It is generally agreed that the first English country house hotel was Sharrow Bay, which opened in 1949 on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District. For 71 years it prospered, before succumbing to the economic fallout of the pandemic in 2020. Sharrow Bay created a new genre, thanks to its handsome main building, lavishly decorated accommodations, reliably excellent food and a gracious atmosphere created by its famously genial owners. Success spawned numerous imitations, and soon, a network of country house hotels had transformed the experience of travel in Britain for Americans. Nearly everywhere, visitors could now enjoy international standards of comfort and cuisine. Of course, these early properties were simple in comparison with their descendants. There were no spas, swimming pools, equestrian centers or lengthy menus of activities. Guests went sightseeing, took country walks or just read quietly by the fire. Over time, however, hoteliers became more ambitious and a process of evolution began that has continued to the present day.
On my recent trip to England, I was particularly keen to experience Heckfield Place, a country house hotel that opened in September 2018 and was greeted by a tsunami of laudatory reviews. A 50-mile drive west from London brought me to the county of Hampshire and the gatehouse of a 438-acre estate. Heading along a winding, tree-lined driveway, I was suddenly confronted by a dramatic, red-brick Georgian manor house. The mansion was built in the 1760s and then expanded at the end of the 18th century. After a succession of owners, Heckfield was purchased in 2002 by Boston-based billionaire Gerald Chan, much of whose fortune came from property developments in Hong Kong and mainland China. (Chan has invested over $100 million in the Harvard Square district of Cambridge, and his family donated $350 million to the Harvard School of Public Health.) Strangely, 16 years would elapse before the hotel was ready to receive its first guests.
I was greeted at the main entrance by a manager whose manner was a combination of friendliness and professionalism. He ushered me into a reception hall with an ornate red-marble fireplace, a geometric-tiled floor, a large Persian rug and tall glass doors that revealed the green expanse of the estate. The walls were adorned with modern paintings, mostly portraits, apparently part of the owner’s private collection.