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As London’s A-list heads for the hills to party in private, Square Meal selects the best of the Cotswolds’ vast range of exclusive use venues so you can do the same
These days, it seems, the glitterati like nothing better than a weekend in the country. Traditionally more at home in the big smoke, a growing number of big names are finding the lure of fresh air, rolling landscapes and the privacy of a rural haven too strong to resist. And the area surrounding Gloucestershire’s Cotswolds is apparently the ideal solution. ‘The list of celebrities living here is endless,’ says Caroline Fisher, Cotswold reporter for the Gloucestershire Echo. ‘It’s quintessentially English country landscape but only a stone’s throw from the bright lights of London, where they spend a lot of their time. It’s the perfect retreat.’
But the countryside isn’t all about bracing walks and peaceful nights in front of the fire. Whether it’s the royal boys hosting at historic Highgrove or Kate Moss inviting the Primrose Hill set to her barn conversion, the Cotswold hills are alive with the sound of private parties. Sting and Trudie’s Elizabethan-style Christmas parties at their organic farm, Lake House near Salisbury, are quite legendary, and were responsible for the matchmaking of Madonna and hubbie Guy Ritchie.
Madge and Guy even renewed their wedding vows at home at Ashcombe House in south Wiltshire, witnessed by Gwynnie and Chris. Soon after, Brit art enfant terrible Damien Hirst bought Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, a characteristically understated Grade I-listed, 300-room Gothic-style manor with 124 acres. Hollywood’s most recent addition to the West Country set is American film star Nicholas Cage, who has snapped up Midford Castle, an 18th-century Gothic property near Bath, earlier this year. And if the rumours are to be believed, pal Johnny Depp and his partner Vanessa Paradis have spent £3m on a manor house nearby. Meanwhile, ex-Blur guitarist Alex James is now making cheese for the local pubs in Kingham and Liz Hurley often cuts the ribbon at village fêtes. Even hell-raising supermodel Kate Moss has signed up for the flower rota at the local parish church near her 10-bedroom Grade II-listed farmhouse in Lechdale.
A-listers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the privacy of the rural hideaways. A host of intimate hotels, manor houses and country mansions now offer even those without a country pile to call their own the chance to entertain in complete seclusion. ‘Three days at Felingham Hall provided a much needed retreat from work and London life,’ says Peter Cross, managing director of retail communications agency Yellowdoor. ‘We used the time for recuperation as well as planning for the year ahead, both of which were well over due and impossible unless away from the office environment.’
‘Companies are much more careful about how they are seen to be spending their budgets now,’ says Louise Morgan, a PA at Blue Shark Media. ‘We don’t want to be entertaining too publicly. Exclusive hire really suits us – you can have everything just as you want it and it’s so relaxed.’
You only have to look at the range of venues in this feature to see that the corporate market is booming in the Cotswolds – which, for the purposes of this article, covers Gloucestershire and takes in corners of Somerset, Wiltshire and Warwickshire. ‘People love the idea of being lord of the manor, having a country house to themselves to chill out in,’ explains Sarah Stanley of Unique Home Stays, which organises house parties and residential away days for corporate clients. ‘People are so busy that they don’t have time to catch up with others. Corporate clients use an event like this for bonding and for a change of scene, so they can tap into country pursuits and sports – it’s more personal.’
Since the opening of Babington House in 1998 famously kick-started the march of metropolitan trendsetters into the countryside, the Cotswolds has swiftly become London’s back garden, as anyone who has sat in the Friday M4 tailbacks will testify. It’s the ideal setting for entertainment, relaxation and business.
The celebrity honey-pot effect is still drawing in the crowds, as is the famously chilled vibe at Babington, but it’s also very much a destination for people who want to be seen.
In contrast, the low-key Charlton House (tel: 01749 342008) – just down the road – is a place to hide away. The notoriously publicity-shy Coldplay hired the hotel exclusively for Glastonbury 2005.
Bought 10 years ago by Mulberry owner Roger Saul, Charlton House was one of the original design-led hotels. It retains its rambling vintage charm – the antithesis of the stark minimalism of ‘design’ hotels or the austerity of country house properties – with each of the 25 rooms individually styled in original Mulberry fabrics.
