Heckfield Place, 40 miles west of London’s Heathrow airport, should be in the diary now for everyone who loves nature, history, authenticity, a sense of fun – and great food. And yes, it does feel a little Australian, in a way. First, the setting, namely an 18th century country palace set in 162 hectares of exquisite landscape complete with forests, lakes, and a working farm. A private entrepreneur fell in love with the place, bought it in 2002 and ran it as a conference centre for some years before deciding a hotel would be more suitable. With the owner’s typical care, what was originally intended to open in 2012 in fact accepted its first guests September 1st, 2018. The gal had to experience this 47-room hotel, independent but for a partnership with Virtuoso. After a long private driveway, Downton Abbeystyle, you arrive at the stately front door of the original two-floor mansion. A couple of bellmen have been alerted by security back at the outer gate: these two, like all of the 170-strong team who are customer-facing, are clad in absolutely adorable period uniform vaguely 1910-style – all the fashion is by Maureen Doherty, whose clients range from Mrs May to actors Maggie Smith and Tilda Swinton.
In through the front door, you gasp at high ceilings with chandeliers, and polished oak floors, and walls and furniture chosen with discreet style by designer Ben Thompson, a name to watch. You immediately have a view straight through the house and across sculpted gardens to a massive lake with a jet d’eau as high as Geneva’s. Around you are displays of fresh flowers (home arrangements rather than hotel ‘show-off displays’). A half-finished jigsaw will, eventually, show Heckfield Place in the snow: in summer, another jigsaw shows the same scene, in the sun. Public rooms, like bedrooms, are hung with over 350 pieces from Gerald Chan’s art collection, which he seems to change daily when he is in residence. Fortunately he has extremely good rapport with the two most important women of Heckfield Place. GM is Olivia Richli, whom so many know for her years at Aman properties (Adrian Zecha remains her mentor). She arrived 15 months before the opening, in time to instil her special flair. The Chan-Richli team hosted an afternoon tea party, with Champagne and jazz, for locals, on opening day. To spread the word about the bedrooms, they invited five influencers, from different target markets, each to host one-night house parties for 12 guests, all of whom later posted and chattered, and not surprisingly the hotel got off to an immediate much-acclaimed start.
Olivia Richli says one of the secrets of this success is that accommodations vary from 330 to 1,900 sq m – the biggest suites, in the main house, are ideal for those who want to feel they really do own a manor house, and enjoy waking up in the morning to look out, through big windows, at those fountains. But quite apart from the fact that my own house is early 19th century, with stunning rural views, I was really pleased that I was overnighting in #30, a 55 sq m space in the old stable block: soft avocado walls, some hung with rush hats and baskets, matching cashmere throw on the bed that has a rush headboard, a bathroom with heated towel rail and Victorian roll-top tub, and cuddly Ploh robes – add half a dozen significant living green plants, and dozens of fascinating reads, including Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, chosen by Daunt Books. The refreshment centre is unique. Complimentary soft drinks include hotel-bottled still and sparkling waters, and lemonade. Instead of the now-ubiquitous espresso machine there is an exquisite black cast-iron tea kettle: place it on its stand and it boils, quickly (ground coffee has china filter holder and papers).
Culinary star Skye Gyngell, daughter of Bruce, made the world food map at Petersham Nurseries, in England, but when it gained a Michelin star, which she described as a curse, she moved on, to Spring restaurant in London’s Somerset House, and here, to Heckfield Place. I loved her burrata with crispy artichoke and confit lemon, followed by local River Test trout with samphire, and cauliflower purée, with a side of greens with Capezzana (Moraiolo) olive oil, and, to finish, a single scoop of home-made cardamom icecream. I also liked the house red, Gayda En Passant 2016 (I had earlier toured the 360-bin wine cellar, chosen and managed by chief sommelier Louise Gordon, formerly at Limewood). The restaurant, which flows out to a garden-view terrace when the weather allows, is open to the public, and is full most nights: hotel guests can also eat, at any time, with more exclusivity in a brick-lined bistro. Daytime, I could have walked for hours and hours, visiting the hotel’s own working farm, already home to sheep and chicken, with Guernsey cows arriving shortly. A thoughtful map helps with tree identification as you walk or run. There is already a bijou gym, with latest Technogym bits, but a full fitness centre, with indoor lap pool, opens alongside the Bothy Spa, scheduled for end of 2019. And do take note of Heckfield Place’s unique Assembly programme, overseen by exhibition specialist Lucy Hyslop. This offers guests, and anyone else who wants to come, at least one event a day, including talks on memories and scent, and, using the 67-seat cinema, (which has holders for your wine glass), showings of, say, Front Runner, and Mary Queen of Scots. Separately, the educational company Hole & Corner runs day-long courses at least twice a month: coming up in April are learning rush weaving, and bench woodwork. The instructors, not surprisingly, are the very artisans who have crafted pieces throughout Heckfield Place. This is indeed a very special luxury hotel. THIS WARRANTS LOTS OF VIDEOS – SEE BEDROOM 30, THE WALLED GARDEN, A LAKE WALK, AND THE BREAKFAST ROOM