Entering the 90 acres of private parkland at Hartwell House in rural Buckinghamshire, an hour outside London, it feels like the setting for a Jane Austen novel. The impressive stately home combines Jacobean and Georgian features; the garden was designed in the style of famed 18th-century landscape architect Capability Brown; and follies such as a gothic tower, a stone temple, and a rustic arch are dotted around the grounds. Statues of Hercules, Jupiter and Juno, and Frederick, Prince of Wales stand guard. Half close your eyes and you will be able to imagine Mr Darcy or a similarly handsome romantic hero riding at full speed along the mile-long Lime Avenue, wondering if he has an urgent rendezvous at the estate’s St. Mary’s Church, or is simply late for dinner.
Hartwell House is a property with incomparable history. Almost a thousand years ago it was recorded in the Doomsday Book as the home of William Peveral, son of William the Conqueror. Hartwell was the seat of John, King of England (1166-1216), and of the Lee family, the English ancestors of the Confederate General Robert E Lee. Sir William Young, the future Governor of Tobago, lived here, and so too did Ernest Cook, the heir of the Victorian travel tycoon Thomas Cook. But perhaps the most surprising resident of all was King Louis XVIII of France, who lived at Hartwell whilst in exile from 1809-1814. He was accompanied by a hundred courtiers and plenty of other displaced European aristocrats, including the Duchess D’Angouleme, the daughter of Marie Antoinette; Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden; and Compte d’Artois, the future King Charles X of France. During their stay they turned the house’s sun trap of a roof terrace into a miniature farm, rearing rabbits and birds and planting pots of vegetables and herbs.
Between 1987 and 1992, Hartwell House was conserved and converted by Historic House Hotels. Work was slow but painstakingly done. The National Trust, a national institution as beloved as the BBC, accepted a protective covenant over the house, and was then given it along with Historic House Hotels’ two other properties, Bodysgallen in North Wales and Middlethorpe Hall in York, in 2008. It was the biggest single gift to the National Trust since World War 2. Hartwell House is therefore now run as a not-for-profit business, and the revenue generated by the hotel, restaurant, and spa is reinvested in the preservation of the house and the National Trust’s other charitable activities. It is a perfect example of restorative tourism, of tourism doing good.
I arrived at Hartwell House in the late afternoon and was greeted at the door by House Manager Adam Treloar. I got the sense that it was not unlike the reception I would have received by the house’s butler when this was a private home. The main entrance is into the Great Hall, where a fire was roaring in the grate and a family group sat taking tea in front of the fireplace. I have been a National Trust member for as long as I can remember, and often toured their houses wishing I could stay. Now that dream was coming true.
Normally I would have checked in and lazed a while in my room, but today Hartwell’s spa was calling. Situated about 100 yards to the side of the main house, the spa is in a complex of new and old buildings which includes the 18th-century coach house, The Old Dairy, and an orangery designed in the style of Sir John Soane.
The heart of the spa is the swimming pool, which reminds me very much of a Roman bath. The high ceiling, deep red walls, archways, and statuary create a dramatic environment in which to swim. The spa is open to hotel residents and spa members only, so there were only a couple of people in the pool. I watched them with admiration as I sunk neck-deep into the vigorously bubbling jacuzzi. I have to be honest: I was here to relax, not exercise.
I might have dozed off in the jacuzzi, or the steam room next door, but therapist Christine summoned me from my stupor and led me upstairs to the treatment rooms. She suggested a Swedish back, neck, and shoulder massage, and after a long week hunched over my desk, it was sublime. Lying on the heated blanket, in semi-darkness and with soft music playing, I drifted in and out of consciousness. Christine worked her hands firmly and methodically across my body, noting almost before I could feel it where the knots and other sensitive points were. The Aromatherapy Associates products she used included lavender oil and other natural plant extracts, a subtle nod to the abundance of flowers and fruits grown at Hartwell by Head Gardener Richard Jones and his team.
The Hartwell Spa has its own cafe and bar in the gallery overlooking the pool, but as it was by now early evening, I returned to the main house. Guests typically assemble in one of the exquisitely decorated public rooms before dinner. The Morning Room and the Library are decorated in Rococo style, and the library’s priceless antique books are protected with some of the finest surviving gilt-brass wirework in the country. A magnificent portrait of Lady Elizabeth Harcourt by Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Academy of Arts, hangs in pride of place above the mantelpiece. I toasted my good fortune in being here with a glass of English sparkling wine from Dinton Wines in the nearby Chilterns.
Dinner was served in Hartwell’s Soane Dining Room, an elegant space which was inspired by a room at 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Head Chef Daniel Richardson has received numerous accolades for his cooking, including three Rosettes, the award given by the AA to recognise outstanding restaurants. I chose three courses which showcases local ingredients and traditional British cooking: pig’s head croquette with bacon jam, onion and cumin puree, pickled onion, and black pudding; roasted sirloin of Oxfordshire beef with horseradish dauphinoise potatoes, a beef cheek and oyster croquette, kale, onion puree, and port jus; and, lastly, a decadent salted caramel tart with yuzu sorbet. If King Louis XVIII dined half as well as I did during his stay at Hartwell, he was a very fortunate man indeed.