The unique theatricality continues throughout the event spaces – an 18th-century replica Orangery, with a capacity of 100 for presentations, is accessed via a naturally lit arched gallery. A series of sitting rooms and lounges can be used as break-out spaces or for more informal activities, such as brainstorming, and there’s an airy 70-seater conservatory restaurant (which has recently bagged acclaimed head chef Elisha Carter).
While the distance from London – an hour and forty minutes by train – may put off some corporate clients, others see it as an advantage. ‘The likes of Deutsche Bank, KPMG and PWC come for confidential high-level meetings,’ explains marketing manager Louise Hindley. ‘The hotel doesn’t draw attention to itself. Legal companies hire it out exclusively for confidential discussions.’ Exclusive use rates start at £6,000 on a bed-and-breakfast basis for the 25 rooms and public areas.
While the toffee-coloured façade of the Cotswold House Hotel (tel: 01386 840330) is inviting enough, it is the interior that holds the real surprises, not only for the amount of accommodation available – 30 rooms in total – but the overtly modern styling. In Chipping Campden, a chocolate-box perfect market town of antique shops and tearooms, owner Ian Taylor’s amazing eye for detail (right down to the intricate coffee cups) and penchant for contemporary design seem delightfully incongruous.
We loved the rooms in Montrose House, a recently added eight-bedroom wing in the neighbouring townhouse, which have under-floor heating in the bathrooms, a collection of new-release DVDs, pillow menus and Loewe entertainment systems with flat-screen TVs. Another unexpected delight is the garden, stretching back behind the main buildings, with ample space for summer entertaining.
The main events space opens out onto the gardens – a clean, neutral room comfortable for around 80 for a sit-down dinner. In addition, the restaurant Juliana’s is available for hire. This space is licensed for weddings and has a stunning view down the gardens through three arched French windows. Quirky fibre optic lighting is a feature throughout the hotel, which means it’s just as suited to winter events as summer – even the gardens are floodlit in the evening. Despite all this cutting-edge design, Cotswold House still feels homely and unpretentious – Taylor uses local artists and designers throughout the building.
The hotel is hired exclusively once every two months, says Taylor, mainly for weddings. If you’re considering the exclusive option, it’s worth bearing in mind that Christmas budgets go much further in January – house party packages are available in the first two weeks of the year and range from £3500 to £8500 for 40 guests on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis.
Four miles north-east of Cirencester (that’s ninety miles from west London), Barnsley House (tel: 01285 740000) is located in one of the most scenic areas of the Cotswolds, and feels blissfully secluded. Liz Hurley obviously agrees. The star lives nearby, and regularly pops in for an alfresco lunch on the terrace overlooking the colourful gardens for which the hotel is famous.
The hotel is relatively small – only 18 rooms including the eight recent additions, and it’s near impossible to book a room at the weekend, so exclusive hire is limited to Monday to Thursday. The rooms are cool and contemporary with all the gizmos and gadgets you’d expect, but it’s the other features that stick in the mind. In summer, it’s all about the terraces, flower gardens and a rambling temple area with a small pond, where groups congregate for drinks receptions. In winter, on the other hand, the intimate public areas of the house make for cosy house parties for smaller groups.
The owners have also bought the traditional village pub opposite, a more informal space for eating and drinking with six comfy rooms upstairs – less sumptuous than the main house but a good (and less expensive) option for extra party members. A small, sleek spa and a brand new self-contained suite that houses a simple boardroom and screening room (boldly decked out in pink leather) are both hidden away on the outer edge of the gardens and look over the surrounding farmland. Being in the country, after all, is the point of the exercise.
A group of 18 employees from a major telecoms company recently hired the hotel exclusively for client entertaining and included garden tours, a pub lunch, spa treatments, cinema screenings and suitably rural off-site activities such as milking cows and falconry in the package.
Nearby, grade II-listed Whatley Manor (tel: 01666 822888) offers the most impressive approach of all the hotels – as guests enter the main courtyard and the tall wooden gates close behind them, they will feel like they have arrived at their own private manor. And ‘private’ is the operative word here as the gates look great but also provide maximum security – essential at high-profile events. This sense of privacy and intimacy continues throughout any stay at the hotel.
As the property has just 23 bedrooms and 12 acres of land, it’s possible to avoid other guests completely. But for an exclusive hire, it affords organisers a huge range of choices for entertaining and daytime leisure. At a recent wedding, guests arrived on the Friday for a Moroccan evening with a barbecue and Bedouin tents set up in the beautifully kept gardens before the main event on the Saturday, held in a lavish marquee in the courtyard filled with orchids and butterflies. The grounds are large enough for fireworks displays, archery, quad biking and private helicopter landing.
Skip the small dining room and the Alpine-style brasserie, and dine in one of the sitting rooms for a true house party experience. Guests can also choose from the less formal rambling lounges and
garden terrace. The facilities and 90-strong staff, in fact, could cater for twice this number of guests, but a sense of space is the reason groups come.
Whatley attracts the top end of the market – Mercedes-Benz held a recent car launch in the self-contained event facilities, housed in stable blocks around a courtyard, and Rocco Forte hotels came for a management meeting. While the boardroom ticks all the boxes, we particularly liked the feel of the adjoining break-out area, a restful gallery furnished with mirrored tables, armchairs and white orchids.
Fans of the rambling, 14th-century gothic Manor House (tel: 01249 782206) at Castle Combe include Sienna Miller, Stephen Fry and Prince Charles, which gives some indication of its wide appeal. It’s the warren of public spaces in the main house that make for the relaxed ‘at home’ feel: cosy lounges and sitting rooms with antique armchairs and log fires. There’s a certain Hogwartian charm about the place.
The hotel has enveloped a row of the traditional village mews cottages and converted them in to 27 double bedrooms, so even if your group (or budget) isn’t large enough to fill the whole 48 rooms, taking these can feel quite exclusive in themselves and makes a lovely change from the standard hotel set-up.
Many country house hotels wax lyrical about fine food and seasonal local produce, but we found the Manor House to have a genuinely first-rate kitchen, which is entirely at the disposal of exclusive hire clients. Food is a strong suit in quantity as well as quality. The kitchen has vast experience of large functions, and the imposing open dining room, with original features such as carved stonework and stained glass windows, can seat 120. Remarkably, every one of the 220 wines on the restaurant’s list is available by the glass.
As hotels go, Lords of the Manor (tel: 01451 820243) is about as quintessentially Cotswoldian as you can get. The slightly ramshackle feel of the bedrooms and lounges in the original house – like staying with a rich old relative – is somewhat comforting and though the meeting rooms could do with a bit of sprucing up, the gardens are idyllic in summer and the service is charmingly restrained.
The hotel is particularly popular with foreign visitors, who love the classic architecture and its location in Upper Slaughter, one of the most stunning villages in the area, so if you’re entertaining clients from Japan or America, it’s guaranteed to impress. The restaurant, which is also the largest events space, serves excellent food all freshly cooked on the day as the kitchen is too small for storage (a boon for diners), but our favourite space for entertaining is the manor-house drawing room with its antique furnishings and view over the front lawn.
With family events becoming increasingly popular, it’s vital to know where you can take the kids. Although country house hotels are moving away from their former ‘look but don’t touch’ austerity, many have quite strict rules when it comes to under-12s.
In the Cotswolds area, Calcot Manor (tel: 01666 890391) is serious about welcoming children. Calcot’s new event space, the recently restored 14th-century tithe barn, can be hired for events and families can stay in the 10 dedicated family rooms. There’s a separate Playzone barn for 0-16-year-olds, an Ofsted-registered crèche, a baby-listening service at reception and an unstuffy approach that will make parents breathe a sigh of relief.
FOR ASPIRING COUNTRY SQUIRES
At Lucknam Park (tel: 01225 742777), country living extends to a whole range of rural pursuits on-site. Lucknam is a large property with 41 bedrooms so it lends itself well to larger groups, but the compact arrangement of the public rooms means that the hotel still has an intimate house-party feel with as few as 20 guests. It was a private house until the late ‘80s so when guests take afternoon tea in the drawing room, pre-dinner drinks in the library and dinner in the restaurant, they are using all the rooms for their intended purposes. Rich drapes, open fires and large windows with large portraits and original antiques characterise the traditional country feel of the spaces.
An impressive 500-acre-estate surrounding the hotel affords the space for a range of activities on-site, so groups can extend their country lifestyle outdoors. Archery, falconry and off-roading are all available without leaving the estate, and there’s a top-quality equestrian centre, too.
As we go to press, the recent opening of the curious Cotswolds88 Hotel (tel: 01452 813688), by one of the founders of East End hot spot Lounge Lover, is making waves in the painfully pretty village of Painswick. Shoreditch-esque quirkiness has come to the Cotswolds: think vintage meets modern, and 19 individually themed rooms with designer decor and a maximum capacity of 65 for sit-down dinners, with ample space for meetings and entertaining as well. And as for the curious name? It’s ‘a combination of numerology and personal feng shui’ – you get the idea.
For a truly bespoke event and ultimate privacy, an increasing number of corporate groups are considering the self-catering option. As well as the advantages of a more informal atmosphere, many companies choose private houses for the level of confidentiality that they afford. ‘Many of our clients choose venues over hotels because they’re always exclusive,’ explains Patricia Hay of Hallett & Hay caterers, which organises corporate away days and weekends in the West Country. ‘They know that they can relax and chat and it will go no further.’
The area is home to a large number of sizeable stately homes, manor houses and cottages that are set up for group hire. It’s a brave organiser which takes on the responsibility of a self-catering event alone, but there are companies that can organise everything from catering to country pursuits or corporate development, so you can design it exactly as you wish. ‘People love having a country house to themselves to chill out in,’ explains Sarah Stanley of Unique Home Stays. ‘It’s not overrun with staff and they’re left to enjoy the house as their own. There’s more freedom than with a hotel stay.’
Unique Home Stays (tel: 01637 881942) has 16 very different venues in the Cotswolds ranging from country lodges to country estates, the largest of which – Park Manor near Bath – can sleep 43. If this conjures up an image of family holidays spent in self-catering cottages, think again. At Park Manor, all 17 bedrooms have en suite bathrooms, there are two eighteen-hole golf courses and an award-winning chef to prepare banquets for up to 130 guests.
For a classic Cotswold-style event, on the other hand, we’re very taken with Swinbrook Manor, a country estate for a group of 18+ with flagstone floors and oak beams, a traditional English garden as well as games rooms and a wine cellar. Similarly, The Rectory is set in three acres of Cotswold stone garden. After recent renovations, the venue sleeps up to 24 people in classic, cosy surrounds. It’s the little touches that make it special: open log fires, Hunter wellies, walking maps and baby-sitters, candle-lighting and Cotswold woollen blankets for dark winter nights.
Go one step further than partying like a celebrity by holding an event in the home of a celebrity. The grade I-listed St Catherine’s Court near Bath, available with Wow House (tel: 01242 633637), is owned by actress Jane Seymour. And a cute Cotswold cottage this certainly isn’t: think Regency ballroom, oak-panelled library, a baronial dining room, flower gardens and a vineyard. It sleeps 24 guests and is fully catered and serviced.
The owners of exclusive-use country venues usually have a refreshingly relaxed attitude to the antics of their guests. At The Colloquy (tel: 01544 340241), three hours from London in Herefordshire, groups (of up to 26) are left entirely to their own devices, which is precisely the reason they come, says owner Jo Hilditch. The antithesis of the chintzy country cottage, the property is completely kitted out for large events. Rooms are clean and stylishly decorated, and there are two large meeting rooms, a reception room with a bar, and a club sitting room with a 43-inch television and comfy, sink-into sofas.
Also a bit further from town than the Cotswolds, but worth going the extra mile for, the Big House Company (tel: 01823 662673) has two properties in Somerset that can sleep between 20 and 30 and attract city-based clients like Estée Lauder, Nationwide and Unilever. Tonedale is an impressive, elegant palladian style villa, set in four acres of landscaped grounds, while Widcombe Grange is an impressive stone-built country house set in 22 acres of landscaped woodland on the Blackdown hills in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
While larger properties will usually come with a chef, smaller venues often offer self-catering but the owners should be happy to recommend local caterers who can provide breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as taking care of the clearing-up. Managing a caterer is not as time-consuming as it sounds, says Hay, who recently organised catering at a residential corporate event for 30 employees of London estate agent Savills. ‘Communication is paramount. You must have a good brief to start with,’ she explains.
‘And it’s also important that the venue has the right facilities so I’d recommend finding somewhere with a good kitchen even though you’re not doing the cooking yourself. ‘If you’re heart’s set on a place that doesn’t have the right kit, we can always hire in anything additional.’
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2007.