“Why wouldst thou leave calm Hartwell’s green abode...Apician table and Horatian Ode?”
Lord Byron referring to Louis XVIII’s departure from Hartwell House.
Owned by the National Trust, Hartwell House is an exceptional opportunity to stay in a magnificent and eccentrically decorated English stately home in Buckinghamshire. Set in 90 acres of verdantly landscaped garden, just 40 miles from London, it personifies a style and character unique to Jacobean (and Georgian) country houses.
The area is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, immediately evident as you drive into the grounds. Descend past the Old Rectory and Spa on the right, Hartwell Church to the left, and the historic splendour of the grounds and hotel are revealed. The main house is imposing, stocky and solid, clearly made to withstand millennia, overlooking a giant turning circle, a tree-lined lawn and a stone bridge fording a gentle stream. All framed by gentle hills in the distance.
The charming doorman smiled appreciatively at our bright yellow Jeep Wrangler as it circled around to the entrance. After a brief chat, we learned that not only was he born around the time we were last here, to celebrate the imminent birth of our first child, but that his father was then the hotel night porter. He grew up visiting his father at Hartwell House, so who better to present it to new guests. We were in a Tom Sharpe novel, generations of family members historically intertwined with the house.
You enter through massive oak doors, directly into a richly decorated Gothic hall, warmed by an impressive log fire blazing way in a stone hearth at the far end of the room. Registration is quick and painless in the panel bedecked lobby on the right, before being escorted to your room. The walk to the first floor is memorable. The ornately decorated stairs boast bannister posts representing historical figures, including Churchill smoking a cigar, whilst the handrail supports carved wooden knights with beards and large breasts, holding swords or spears aloft. A pellmell of eccentric costumes, characters and grimaces. You can’t go wrong in a stately home that values humour so highly.
There are three large rooms on the ground floor in which to relax, two drawing rooms and a library. Each with its distinct colour palette, glittering chandeliers, deep comfy sofas, oil paintings and wood panelling. Perfect for a read of the newspapers in the afternoon, or a drink before dinner.
Hartwell House was brought back to life by Richard Broyd, somewhat of a legend in the hotel business. He made his fortune in recruitment and then spent much of it renovating three old country houses under the Historic Hotels banner, before gifting them to the National Trust, the largest single donation they ever received. The restoration was clearly a labour of love, and the house is one of the finest authentic examples of the period anywhere in England.
The rooms are bright, clean and airy, yet true to the Jacobean era. A clash of reds, purples, pale blues, pinks and reds, with stripes and flowery patterns on every surface. A commanding tapestry at the head of the bed dominated our room, opposite tall stone framed windows that looked out on the gardens. So extraordinary to be surrounded by such fine antiques in pristine condition. The work that goes into keeping the fixtures and fittings so immaculate must be Herculean. There are water and shortbread biscuits by the bed, as well as tea and coffee, everything you could need. Plus the room temperature is easily altered to suit your preference.
There is a bar on the ground floor, ideal for a pre-dinner drink, with dark oak panelling and bar stools. And they bring you a menu, so you can decide what you fancy as you chat over a bottle of the excellent Palmer & Co house Champagne.
The restaurant stretches over two rooms with white columns, carved Fleur-de-Lys-inscribed vaulted ceiling and dandelion yellow walls. Four circular mirror shields are set in the ceiling above our table. These must be cleaned and polished every day, as they shine, reflecting the golden light from the wall-mounted chandeliers across the room. The lighting at Hartwell throughout is gorgeous. Elaborate gilt mirrors and rococo gold lamps are used to good effect to create a welcoming, warm atmosphere.
The executive head chef at Hartwell is Daniel Richardson, who started in 1994 as Chef Tournant. That is 26 years of experience, sourcing fresh, local and homegrown food, plus two AA Rosettes. It shows in every dish. The food is exquisite, as fine a three-course meal as can be found anywhere in the world. The scallops with mango chutney, curry sauce and seaweed rice cracker are meltingly soft, succulent, crispy and sweet with a tang. The confit of salmon with onion muffin, dill and spinach mousse, pickled cucumber, caviar and quinoa is chunky, fresh, light and piquant.
The main course of roasted loin of venison, potato fondant, artichoke, king oyster mushrooms, elderberry and balsamic jus continued the theme of balancing different textures, opposing flavours, harmonious seasoning and impeccable ingredients. Just for the record, the venison was cooked to absolute perfection. Timing is everything in cuisine.
The pan-seared fillet of monkfish, hazelnut, lemon gnocchi, spinach, salsify and hazelnut dressing played the same appetising game. The butter-soft fish savour brought out by the gentle flavour of nuts, raised by the hint of lemon, and brought down to earth by the dandelion salsify and metallic spinach. A gentle rollercoaster of tastes that undulated over the tongue.
The desserts offered a wide choice. The expresso parfait, chocolate ganache with chocolate brownies, will leave you wanting more, precisely as it should be. A combination of buttery chocolate, with light mousses that evaporate in the month, rich in flavours and aromas. The dark chocolate ganache, muscovado sugar poached pear and homemade vanilla ice cream completed the gourmet journey with panache. Daniel Richardson has spent decades honing his craft in his home territory, developing ideas and drawing new sensations from the local produce. The food is truly excellent.
Whoever selects the staff knows their job and has a fine eye for character. The service is flawless, throughout the hotel. They are friendly, attentive and charming, without ever being too present. Superbly professional, they know just when to refill your glass, clear, help or inform. Other hotels should send spies here and take notes.
Once the abode of Louis XVIII in exile and loved by Lord Byron, both chaps renowned lovers of luxury and excess is high recommendation indeed. If you are looking for an authentic English Manor House, with exquisite food and service, landscaped gardens and plenty of things to do locally, then Hartwell House is hard to beat. The opportunity to stay in a National Trust House which offers so much history with superb hospitality and service should not be missed. 10/10