Living a Royal Life
A National Trust home an hour from London, that once housed a French king in exile, Hartwell House is now a beautiful hotel complete with luxurious spa and a plethora of elegant drawing rooms
Review by Izzy Ashton Photography by Nigel Harper
There is this moment in the opening credits for Downton Abbey where the camera sweeps across the front lawn, giving you a bird’s eye view of the beautiful, if a trifle ostentatious, house. That sweeping reveal is what I experienced on driving in through the gates of Hartwell House, the car swinging around the corner, revealing the splendour of the building before us.
Once home to the exiled King Louis XVIII, Hartwell House is a National Trust house that, at just under an hour on the train from London, feels a world away from the Bicester Village-hungry shoppers queuing for the Oxford train. As we stumbled from the taxi on the Saturday morning, nursing slightly sore heads and squinting up at the house, the huge panelled church-like door opened from the inside and Martin the porter came striding out of it to relieve us of our belongings.
The rooms are vast, and link through to one another by various doors, subtly set into the oak panelled walls. Sofas and chairs adorn each space, with every room taking on a particular personality. The pink and white wallpapered staircase rounds three corners, with a slightly spooky, ornately carved wooden figurine standing guard at every turn. Bookshelves line the walls of each drawing room from floor to ceiling, full of tomes that tell the stories of scandalous royals, ancient worlds and front page-worthy affairs.
We make our way up the stairs, pausing to gauge just how perfectly manicured the grounds are. Our bedroom is gloriously cavernous, with a king-sized bed facing the windows and a bath that is deep enough to swim in. After scoffing the shortbread, we were greeted with and admiring the softness of the towels (because that sort of thing matters), we grabbed our swimmers and headed down to the spa.
Hartwell’s spa is separate from main house, occupying one of the outbuildings and reached by passing the church and ducking through a gate in the wall. Ensconced in our robes, we made our way through the changing rooms and out to the swimming pool. Designed as an orangery, the deep maroon walls contrast with the bright blue water and the brilliant white marble statue posing at one end. The windows are set high, just under the ceiling, so the room is warm enough to be cosy without the usual stuffiness of an indoor pool.
We take up residence on a pair of lounge beds by the window, that are just catching the late afternoon sun. After a quick swim, the water just on the cooler side of bath temperature, we ventured into the steam room to sweat out the last of the previous night’s sins. The spa area also boasts a raised jacuzzi at the end of the pool and saunas in each of the changing rooms.
Successfully steamed and, as we were living a life of Downton levels of luxury, we took tea in our spa robes alongside which we were served fresh, warm scones that we slathered in clotted cream and jam. Cream tea is indulgent at the best of times, but have you ever eaten it snuggled up in a bathrobe? If not, I suggest you try it, even if that means recreating the experience in your flat one evening after work.
Hartwell House has 92 acres of grounds in which stand the main house, various outhouses and a decidedly Dracula-like church. Strolling back to the house, we were quite content to play ladies of the manor, imagining the horse drawn carriages that would have pulled up to the house and the parties the place must have hosted.
The beauty of escaping to Hartwell for a weekend stay is that there is no obligation to do anything. The house is quiet, making you feel as though hushed tones are the only type you should be using. Having relaxed enough in our room and changed for dinner, we made our way into one of the downstairs drawing rooms and stretched out by the fire.
With G&T in hand – to rival some of the best I’ve had – we perused the menu and enjoyed a variety of what would be known as bar snacks anywhere else, but which here felt more like amuse-bouche. Our appetites were suitably whetted by the tiny tarts that we sampled, one with goat’s cheese and caramelised onion and the other, with salmon and cucumber (a highlight).
We were led into dinner, through the main hallway that extends up three floors and past the grand piano that, in place of the usual terrible restaurant playlist, provided a lovely soundtrack to our evening. What could be more decadent than a gentleman in tails playing Beauty and the Beast? Our wine already ordered, we settled into our little enclave, next to a large bust of a rather severe looking, ancient individual.
Following on from warm bread and butter, the starters arrived. Mine was a suckling pig dish that included a buttery slice of pork belly, fat on, with two squares of crispy black pudding, smoked apple puree and slices of fresh apple. A mini pork croquette topped off the dish which was completely, piggily delicious. The other was buttered asparagus with bacon, deep fried eggs and hollandaise, which disappeared so quickly, I barely had a chance to sample. High praise indeed.
Although a fair distance from the sea, the sea bass main proved to be the total standout from the evening. With brilliantly crisp skin, the fish was served with herby gnocchi and Asian cabbage, with fennel and an Asian sauce. The tart nature of the sauce created the ideal counter to the meatiness of the sea bass, which the gnocchi was soft and delicately flavoured.
After indulging in pudding, one a sorbet, the other a lime curd with lemon mousse, we dragged ourselves up the stairs and promptly fell into a deep and uninterrupted sleep. The next morning, we awoke to tea and the Sunday paper and then headed downstairs to indulge in the breakfast buffet. The atmosphere at breakfast was quiet and peaceful, with more than a few guests nursing happy, heavy heads from the night before.
After consuming more than our own weight in food in 24 hours, we decided to walk at least a bit of it off, with a stroll around the immaculate grounds. After shuffling our way over the bridge and gazing back at the house, you could almost hear the echoes of the horse hooves that would have brought the exiled King Louis XVIII of France news of his accession to the throne.
Royal musings indulged, we threw our bags into a taxi and headed to the station, arriving back in London in under an hour. If walls could speak, then Hartwell House could tell a fair few stories. But you should go and see for yourself – and enjoy a cream tea in your bathrobe while you’re at it.