The rise and rise of the designer-led country house hotel continues. We tried out three newbies leading the way on the style and comfort stakes, plus three more for a festive treat. By Harriet Whiting and Emily Turner.
Lord B was a mover and a shaker extraordinaire. Friend of Churchill, newspaper magnate, he entertained the great and the good at his sumptuous mansion in the Surrey hills. Now a top end hotel, interiors have been done by Susie Atkinson. Grown up but not stuffy, traditional but with bright, modern splashes – I would like her to come and do the country house that I own in my dreams. The rooms are all named after erstwhile guests. We were in Somerset Maugham, a turret room with wonderful views. In addition to 18 rooms in the main house, the Garden House is about half a mile up the drive (buggies ferry you to and fro) with a slightly more cottage-y feel and a relaxed Mediterranean restaurant. Next to the main house is the Coach House Spa with more rooms (including a new pet-friendly family suite). There are indoor and outdoor pools (family swimming 10am–12pm, 2.30–5.30pm).
Their big selling point for kids is the Sharky & George programme they run at weekends and in the holidays. The magical woodland HQ, complete with caravan playhouse, treetop walkway and army tent, is child-heaven. There is a supervised play area in the main hotel too (and film screening room) but if you are here you want to be outside. A nature-focussed Wild Woods programme has just launched for children aged 6–12. Although it is fully geared up to tinies, this place is best with kids who are old enough to leave in their room in the evening, worn out by a day of camp building and adventures. Let them have early supper and you can head down for a cocktail in the 1920s’ bar and then tuck into the delicious Japanese tasting menu in the restaurant. A joy.
Wild Woods programme from £1,000 for a family of 4 for 2 nights, incl. a plethora of activities.
The Fife Arms
Braemar is in the Cairngorms National Park. Just down the road from Balmoral and famous for its Highland Games, it’s an unlikely spot for the most talked-about hotel opening of the last twelve months. But that is the pull of current über-gallery Hauser & Wirth for you.
From the outside the Fife Arms is just another grey gabled Scottish coaching inn. Inside, it is one of the most extraordinary hotels I have ever been to, living up to every bit of hype. Somehow they have managed to create a space where you can have fish and chips and a pint with a bunch of hill walkers at lunch and be sipping a cocktail in a delicate pink Elsa Schiaparelli-inspired bar that evening. Tartan and taxidermy mix with Picasso, Freud and a giant Louise Bourgeois spider. And, amazingly, it works. It is eccentric but not silly.
The bedrooms are sublime, in an all-enveloping Victorian way. The thick writing paper will make you sit down and actually write a letter. There isn't a kids’ club but there is a lovely family room with squishy beanbags, old-fashioned toys, table football. Junior guests are given a 'memory jar' to fill up as they explore. Staff are very friendly and can arrange all types of local excursions. Our boys had a fishing lesson on the River Dee. Ian has been ghillie-ing these banks for most of his life and had both casting within half an hour. Sadly no bite but they were both, proverbially, hooked.
Rooms from £250, suites from £750. The Fife Arms, Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN
Heckfield Place is not a hotel where kids run wild and you enjoy a little armchair-parenting. Arriving in the opulent high-ceilinged entrance hall looking out over a rolling view bathed in afternoon light, we wondered if this refined serenity really was suitable for children.
But Heckfield warmly welcomes everyone lucky enough to pass through its elegant 18th century doorways. Calm and beautiful interiors beckon, a blend of Scandi simplicity, Georgian antiques, raw linens and an overwhelming feeling of comfort. Our room had lovely touches: homemade cordials and short stories by the bed, curated by Daunt. It opened onto a small garden with a pathway to a wide stretch of lawn, perfect for little-ones’ leg-stretching.
There’s no kids' club (although nannies can be hired by the hour, which could be useful when the spa opens next summer) but we found plenty of fun in the 430 acres. The tall fountain lured us to the lake, via the ancient arboretum, following a specially created Tree Hunt. Lakeside, a rope swing sits beside a bench carved into a fallen tree. A tour of the farm showed where the food on our plates hailed from and the kids collected eggs and peeked in on days-old piglets.
Winter brings the hotel a distinct beauty. 31 twinkling Christmas trees are placed around the hotel, and we’ve been told that if you’re good, a special visitor may appear. And call it Heckfield magic, but our children really were very good! Perhaps it was the calm non-judgemental staff, but our kids surprised us. They rose to the occasion – pleases and thank yous came without prompt, unknown vegetables were eaten (perhaps the Skye Gyngell touch) and rolltop bath time was a joy. This is a country house that really pleases the parents.
Rooms from £350, b&b.
Three more suggestions for festive breaks:
Another Place: The Lake
Head to Ullswater for a 4-night Christmas stay.
The Fish, Broadway
A festive feasting knees-up with ample opportunity to stroll off the calories afterwards.
Festive crafts, mulled wine or a glass of fizz and long walks in the stunning grounds of this National Trust property.