travel historic hotel mini-breaks
a break with tradition
Jonathan Crouch Takes A Motoring Mini-Break At One Of Britain's Favourite Country House Hotels, Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire
Why wouldst thou leave calm Hartwell's green abode Apacian table and Horatian Ode? said Lord Byron in 1814. He had a point. There are country house hotels. And then there is Hartwell House.
Relaxing at Hartwell, it's hard to accept just where you are in terms of location at least. The hotel lies just a couple of minutes outside the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury and no more than fifty miles - or as many minutes - from London. Yet strolling on the lawns, around the grounds or beside the lake, you could be in another world.
That's what opting for a country house hotel should be like - by in my experience rarely is. It's also what a 'Citybreak' should be like but rarely is. All too often, you hop on a plane, go to a different city for a long weekend yet end up in just the same shops with all the same pushing and shoving people that you'd find at home. You fly back feeling more exhausted than when you left.
I've long been an advocate of encouraging citybreaks that do without the 'city' part. In this case, you'd fly in to London (or drive up from the South, West or East) and, instead of heading to the pricey metropolis, opt out of the ratrace and in less than an hour be at leafy Hartwell.
Not that this is a cheap option - but then the best never comes cheaply. When we visited, single rooms started at £155 a night and doubles from £260. Do the job properly with a 'Royal' or 'Four Poster' bedroom (as we did) and you'd be looking at that figure rising to £360. Dinner from Monday to Saturday varies between £22 and £29 depending on your choice between two or three courses. That might sound expensive until you start comparing those costs with inferior City-based hotels that offer less and charge more. In any case, this isn't, for many guests, an issue of counting the cost. It's something they do once in a blue moon - or perhaps even once in a lifetime - to enjoy to the full.
"It isn't like being at a hotel: more like being part of a Gosford Park weekend shooting party. ."
That was certainly our intention as we crunched up the imposing gravel drive towards the front of the hotel to meet a waiting valet parker and a welcome table in the excellent dining room. Hartwell is one of only three establishments in the Historic House Hotels group, also owners of Bodysgallen Hall in North Wales and Middlethorpe Hall in York. It was fully restored in stages between 1987 and 1992 and has a remarkable history. Probably the most famous resident was Louis XVIII, exiled King of France, for five years from 1809. In 1938, the house and the estate were rescued by Earnest Cook, an early hero of the conservation movement.
Today, the place still has a feeling of grandeur echoed by the quite, respectful staff who pad silently through the large, historic public rooms. Sitting in the Great Hall, the Morning Room or the Library takes you back to another era. You could be awaiting the entrance of a monarch. Or taking tea with the Queen Mother. It isn't like being at a hotel: more like being part of a Gosford Park weekend shooting party.
This being a motoring citybreak, we were keen to explore the unspoilt Chilterns area around Hartwell. Again, we weren't disappointed. For a start, the Hotel's Director & General Manager Jonathan Thompson made it easy for us by furnishing a booklet (available to all guests) offering three diverse routes through the surrounding countryside. We chose one that took in some of the most scenic Chiltern villages as well as a series of tempting country pubs scattered around the Vale of Aylesbury.
Hartwell itself stands in 90 acres of parkland, landscaped by a contemporary of Capability Brown, with a lake spanned by a stone bridge, a ruined church and many 18th century statues and garden buildings. On the outskirts of the property is the one thing all top country hotels seem to have to have nowadays: a spa. This one is housed in a splendid building modelled on an orangery and contains a generous-sized swimming pool, a spa bath, a steam room, saunas and of course a well equipped gymnasium. There are also four treatment rooms for serious pampering, providing a wide range of treatments by highly trained consultants.
The hotel itself has 30 bedrooms, with a further ten suites and six bedrooms in Hartwell Court, just up the drive from the main house. There are no fewer than three dining rooms serving some of the best food, so I was told, in the Home Counties. This was difficult to doubt.
Overall? Well you could criticise the cost of doing a luxurious minibreak of this kind, but then, as we've said, it isn't something you'd do every weekend. Otherwise, there isn't much fault to find. Whether Hartwell House acts as an alternative to the metropolis, a base from which you and your car can explore the Chilterns or simply as a place to unwind, it offers a great deal. We'll be back.
Historic Hotel Mini-Breaks - Facts at a Glance
The Hotel We Tried: Hartwell House, Vale of Aylesbury, Bucks 01296-747444
Cost: Single rooms start at £155 a night and doubles from £260
'Royal' or 'Four Poster' bedroom at £360
Dinner from Monday to Saturday varies between £22 and £29 depending on your choice between two or three courses.