Mary Gostelow visits England’s best country house hotel

Go back to the enewsletter

There’s always something new at Chewton Glen Hampshire, once again awarded ‘best English country house hotel’ by the UK’s trade publication, CATERER. I wanted to find out why it is so special, and how it continues to evolve. Early 2017, for instance, this clever luxury property opened a casual eco-friendly restaurant, The Kitchen, right by its main gate on Ringwood Road, New Milton. Passersby see it, and it looks attractive.  Yes, it is a 10-minute hike along the twisting main drive up to the hotel itself, but there are electric buggies working on a shuttle basis.

I was meeting up with my friend Graham Sadler, MD of Regent Seven Sea Cruises; his main office is in Southampton, a hop-skip-and-jump from Chewton Glen. Since more and more of his cruises start and/or end in Southampton, this is a perfect pre- or post-cruise hotel (Southampton is under half an hour’s drive away, but there is also twice-hourly train service, which takes even less time). This was Graham Sadler’s first visit to The Kitchen, too, so we admired it together: the multi-million dollar spend has resulted in a 40-seat interior restaurant with burgundy leather banquette seating (a foyer, on your way in, has a big log fire, obviously not working in mid-summer but the wood is laid, all ready to go).

© The Kitchen, Chewton Glen

 

One wall of the restaurant is all-glass, with sliding panels that open to the terrace where many want to eat in summer. Another wall is mostly glass, looking into the cooking school, which has daily lessons; most are six hours, but from 8-10 August inclusive, they run three-session young cooks’ classes, mornings for six- to 11-year-olds, with teenagers, up to 17, coming in the afternoon. Yet another wall is also room-length glass, looking into the working kitchen where celebrity chef James Martin, an alum of Chewton Glen, consults (and when he does his occasional cooking classes, prices double, for only half a day).  But it is this kitchen which turns out modern comfort food, day and evening, knowing it is what people like.

© Cooking School, Chewton Glen

There is, for instance, a selection of freshly picked superfood salads, and my home hot-smoked salmon was superb – it was toasted fregola, baby gem, grilled courgettes, with Greek yoghurt and citrus dressing. Another section has pizzas, another chargrills, and – a highly popular selection – there are burgers with brioche buns, Asian slaw and rustic chips. Best-seller here is the homemade Trenchmore Wagyu burger, and I really liked being able to choose the extras – in my case barbecue brisket, field mushrooms and truffle mayonnaise. Despite all this, when I looked at myself later in the metre-high revolving silver ball sculpture outside the spa, I did not look any more sumo-like.

A bit of history. On 53 hectares in the New Forest, Chewton Glen has origins dating back to 1732, and as the decades progressed its main lawn seems to have been used for bowls. At some point, however, this was switched to the oh-so-English game of croquet, though now the beautiful grass area seems to do double-duty, croquet-proper and play area for the many families who love staying here (see the photo above). Chewton Glen has a brand new MD, Andrew Cook, a long-time Orient-Express man who spent 11 years at the company’s South Africa properties. Yes, he agreed, Chewton Glen – which now has 72 rooms, including those in the highly desirable stilted Treehouses – does have similarities with his previous hotels.

But neither Belmond Mount Nelson or what is now Four Seasons Westcliff Johannesburg can rival Chewton Glen when it comes to surroundings. Some of Chewton Glen’s space has been left natural, fortunately, but it does have the most amazing walled vegetable garden. This is well publicised. On arrival, you are given various maps and a postcard, already stamped, first class, that shows the layout of the garden. You are encouraged to visit, and when you do it is pure education – everything is so well labelled. Estate Manager, Darren Venables, started here straight from agricultural college, went off for more training, and returned as Head Gardener in 1997.

All these details, by the way, are in what is arguably one of the best-ever ‘hotel books’, simply called Chewton Glen – An English Original. Why do I like this book? It has history, and current facts, and profiles of suppliers, and superb recipes of perennially popular dishes, and stories of some of the 395 people who make the entire hotel complex work (none of them are housed, says Andrew Cook, but the hotel has a roster of houses nearby which might have a bedroom to rent). Anyway, as well as the kitchen garden Darren Venables and his team also keep bees, working with Bee Line Honey’s Rob Oliver, who keeps 80 of his hives here.

