The Stately Homes of England

Like one of Pavlov's dogs, my trips to the UK have always been largely conditioned response: board a plane in Australia, put my brain in neutral for a day, leave the flight at Heathrow and then make my way into London.

The inherent fault in this sequence is that I'm thrown into the dynamo of London while my mental synapses have all but shut down. Then when I've slept, relaxed and adjusted my body clock, I head into the countryside which operates at an altogether slower pace. Recently, I've come to realise that I've been doing it the wrong way around for all these years.

So on my most recent visit to England I reversed the process. I flew with Lauda-Air to Vienna (via Bangkok) and onwards to Manchester. Within minutes of landing outside Manchester, I was in my rental car and in the English countryside. The industrial north may not be Britain's most endearing feature but the surrounding rural scenes certainly are. And, for travellers, they are getting better each generation.

It hasn't been an easy century for the English ruling class. If the decline of doit de signeur wasn't bad enough, servants started demanding real payment and the manors of the ruling classes became ludicrously expensive to maintain. For many an Englishman, his castle is no longer his home. Some grand piles became museums, mausoleums to a dead past, others have become schools or other institutions, and many have become hotels and guest houses.

For anyone travelling through England, these make ideal bases for general touring - or exploring one specific area, like the Cotswolds or the Yorkshire Dales. Utilising the Small Luxury Hotels 1994 directory, I travelled from the north to London and returned.

Those who have journeyed through the UK and discovered the dubious charms of B&Bs with intermittent hot water, interminable breakfasts and abominable beds will be surprised to find every SLH property I visited was an historical gem, exceedingly comfortable, and genuinely hospitable.

As I've found on other trips in the UK, the wealth of cultural and historical highlights everywhere provides continual astonishment to someone from our empty land.

From Manchester, I drove to the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey near Skipton in North Yorkshire. Initially, I was confused as to how the property came by its name - this was a long way from Devon and cream teas. Then I learned that the hotel was owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The furnishings and artworks come from Chatsworth, the ducal residence and one of the grandest homes in England.

Originally a coaching inn, the Devonshire Arms has rooms that would be regarded as overly fussy in Australia. Four poster beds, pillows and lamps everywhere, intricately patterned comfy lounge chairs and deep carpet are offset by copies of bloodstock books. In its natural setting, this style of decore works well. Indeed, it's a pleasant counterpoint to the often bleak Yorkshire dales outside

This is the moor land that forms such an evocative and pivotal setting to the literature of the Bronte sisters, Emily (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte (Jane Eyre), and Anne (the much less well-known Agnes Grey). Not far away is Haworth and the Bronte parsonage where these books were written. Today, Haworth feeds on the reflected glory of its daughters and the parsonage itself is uninspiring. The hills and dales elsewhere in Yorkshire remain much more true to the Brontes than these suburban attractions. Next time, I'll spend more time around the walking trails of Bolton Abbey and skip Haworth.

My next stop was on the outskirts of Birmingham. As a tourist I've never found a reason to visit Birmingham but I have often passed by. As a collector of exotic hotel experiences, I'll be back to New Hall at Royal Sutton Coldfield, not far from the M6. There can be few places more inappropriately named than New Hall: it is the oldest inhabited moated manor house in England. The name "New Hall" was first used for the property in 1341 - and stuck for the next 650 years.

Surrounded by over 10 hectares of grounds and gardens, the crenellated hall is a history lesson in stone. Much of the original building (erected in 1200) still stands - it's now the dining room and great hall. Although there are now a couple of pathways to this part of the house, it was once only accessible by a drawbridge to the main door. The ornate ceiling of the oak panelled Great Chamber (circa 1542) is Elizabethan and looks too typical of the period to be true. New Hall offers a chance to stay in a genuinely historic building - rather than to merely visit one as part of a tourist conga-line.

Heading south, the Cotswolds act as a magnet for visitors. The golden stone of the houses and the picture perfect valleys and villages provide the cutest scenery in England. Indeed, the tiny villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter (collectively known as "the Slaughters") really do resemble Dorothy's Munchkin Land. The hedge-lined roads here are so narrow that if you miss a turning, it's easiest to continue to the next village to turn around.

I stayed at Lords of the Manor hotel right in Upper Slaughter. It's a 17th century rectory with manicured lawns sloping down to a picturesque pond. All the other towns and sights of the Cotswolds are close at hand but it's tempting to just settle back and pretend that this is home. I found myself lamenting not having a large English sheepdog to take for walks down the lane.

