It seems the most obvious idea in the world – take one of Britain’s countless country houses and turn it into a hotel.
Certainly, it’s a very popular idea these days – there are now 5,000 country house hotels in Britain. But, in fact, the country house hotel is a recent invention, only appearing in 1949. The first one was Sharrow Bay, a grand 1840 fisherman’s lodge, overlooking the vast lake of Ullswater and the surrounding fells in Cumbria.
Francis Coulson, the father of the country house hotel, bought Sharrow Bay in 1948 and, within a year, had created four hotel bedrooms, along with afternoon tea for two shillings and sixpence. From this small acorn, the country house hotel was born.
Ever since, the Lake District has been a popular spot for country house hotels, not least Lindeth Howe, once owned by Beatrix Potter. Built in the 1870s, Lindeth Howe provides what the country house hotel guest yearned for in the post-war years: a rural haven far from the bustle and fury of Britain’s rapidly-expanding industrial cities.
Lindeth Howe is only half an hour from the ship-building town of Barrow-in-Furness, but it feels a million miles away, with its ever-changing views across Lake Windermere, Britain’s biggest lake. The house’s Arts and Crafts style – all bow windows, half-timbered gables and intricately-patterned plaster – is a throwback to medieval British architecture. There’s grandeur, certainly, but it is a familiar, patriotic grandeur.
In the post-war years, more and more people could afford this kind of country house hotel luxury. Wages soared in the 1950s and 60s as Britain recovered from rationing and wartime deprivation. The hotel guests came in the nick of time, with many country houses on their last legs.
Seckford Hall, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, bought by a demolition contractor in 1939, was on the verge of destruction when it was saved by Sir Ralph Harwood, former financial secretary to George V.
From 1946 onwards, Sir Ralph set about saving this late 16th-century timber-framed gem. Seckford is on the cusp of medieval England and the classical England that followed – with its mixture of olde worlde stepped gables and the new-fangled Doric and Ionic columns imported from the Continent.
Seckford, run by the Bunn family from 1951, was in that first wave of country house hotels. Thank God, it was saved. It is a rare hybrid: the original house has been customised, over the years, with ceiling beams from Beau Desert Manor, Staffordshire, panelling from a Middlesex monastery and statues from Polesden Lacey, an Edwardian pile in Surrey.
The rude health of today’s country houses would have seemed preposterous to most country house owners 70 years ago. As Evelyn Waugh said, in his preface to Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945: “It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the 16th century.”
Ever since the First World War, the rich had been increasingly taxed on estates that were decreasing in value. And so they were forced to sell them off.
Among those that were sold was Jesmond Dene House, now a country house hotel on the outskirts of Newcastle. Jesmond Dene began life as a handsome Georgian house, built in 1822. In the 1870s, it was transformed by Sir Andrew Noble, who employed the leading arts and crafts architect of the age, Norman Shaw. Shaw created a playful vision of the Tudor age – with an oriel window, a great hall with a minstrels’ gallery and Jacobean panelling. Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and international royalty all came to feast in Sir Andrew’s mock-medieval fantasy world.
After Noble died in 1915, his widow, Margery, lived on at Jesmond Dene until it was sold on her death in 1929. The house then followed the trajectory of so many privately-owned country houses. During the war, it was used as a Civil Defence centre, with wartime tunnels still buried under the house. It was then a school before becoming a boutique hotel in 2005.
The country house hotel was initially associated with the rural life but, increasingly, grand private houses in towns were converted into hotels – to give the country house hotel experience to business guests and urban mini-breakers.
Some city hotels are even older than their country cousins. The Maid’s Head Hotel in Norwich is possibly the oldest hotel in the country – with work from the 15th century, right through the Jacobean and Georgian periods. In 1472, Sir John Paston told a visitor to Norwich, “If he tery at norwyche ther whylys, it were best to sette hys horse at the Maydes Hedde.”
Among other urban country house hotels is the Barns Hotel in Bedford, overlooking the River Great Ouse. The Barns was originally a grange – a monastery farm – attached to nearby Newnham Priory. Still, today, the 13th century tithe barn is used for weddings and parties.
In 1630, the Whitbread family bought the house, and added a wing. In 1720, Samuel Whitbread, founder of the brewing dynasty, was born in what is now, suitably enough, the hotel’s Riverside Tavern. The house stayed in the Whitbread family until the 1890s, when it was bought by Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1989, it was converted into a hotel – one of many country house conversions in the boom hospitality years of the 1980s.
It’s easy to think that all exceptional country houses must be owned by the National Trust, English Heritage or private owners. In fact, some of the finest rooms in the country are in hotels.
The late 17th century plaster ceiling in the south wing at Hintlesham Hall is one of the most elegant in East Anglia; its daring undercutting produces a mass of flowers and wreaths that stand proud of the ceiling.
Melville Castle, in its own estate just outside Edinburgh, is a charming 1791 building by James Playfair. Its staircase is a delightful flight of fancy, leaping through screens of Ionic columns, and decorated with putti, palmettes, fans, cornshoots and lion-heads – a symbol from the crest of the Dundas family, the Viscounts Melville, who commissioned the house.
Dartington Hall Hotel is housed in one of the great buildings in the country – a 14th century palace which, according to Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural guru, “vies for pre-eminence with Haddon Hall and Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire as the most spectacular domestic survival of late medieval England.” It’s striking, too, how modern furniture and modern lighting slip so easily into this ancient shell. Some country house hotels remain traditional; others have nimbly adapted to the relaxed, streamlined look that attracts younger guests.
The work of some of Britain’s leading architects can be found in country house hotels. Wroxall Abbey Hotel in Warwickshire – once the home of Sir Christopher Wren – has walls that are thought to be by Wren; as well as a unique, Victorian double oriel window.
Brownsover Hall in Rugby – a quirky exercise in French Gothic – was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the Albert Memorial and the stupendous Midland Grand Hotel, by St Pancras Station.
In 1959, Evelyn Waugh admitted that he had been wrong to predict the collapse of the English country house in Brideshead Revisited.
“Brideshead today would be open to trippers,” Waugh said, “Its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain.”
Or it might well be one of Britain’s greatest, most popular country house hotels.
Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Penguin)