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Swellboy on… country-house hotels

Yearning for the days when country-house hotels meant maids, croquet, and Colonel Mustard

Swellboy on… country-house hotels

Image: Brijesh Patel

July 10 2011
Nick Foulkes

A few weeks ago, I went on a press visit to Coworth Park, a hotel within the Dorchester Collection. Another gruelling assignment from the front line of luxury, you might think, but I will let you into a secret: road-testing smart hotels is not really my thing. I am not particularly good at it. You exchange if not your soul, then your weekend (more often than not, off season when the hotel is less busy and consequently the rooms are not occupied by paying guests – usually for good reason) for a tour of inspection that has the potential to be about as cheerful as one of those UN groups sent to poke about nuclear power stations in rogue states looking for WMDs.

Of course, this would be all very well if I lived in a bedsit on a main road and could not wait to spend a night away from my own roof. But by middle age I have been able to arrange my house, humble though it may be, more or less as I like it, so that it is not absolute torture to spend time there. Plus, being under one’s own roof has the benefit of coming without that uncomfortable feeling of being under observation. Unless the hotel staff is particularly good at making me feel welcome, or the owner or manager is a personal friend, I cannot help feeling that I am there under artificial circumstances. And then, once you have marvelled at the facilities, toured the kitchens, questioned the restaurant manager about the number of covers he can do in an evening, been dutifully impressed by the conference facilities and been put through the mandatory spa treatment, you have to decide what to do with the information.

There were some minor hiccups in my stay, but I was not attending in the guise of Swellboy, so I will gloss over those and move onto the far more salient question of mounting a campaign to save the country-house look.

This used to be the badge of the country-house hotel, and was worn with pride. These places did their best to live up to the dream: roaring fires, comfortable sofas so large that one could have used a GPS to get out of them, entrance halls and dining rooms lined with portraits of ancestors (doubtless bought by the square foot), library bars lined with leather-bound books (doubtless bought by the linear foot), four-poster beds (certainly not bought from Ikea) that looked as if they had been in situ since the Reformation, a suit of armour in every corner, the aroma of damp tweed lingering religiously in the air…

Well, maybe not the fragrance of damp tweed in the air, but the other stuff was part of the binding contract made between country-house hotel proprietor and guest; the latter having paid the former to lay on a quasi-heraldic To the Manor Born experience. Sound effects should not include chill-out muzak but rather, to follow the line of Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name, “the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large dog”. If there is no large dog or long-case clock to hand, I suppose it is permissible to have a recording of said noises.

In short, you turn up and quite rightly expect the kind of place where you are going to bump into Colonel Mustard wielding a length of lead piping (life, as Lord Lucan was to show, has a horrible habit of imitating art).

The English country house as a cultural totem reached its apotheosis in the late 19th century and peaked at the time of the Tranby Croft or Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890, when the attention of the world’s greatest empire was focused on an occasion of cheating at a country-house card game involving the future king. It offered a snapshot of the age; the sybaritic heir to the throne playing an illegal card game at a house party attended by, among others, his mistress.

When one of the guests was accused of cheating, he agreed not to play cards again provided his accusers hush it up; and he only sued for defamation when the scandal was bruited about in society. One could interpret such events in a manner that does not reflect well on the participants: I suppose it is a bit tricky to put a positive complexion on the various multilayered hypocrisy at work. But we can all appreciate the wonderful, almost Kafka-esque absurdity of a situation that sees the heir to the throne appearing in court to give evidence relating to an accusation of cheating in a game that was against the law. It testifies to the power of the English country house to create such a unique environment.

For the British at that time, and by extension the rest of the world, the country house was the highest expression of what Thorstein Veblen had christened the Leisure Class. Fortunes, some made quickly and some assembled over centuries, flowered in these sprawling, impractical (at least in modern terms) temples to the pursuit of pleasure, be it eating, playing billiards, drinking, killing some animals, lavishing extreme care and affection on others, or creeping along the corridors at night with the intention of spending the hours of darkness in the company of someone else’s spouse.

For this you need bobbing maids in full Upstairs, Downstairs regalia, a croquet lawn and the cornerstone of any proper country-house experience – one of the greatest British contributions to the culinary canon – a truly “slap-up” tea with “lashings” of clotted cream and fruitcake so dense you could use it as foundations for the pyramid of Cheops, “washed down with” samovar after scalding samovar of teak-coloured tea. (By the way, if you are staying somewhere for the weekend and your hostess says, “You will stay for tea on Sunday, won’t you?” what she means is that she wants you out by dinnertime.)

Instead, it seems that the country-house hotel has been reinvented: the restaurant will be serving molecular cuisine and the interior now has to conform to the standards of a rootless international clientele whose favoured habitat hovers uneasily close to moderately design-aware, non-specific former industrial premises transformed into trendy, overpriced residential unit. Enough!

A British country-house hotel has a duty to look like a British country house as portrayed on television by Lord Fellowes’s highly watchable Downton Abbey. And if the owners of said premises do not take it upon themselves (or order their butlers) to get their (country) house in order, the government should appoint an ombudsman or Country-House Hotel Tsar to regulate them. And given that our Chancellor of the Exchequer is the scion of a wallpaper dynasty, I can think of no politician more fitted to the task.

See also

People, Hotels, Rural