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Every helicopter has, atop its blades, a single bolt. It’s called the Jesus Nut. If that goes, it’s curtains. Researching choppers before you get on one probably isn’t a very good idea. Our pilot – charming and confident, in the way that aviators always are – ran through his perfunctory assurances but there remained, with the first-timers at least, a giggly unease.
The fear bubbled when we found out our £3.5m mode of transport was made in Italy. Yes, the same country from which AA-loving Lancias and Alfa Romeos hail. Still, if anything went wrong, we’d look fantastic doing it: white-leather upholstery, gold fixtures and Veuve Clicquot in the glove box. It was at the behest of Elite Hotels that we spent a Monday in September flitting around south-east England at 2,000ft. To see its four properties – two are five-star, two are four-star – in a day, while being treated to the best breakfast, lunch and dinner the hotels offer, this was the only way to travel. So, in a moment of folly, we said yes. And – surprise – we not only lived to tell the tale, but had a jolly time doing it. It’s not every day you get a postcard view of the Seven Sisters while travelling at 180mph.
It was an early start for our travelling troupe on Monday morning, so dinner the night before and a suite at Grade I-listed Luton Hoo was sensible. With a snappy turnaround we were being seated in the hotel’s fine-dining Wernher Restaurant – Wernher is the family name of its previous owners – for chicken terrine and roast rolled rib-eye. Lavish reproduction tapestries, marble – which, we’re told, cost more than the entire house did to build – and chandeliers set a stately tone.
The space works well for banquets, and will hold up to 120 guests, particularly suiting bookers looking to make a ritzy statement. The beef, incidentally, was pink and perfect. Few things will rouse you from bed before dawn like quality English fizz on Luton Hoo’s rear terrace – what a view – followed by a handsome breakfast of Bedfordshire sausages, black treacle-cured bacon and poached eggs. It was then, with tummies full, that we toured the venue and saw exactly what Elite has achieved. The site was derelict for years: the task of restoring it within the limits of its listing was too pricey for most. But with the help of £60m and some assiduous attention to detail, it’s looking as good as it did when Churchill addressed a crowd of 110,000 there during WWII. The first stop on our show-round was the Romanov Suite. Previously an Orthodox chapel – Lady Zia, who married into the Wernher fold, was a descendant of the Russian tsars – its features have been maintained and it is now a dramatic space for dinners or meetings, seating 120 people.
The smaller Churchill Room, decorated with a portrait of the man himself, was another favourite, with room for up to 40 diners or delegates. After a peek at the suite where our Queen honeymooned and a whip round the estate’s other venues – Warren Weir, the Parklands and the Country Club – we moved towards the chopper on the rear lawn. Palms began to sweat as our pilot showed us what not to touch. ‘No, those certainly are not foot rests,’ is the last thing we heard before gently moving up and away towards Hampshire.
By helicopter, you’d typically approach Tylney Hall along its rear vista. But with the trees in full leaf there wasn’t space, so we landed slap-bang on the croquet lawn, blow-drying the hair of guests lunching on the patio. The Grade II-listed Victorian pile looked something special in the midday sun – particularly around the lawn-lined pool where guests were tucking into light bites or dipping their toes. After a recuperative flute on the patio, we headed indoors to the Oak Room restaurant for lunch with the venue’s affable GM, Mark Robinson
Our sommelier worked wonders pairing a mineral-rich Pouilly Fumé with one of the best poached haddock dishes we can remember. The event spaces at Tylney range from the 120-seater Chestnut Suite to a selection of spaces for 10, all designed in keeping with the mock-Tudor theme of the house. Tylney Hall was a school from 1948-84 and during those years the building and gardens were quite seriously neglected. Obviously keen to take on serious restoration projects, Elite Hotels has been working hard towards restoring Tylney to its full splendour since the group took it over in 1985. Our tour of the gardens revealed original landscaping revitalised; the ponds, walled herb gardens and orchards are all in fine shape. Tylney’s head gardener, Paul, assures us there’s plenty left to do but in the meantime it’s still a glorious place to be.
Our vertigo was subsiding by now and we relished flying low over the Channel, past the imposing chalk cliffs east of Brighton. By the time we’d arrived in front of Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel, a gaggle had formed, thinking a celebrity was arriving. We were sorry to disappoint. Jonathan Webley, The Grand’s GM, greeted us and we headed straight to the five-star property’s Presidential Suite for another bubbly reception – scored with harp song, no less – and afternoon tea on its sunny sea-view terrace.
With several hundred calories already clocked, there was no slowing down for the fluffy scones, fruit tartlets and chocolatey petits fours. With Eastbourne-rock-flavoured lollies in hand, we whipped round the hotel’s impressive event spaces. The Devonshire Suite has three. The largest, the Compton Room, will seat 300 for a conference or dinner. Beyond its ornate plasterwork and stained-glass windows, the stage makes presentations a no-brainer, while the balcony at the other end would work well for live entertainment. Our favourite space, though, is the Gallery Room, which overlooks the Grand Hall. There’s space for 14 guests, and it combines privacy with the sense that you’re still in the hustle of the hotel’s main space, to make a charming place for board-level meetings or a dinner.
Our final stop was a short flight away at Ashdown Park, which is surrounded by the ancient Ashdown Forest – once one of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds. The 19th-century mansion looked mighty and impressive as we smoothly spiralled our way to the lawn and our meeting party. A snappy turnaround and we convened with GM Ben Booker and Elite’s top brass to catch the last of the sunset over more fizz and some notable canapés – the anchovy with cucumber salsa and crème fraîche was excellent.
That evening, the group dined at the long table – up to 24 seated – in the Jacob Henniker room, saving the best meal for last: a crab and parsley ‘cube’, followed by new season lamb loin, and a dome of white chocolate with orange mousse to finish. The quality of the meat even managed to pull the inner carnivore out one of our group, who previously wouldn’t have eaten anything sheepy. A brief, wine-addled conversation with the chef reaffirmed the group’s commitment to sourcing local and, wherever possible, organic food. Indeed, the lion’s share of the herbs the chef uses here are from the estate’s gardens. It wasn’t until the next day that we were given a tour of the grounds and facilities – their plot, including the forests, is vast. The must-see spaces, of the 18 on offer, were inside the venue’s converted chapel, now named the Richard Towneley Suite. Insured for £25m, it’s the priciest of all the hotels’ spaces and the top-floor space is graced with beautiful stained-glass windows by 1920s artist Harry Clarke – they are really quite something – and a fully functioning organ, which we had a tickle on. As a characterful conference space it’ll hold 160 people seated and can be turned around for banqueting on the same day.
To be on top of four wheels, rather than under four blades, by now felt a little unusual. As we drove through the forest away from Ashdown, dodging young deer on the road, we discussed the harsh reality of never owning our own chopper. Perhaps we’ll buy a Lancia.
Luton Hoo: Bedroom 6 was the setting for the awkward sex scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral – the one where Hugh Grant tries to get out without the couple noticing.
Tylney Hall: The Times described the hotel’s outdoor pool – found within the walled garden – as the ‘coolest’ hotel pool in Britain.
The Grand Hotel: The only time the hotel has closed since it opened in 1875 was when the Canadians used it as their base during WWII.
Ashdown Park: The forest was the setting for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories written by AA Milne, who lived nearby. He often took his son Christopher Robin walking there.
This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, autumn 2013.