Considering the number of tourists who pass through the Cotswolds, you'd think they would have had enough of visitors. Yet I found the management and staff at Lords of the Manor showing a level of friendly hospitality that would have been remarkable in much less formal surrounds.

This warmth seemed characteristic of the Cotswolds. Indeed, Charingworth Manor near Chipping Campden and Broadway is the closest English establishment I've found in atmosphere to an Australian country retreat. The house may have been built several hundred years before Captain Cook was born but there is a casual mood at Charingworth that is rather like staying at a friend's country house. Unlike much of England, gentlemen don't feel obligated to wear a jacket and tie to breakfast, for example. (We once stayed at a place in Wales where a male guest rose and bowed as my wife passed on her way to collect the morning newspaper.)

Inevitably, I came to London. Small Luxury Hotels have a selection of London establishments from the esteemed Ritz on Piccadilly, Dukes, The Stafford, Dorset Square, and 22 Jermyn Street. I stayed at the Fenja, just off the Kings Road in Knightsbridge. The only two drawbacks of the Fenja was learning the pronunciation (the "j" is enunciated - not kept silent as it would be in Spanish) and accepting that Sloane Square is the nearest Tube stop. When I last lived in London, Princes Di and her Sloane Ranger friends hadn't given this location worldwide prominence and it was better known as the epicentre of musical and clothing fashion.

The Fenja has no public areas, just spacious rooms that give you the feeling of having your own London apartment. Breakfast is served in your room. I found it very relaxing. Despite the central location, Cadogan Gardens opposite it so quiet that I was able to park my car directly across the road from the hotel for the duration of my stay.

Several years ago, my travels were plagued with celebrities. The Queen of the Netherlands threw the staff of my hotel in India into disarray - and she then had the ill grace to conduct a long and loud dinner party in the room below ours. Later, one of Dan Quayle's bodyguards kept me in his rifle sights while I was merely going to breakfast in San Francisco.

My timing is getting better. I arrived at Hartwell House a few days after President Bill Clinton had left. Even better, it has been well over a hundred years since Louis XVIIII used Hartwell House as his royal residence in exile. Hartwell House is one of those impressive piles that you arrive at the front door with a sense of awe. The concept that a family once regarded this as "home" is too much to grasp.

Written about by Lord Byron, mentioned in the Domesday Book, and long owned by Robert E Lee's family - Hartwell House was bought in 1938 by Thomas Cook's grandson. From the Jacobean carved figures on the bannister to the baroque Great Hall and the rococo Morning Room, Hartwell House is an imposing stately house. Many guests use it for their first or last nights in the UK - it has easy access to Heathrow, without the need to pass through London. Oxford is only 30 kilometres away.

On the other side of London and on a completely different scale there's the Angel in Guildford. Its full title is The Angel Posting House and Livery - it served as an inn for many centuries when livery (care for patron's horses) was as essential as car parking today. Jane Austen and Lord Nelson are believed to have stayed here (but not together).

Anyone seeking "ye olde English inn" need look no further. The basement is an atmospheric, medieval, vaulted undercroft built in the 13th century. The ground floor bar and restaurant with their low ceilings and ancient wood could well have been the model for pseudo-Jacobean pubs worldwide - except these are the real thing. A sitting area in the centre of the building has a huge open fireplace centuries old, and stairs leading to the maze-like corridors and bedrooms upstairs. At the top of the stairs is an imposing clock presented to the Angel by the government in 1688. Since then, there seemed to have been numerous additions with each adding an extra twist or turn to the corridors.

The Angel's timber-framed facade would have been a welcome sight for generations of coach travellers. That era ended last century when the railway came through and coach trade declined. Of all Guildford High Street's great coaching inns, the Angel is the only survivor. Staying here, one is immersed in a tradition of hospitality stretching back over the centuries.

Just off the M3 near Hook on the way to Southampton is the altogether more serious Tylney Hall, an expansive Victorian-era manor house. With large bedrooms, 25 hectares of grounds and a wonderfully wild garden (now being replanted and recreated from the original plans), Tylney Hall attracts a lot of conferences. Like Charingworth Manor and the Devonshire Arms, it has excellent recreational facilities including an indoor heated pool large enough to do serious laps in.

I was flying back to Vienna out of Manchester so my last night in England was in the city of Chester. I had never been to Chester before. This must put me in a minority because a British authority recently determined that so many tourists are coming to Chester that they are spoiling it for each other. The city of 120,000 receives more than two million visitors a year. I was there in June and the streets were largely deserted - the crowds must have been self-harassing elsewhere.

