.
Set in over 90 stunning acres of Capability Brown style parkland, Hartwell House was rescued from an uncertain future in the 1980s by Historic House Hotels, with the National Trust taking over stewardship in 2008. Absolutely steeped in history, Hartwell retains both the varied looks and traditions of over almost 400 years of history. From its splendid, gilt-brass decorated Library to it’s elegant 1700s Rococo plasterwork, Hartwell House looks every inch the Downton Abbey-lovers dream. The house has hosted Emperors (plus Empress of Japan), presidents (Clinton), movie stars (Catherine Zeta-Jones enjoyed several nights in Hartwell’s largest suite) and Kings (the exiled Louis XVIII of France lived there for 5 years before finally ascending his throne).
And to top it off the hotel boasts excellent spa facilities, a gym, swimming pool, cafe plus fine-dining restaurant, two all-weather tennis courts, a croquet lawn, and utterly beautiful private parklands.
Hartwell House has thirty bedrooms and suites spread across three floors in the main house, many with stunning views of the carefully maintained parkland. There are a further sixteen bedrooms and suites in the recently renovated coach house, Hartwell Court, for those who either want a little more privacy or easier access to Hartwell’s conference rooms or the spa. All the rooms are characterful and filled with historic furniture pieces from across Hartwell’s varied past.
We were given a lovely and positively palatially sized suite, beautifully decorated in warm tones of gold, cream and amber. Although I was slightly disappointed not to have a four poster bed (as many of the rooms at Hartwell do) the window seats were so large and comfortable it would have been tempting to curl up there all day with a good book and a pot of coffee. Speaking of which, perhaps one of Hartwell’s most charming quirks is that no tea- making facilities are provided ‘in room’; if you want anything hot you have to ring reception and it will be brought to your room butler style on a silver platter.
The bathroom had a lovely array of Crabtree and Evelyn bath products and a bath (satisfyingly) big enough for two. It’s also worth noting that despite having about the same square footage as the average London flat, our room stayed toasty warm all night, and the bed was so large and deep a whole family could have camped in it comfortably, which meant an excellent nights sleep!
Dining at Hartwell House is an extremely romantic affair, thanks to two very sympathetically designed dining rooms in the style of Sir John Soane. With an intimate vibe to both the sunny breakfast room and the slightly grander main dining room, guests are invited to tuck into food served up by Hartwell’s double AA rosette-winning chef. The menu is fixed price; £25 for two courses and £32 for three courses at lunch, and a selection of dinner menus starting at £32 for three courses.
Our evening meal (with accompanying wine chosen by our sommelier) was utterly stunning from start to finish; I cannot praise the meltingly delicious Beef (carpaccio, with mushroom marmalade, ox cheek croquette and truffle ice cream) nor the Guinea Fowl (roasted, with creamed potatoes, sautéed pancetta, glazed baby onions, wild mushrooms and spinach) highly enough. And the Chocolate (ganache, espresso gel, aerated white chocolate, and praline ice cream) was so rich and filling I had trouble eating breakfast the next day!
It is also worth mentioning Hartwell’s neat bar, serving all manner of excellent cocktails, spirits and wine throughout the day (and well into the night), delivered to whichever part of Hartwell’s beautiful communal areas takes your fancy. Nothing makes you feel more like Lady Crawley than sipping on a nicely made cocktail whilst sat in front of the roaring Great Library fireplace!
Out and about:
Hartwell is certainly where you come to get away from it all, so the best way to relax is to take it any of the properties many facilities. For the more active there are a wealth of fine walks throughout the parkland (which I found were pleasant even in the rain), as well as the previously mentioned tennis courts.
For those looking for something slightly more laid back there are excellent spa facilities – housed within a separate orangery-style building – including a pool, spa bath, steam room, and sauna. For those looking for further pampering, it is also possible to book a wealth of relaxing and beautifying treats using products from Aromatherapy Associates, Jessica, St Tropez and BIOEFECT. I was treated to an absolutely transformative BIOEFFECT cellular hydration facial (£85, 55 mins), by a therapist with (possibly) magic hands. My skin looked plump and glowing in a way I haven’t seen since my teenage years, and I left so relaxed I was almost floating.
The worst thing:
I fear I have been spoiled by too many wonderful breakfasts over the years, but just a touch more choice at breakfast would have been welcome (though I acknowledge the adherence to tradition that Hartwell prides itself on, and this really is the smallest of criticisms).
The best thing:
I really did have the best facial of my life; my skin was still glowing for weeks after, and I couldn’t have felt more relaxed. Plus, the stuff at Hartwell clearly take such pride in their work & in the house itself, that it was a joy chatting to all of them!
Rooms begin at £196, suites at £496
Hartwell House, Oxford Road, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP17 8NR, www.historichousehotels.com