The hotel also partners with Jennifer Williams, a former tour manager with the Bolshoi Ballet who now produces Naked Jams. She also uses Darren Venables’ fruits to make Chewton Glen’s own jams, available in big pots at the breakfast buffet and also sold. Other partners include the Heritage Fruit Tree Company, with whom Chewton Glen has planted over 250 trees including crab apples, damsons, greengages, medlars and quinces. Yes, you can take garden and arboretum tours at this unforgettable hotel – and you certainly need several nights, or rather days, to do it justice.

As with so many great hotels and resorts, you appreciate Chewton Glen if you leave it for a while (this maxim does not apply to a private island resort in, say, The Maldives, but in England it certainly runs true). Particularly in winter you could stay for many days within the sprawling complex of this 72-room hotel. From room 74, a Croquet View Suite built in 1989, you can walk for a full 10 minutes inside, up and down stairs, to get to the spa, well-planned gym and indoor pool, with its attached 11-station vitality workout.

Later in the day you could browse the boutique and its selection of books, which not surprisingly includes the excellent and compulsive read, Ladies of Cliveden by Natalie Livingstone – whose husband Ian owns not only Chewton Glen but also management of its sister property, Cliveden. And you can walk or cycle Chewton Glen’s enormous grounds, admiring the modern metal sculptures, all so carefully chosen and displayed – Chewton Glen works with sculptor Simon Gudgeon, the owner of Pallington Lakes outdoor gallery in Dorset, about an hour’s drive away. On this visit to Chewton Glen, my first return after an inexcusable absence of exactly four years, we decided to take the hotel-provided map to get to the sea, the English Channel. This is an easy and picturesque 20-minute walk, but you do have to cross one extremely busy and speed restriction-free road on the way.

Once down at the beach, we turned right, past a lifeguard station until we came to a picturesque line of wooden beach huts, absolutely side-to-side, all with pointed roofs. They were colours of the rainbow – more ice-creams in a chilled display than nail varnish hues in a salon. At the beach huts, we turned up inland to Highcliffe Castle.  What a surprise, this Gothic Revival oddity, built originally around 1833 with carved stonework recovered from the Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and the Grand’Maison des Andelys. During its private ownership under Baron Stuart de Rothesay and later family members, Mr Selfridge, who built up that London department store, was a regular house guest.

Two disastrous fires later, the Castle was taken over by Christchurch Council, and is now coming to the end of a major restoration. It hosts weddings and concerts and, any time, has a surprisingly good snack bar – my salad was spot on after two hours’ heavy-foot hiking through soft sand (both shoes scattered sand for days afterwards).

No luxury hotel or resort today deserves recognition unless it has superlative food, and by that I mean ingredients and dishes that customers, and prospective customers, actually want to eat. There is no time now for egotistical chefs who send out dishes that they like rather than consulting you, the guest. Local boy Luke Matthews is the top chef at the gorgeous Chewton Glen, Hampshire on the edge of England’s New Forest. We were dining in the Wine Room (no prizes for guessing that two of the walls are glass sided, holding prize bottles). One lovely thing about the Wine Room is that it is not sealed off, as a main PDR (Private Dining Room) would be. One corner is open, allowing a feeling of communion with the outside world.

© The Dining Room – Summer House, Chewton Glen

Another feature is that Luke Matthews comes out soon after you arrive and discusses the menu with you, a lovely touch. We were eating à la carte, which was so much more personal, and sensible, for a table of seven. This is Chewton Glen’s gourmet dining, featuring as many local products as possible – if it must be ‘foreign’, the rest of the UK will do. The homemade breads, which included a superb olive-studded sourdough, complemented my Isle of Wight tomato salad, and Jurassic Coast veal.

And then it was time, as the three six-candle silver candelabra on the dining table reached the end of their lifespan, to retreat upstairs. After all, I knew that by 6.30am, when the wellness facilities open, my New York Times would be hanging in a chic grey bag outside Room 74. In the spa/wellness area there were some people already swimming, looking up at the pool’s trompe l’oeil ceiling. Others were trying the various vitality stations.

Then, after a good shower, it was breakfast – another outstanding meal. The small jars of yoghurt, specially made by local Hot Jam Lady Angela-Jeanne Trickett, and paper ‘bottles’ of Rosemary Water from rosemarywater.com, give a clue that breakfast’s products are also local and organic. The buffet is copious and you choose a main course. One in our party designed his own dish, eggs with baked beans and that traditional English favourite, fried bread. I dared to be different, too, going for the menu’s poached eggs with crushed avocado. I am already getting a substantial appetite to return to this unforgettable resort.

 

 

Go back to the enewsletter

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.