A stay at Hartwell House
You know you’re in good hands when you arrive at a hotel spa and find Downton Abbey’s head butler Carson (aka the terrific actor Jim Carter) lounging in the hot tub.
While Hartwell House in Aylesbury is a luxury hotel and spa in Buckinghamshire, it might not be on as grand a scale as Highclere, the real-life Downton Abbey, but its traditional country house atmosphere would certainly make Lord and Lady Grantham feel very much at home.
I left Jim and his equally fabulous actress wife Imelda Staunton to enjoy their spa experience at Hartwall House – hoping the hotel lived up to its reputation as one of the best spa hotels in Buckinghamshire – and headed off for a very nice hour-long aromatherapy massage in one of the treatment rooms upstairs.
History of Hartwell House
The five-star hotel Hartwell House is no stranger to notable guests, having hosted everyone from the Queen Mother and Kylie Minogue to Bill Clinton and Oliver Reed (presumably not all at the same time).
However the hotel, given to the National Trust by Thomas Cook heir Ernest Cook and managed by Historic House Hotels which also owns Bodysgallen in Wales and Middlethorpe Hall in York (all three are part of the PoB Hotels group) is certainly no celeb-hangout, but a very discreet country retreat which provides a perfect escape from the outside world.
If you like grand country house hotels like Hartwell House then you’ll also love:
Luton Hoo: a classic country house (with Hollywood glamour)
Lucknam Park: my very own Palladian mansion for the night
Cliveden House Hotel: the ultimate English country house
It’s a hotel with a swimming pool and luxury spa but it’s also a historic hotel with beautiful grounds for walking in and feels miles away from the modern world (even though it’s very easy to get to).
Getting to Hartwell House
Set in 90 acres of Buckinghamshire countryside, the 17th century building is just 40 miles from London and just two from Aylesbury but barely a sound of the outside world penetrates the deep calm surrounding Hartwell, just the occasional snatch of birdsong.
There are 46 bedrooms at Hartwell, most in the main house (with some fabulous four-poster beds) and some in Hartwell Court which adjoins the spa. The ‘country house rather than a hotel’ feel had so taken hold of me that I never bothered to lock my room which is something I’d never do usually.
In fact Hartwell reminded me of a smaller version of Cliveden which is high praise indeed, and they are built along similar lines, with a impressive but welcoming Grand Hall, then a variety of rooms for afternoon tea or pre-dinner drinks. Hartwell boasts a morning room, a drawing room and a library which all have fireplaces and are decked out with antique furniture, paintings and chandeliers and there is even an unique staircase which is flanked with 400-year old carved wooden figures, were rescued from the cellars when the house was restored.
Bedrooms at Hartwell House
Suitably relaxed after my massage, I strolled over to the main building and checked into my room, a ‘superior Royal Suite’. It had a high ceiling, loads of space and stunning views across the grounds. There were lots of traditional touches, such as a dressing table, a writing desk, various antique chests of drawers and even a Corby trouser press – it’s been a while since I’ve seen one of those – and the ensuite contained the deepest bath I’ve even been in.
There were nice helpful touches too such as maps of the grounds showing walking routes, a guide to the trees of Hartwell, information about local drives and points of interest and even a picnic menu for al fresco diners.
Country house traditions
In what might divide guests, instead of coffee or tea-making facilities there was a sign which read: ‘Hartwell House, in the traditions of a country house, wishes to serve its guests, including room service of tea and coffee in the bedrooms in the House, and we employ staff to do so.’ (Some people might love this, but I know many people who like having a cup of tea in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning without having to summon staff to bring it to them.)
Dinner at Hartwell House
I chose to have a delightful Botanist G&T on the terrace at the back of the building which overlooks a tidy lawn, before changing and having a pre-dinner glass of champagne in the morning room. The evening meal in the smaller of the three dining rooms was an intimate affair, with just four tables out of nine occupied.
There was a choice of three menus – a dinner menu, a Spring dinner menu and a 26th anniversary dinner menu – although handily each course was also individually priced and you could mix and match between menus.
There was certainly quite a selection although I would have liked to have seen some kind of steak on the menu – the meat main choices were duck, rabbit and chicken – and there was tendency to over-complicate things – carrot gel, ginger nage, sea purslane and Valrhona Azealia namelaka anyone?
I chose the pan-fried scallops with pea puree and pea shoot salad which took a while to arrive but was very nice when it did, and then the roast Aylesbury duck breast with citrus-soused fennel and orange sauce. It was cooked pink and carved thin and tasted very nice but possibly on the small side for hearty appetites.
The waiter recommended the blueberry sorbet, but I instead went for the British cheese selection which not only had a good choice and was well presented (with a lovely Cherwell goat’s cheese) but came with a separate list of the cheeses with descriptions which was a great idea, as usually the menu has long gone and you have no idea what you’re eating, cheesewise.
I didn’t have a great night’s sleep sadly, which could be blamed on the cheese or the fact that the bed was quite soft, made up of twin beds pushed together, and rather than a duvet had five separate layers of sheets, blankets, quilts and coverlets which meant I woke up every few hours being strangled by one or more of then.
A morning walk at Hartwell House
However when morning finally dawned I enjoyed a lovely hour-long circular walk around the lake and the grounds which are dotted about with statues – there are also tennis courts and a ruined church. According to the hotel’s website, the garden was designed at the start of the 18th century, probably by James Gibbs, in the formal style with allées and garden buildings: temples, columns, an obelisk, garden statues and canals, but by the middle of the 18th century most of the formality had been swept away and the garden landscaped by a follower of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, one Richard Woods.
Whatever its history, a walk around Hartwell was a beautiful way to start the day before heading to breakfast – listening to ‘Carson’ ask for scrambled eggs and toast in his wonderful rumbling baritone made me realise I could happily listen to him read the phone directory.
Back to the spa at Hartwell House
After my own smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I headed to the spa. Thoughts of a swim were dashed by an energetic session of aqua aerobics in the pool but the jacuzzi, sauna and steam room kept me happily occupied until very reluctantly, I headed down the drive to rejoin the outside world.
Hotel information and to book Hartwell House
Hartwell House, Oxford Road nr Aylesbury, Bucks HP17 8NR
01296 747 444
Note: This review was first carried out a several years ago but has been totally updated since.
If you like reading about historic country house hotels with luxury spas then you’d love: Bond, Bridget and me: my stay at Stoke Park luxury hotels, Bucks; Park House hotel and spa: a West Sussex secret; Lucknam Park luxury hotel near Bath: a Palladian palace for the night