No wonder so many people have the city on their "must see" list. The black and white "Tudor-style" buildings of Chester make it one of the world's most distinctive city centres. It is also the only English city that has retained its medieval wall intact. Another special feature of Chester are the "rows" - levels of shopfronts set on a concourse above the main street-level shops. Every upmarket store and brand is well represented in this city. I began to suspect I was a very late newcomer when I passed the Disney and Warner Bros. shops.

Again, Small Luxury Hotels offers the best accommodation in town. This is the Chester Grosvenor which, since its 1988 refurbishment, lays claim to being the most luxurious hotel in Britain. Among the impressive statistics about the renovation, I was most taken with the fact that 26,000 piece chandelier had to be taken down and cleaned. (I'll never again complain while washing up after a dinner party.)

The Chester Grosvenor's main restaurant is called Arkle, after the Duchess of Westminster's famous steeplechaser (the family own the hotel). The Michelin guide has awarded it one of its covetted stars for the past five years and Egon Ronay named it as "hotel of the year" in 1993. Although the title of the "most luxurious" is open to dispute, it certainly is an impressive hotel. That's especially true as the Chester Grosvenor is well outside London and away from other major metropolitan centres.

Chester was a fitting finale to this trip to some of England's most appealing provincial accommodation. The unexpected delights of Chester began at the Grosvenor's front door. After many trips to the UK, the myriad heritage sights never cease to amaze me.

I guess if you crowd millions of people into a small island for several millenia there will inevitably be a depth of culture that warrants many journeys of discovery. Staying in hotels and manors that are part of the history is certainly not the cheapest option for a UK holiday but it adds a wonderfully enriching facet to the entire travel experience.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

Lauda-Air flies once a week (on Thursday evenings) from Sydney and Melbourne to Vienna via Bangkok. With the eatern European cities of Prague and Budapest opening up, Vienna is becoming an increasingly popular stepping off point for Europe.

Lauda-Air recently purchased several 50-seat Canadair Regional Jets which it uses on routes within Europe. So, as well as two flights a week into London, Lauda has six direct flights a week (excluding Saturdays) into Manchester.

Although it is a small airline, Lauda-Air has quickly won an enviable reputation for its food and general service. When the Sydney discount travel agent Just Flights conducted its inaugural survey of its clients to find the preferred airline last year, Lauda-Air was the surprise winner. This year it won again in the "best food" category.

Between now and Christmas, Lauda-Air (like other carriers to Europe) will change the price of its return economy fares eight times. The published fares range from $2799 in the lead-up to Christmas to $2199 from the beginning of October to mid-November. All these fares include add on flights from Vienna to other Lauda-Air European destinations such as Manchester or London.

I asked Just Flights what discounts applied on the published fares. As a general rule, you can look at rates of around $450 less the stated Lauda-Air fare (so prices range from $1749 to $2249). More information can be obtained from Just Flights, tel (02) 223 4788, fax (02) 221 3383.

Lauda-Air is now in close partnership with Lufthansa and can be contacted in Sydney on (02) 367-3888 (fax 367 3876), or Melbourne (03) 602 1155 (fax 602 4458).

Staying

Small Luxury Hotels puts out a comprehensive directory of its properties which is available free of charge. In Australia, it can be obtained from Select Hotels and Resorts International, tel (02) 267 7599 or (008) 25 1958, fax (02) 264 1195.

Alternatively, contact SLH directly in London on (44-81) 877 9500 or fax (44-81) 877 9477 and a copy of the directory will be sent to you.

Here's some basic information and rates for the hotels mentioned in this article:

Devonshire Arms, tel 0756/710441, fax 0756/710564, rates begin at £90.

New Hall, tel 021/3782442, fax 021/3784637, rates begin at £93.

Charingworth Manor, tel 038/678555, fax 038/678353, rates begin at £85.

Lords of the Manor, tel 0451/820243, fax 0451820696, rates begin at £80.

The Fenja, tel 071/5897333, fax 071/5814958, rates begin at £98.

Hartwell House, tel 0296/747444, fax 0296/747450, rates begin at £90.

The Angel, tel 0483/64555, fax 0483/33770, rates begin at £110.

Tylney Hall, tel 0256/764881, fax 0256/768141, rates begin at £94.

Chester Grosvenor, tel 0244/324024, fax 0244/313246, rates begin at £115.

Further Information

For general information about Britain, contact the British Tourist Authority at 210 Clarence Street, Sydney, Tel (02) 267 4555, Fax (02) 267 4442. The BTA has maps and a large range of publications about all areas of the UK.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd