Nothing quite beats packing an overnight bag and speeding out of London for a night in the country, especially as it doesn’t involve passport control, waiting for security and squeezing into an ‘orange’ seat for a few hours. Long live the country house hotel.
Perfectly placed in the vale of Aylesbury in 90 beautiful acres of Capability Brown gardens, Hartwell House and Spa is straight out of a movie. The great hall of English Baroque completed in 1740 complements the spectacular staircase with intricately carved figures sitting proudly on the newel posts. This grade I listed National Trust property and hotel is grand to say the least. Dotted around the 90 acres is an ionic temple, gothic tower, and numerous statues and enough topiary to keep an army of gardeners busy for years.
Everything here has scale and class; the buildings’ facades seem to soar up from the ground. The spa sits in a former orangery and offers numerous treatments with Aromatherapy Associates, BIOEFFECT and Jessica along with a beautiful indoor pool. The food was excellent I was offered two menus, seasonal dinner and the bill of fare. The latter is slightly more expensive at £64 for three courses (and a little tray of nibbles pre-dinner). The scallops with compressed cucumber, squid ink crackers and citrus fennel seemed to float in my mouth, a very summery dish with cucumber acting like melon.
The staff at Hartwell House were wonderfully traditional, with tailcoats and morning suits for breakfast, it is tempting to go the whole hog and really dress up. They have a dress code, nothing too onerous, no trainers, tracksuits or shorts but you don’t have to wear a tie or jacket.
As I was in Aylesbury it seemed fitting to taste some duckling from the region. It came braised with minted peas, asparagus, morel mushroom and Roscoff onion. The duckling was superb, tender, tasty and a lot of it. I’d say the chefs Daniel Richardson and Martin Lee have got things just about right in the kitchen. Much of the produce is sourced from the land around the house and within the surrounding environs.
There’s a lot to do in this part of the country, Waddesdon Manor is just up the road offering culture, art and a slice of life as a Rothschild all wrapped up in a vast château. Whipsnade Zoo isn’t far and for those with a code breaking bent there’s Bletchley Park home to the WWII team that cracked Enigma and help shorten the war by a few years. And if that all sounds too taxing then why not hop along to Bicester Village for some discounted luxe branded shopping.
Puddings were a really tempting conundrum. I couldn’t decide between cherry soufflé with almond ice cream or vanilla Pavlova with textures of strawberry from the seasonal dinner menu. So I did what any sane man would do in my position as a food writer, I had both. The cherry soufflé just about pipped the Pavlova but only just, both were worth having.
Personal service is important here too. Martin the duty manager cheerfully told me the history of the house pointing out that the magnificent staircase was painted a rather ‘challenging’ shade of green in the 1960’s. Removal would have been very expensive and destroyed the centuries of patina so now it’s a very acceptable dove grey.
Since 1989 Hartwell House has been owned by Historic House Hotels who have restored the Jacobean and Georgian facades, gardens and other buildings. An exiled King Louis XVIII of France checked in for five years along with a menagerie he kept on the roof. Many heads of state have walked through the incredible front door.
The rooms are as you might expect vast and lavish. Mine had not one but two walk-in wardrobes. The public space is well defined. A library, morning room and drawing room are all large with plenty of places to nestle down with a cup of tea or an after-dinner brandy. It has impressive cellars with a predominately French and old-world list but some new as well. The Monteviejo Malbec 2017 from Argentina worked wonderfully with the duck.
Waking up in the morning in the countryside is a city dwellers dream, a fine breakfast, a stroll around the grounds and it was time to be off. Hartwell House and Spa is a place of respite in a modern world that doesn’t stop. Here everything is done for a reason and with a respect to tradition. A jewel less than one hour from London. Well worth the effort to get there as it’s a perfect place to unwind in stunning grounds and with all those little luxuries that make life such fun.
Hartwell House and Spa, Oxford Road, Vale of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP17 8NR, England.
Tel: +44 (0)1296 747444
Located 40 miles north west of London, which is just an hour away, in over 90 acres of gardens and parkland within the Vale of Aylesbury and on the edge of the Chilterns. Free parking is available for guests.
Type of Hotel: Country House Hotel
Number of Rooms: 48 bedrooms and suites including complimentary Wi-Fi
Price Band: Mid-priced
Insider Tip: Find a good book and park yourself in the large library room.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass