Anyone fond of the works of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and the works of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde would surely relish the chance to sample, if only for a precious day or two, just how the other half lived – and, in the case of bankers, seemingly still do.
Across the UK and Ireland countless stately homes fell into disrepair during the 20th Century and were eventually demolished, victims of swingeing death duties, a changed social order and running costs beyond the means of all but a privileged few. Thankfully, the hotel industry came to the rescue, saving many of the surviving properties by converting them into country house hotels where discerning clients could get a taste of the good life without putting themselves into financial penury. Staying at such venues is not cheap but it is affordable, if only for special occasions.
In the case of Luton Hoo Hotel Golf & Spa (www.lutonhoo.com) the experience is highly accessible too.
Conrad Hilton’s time-honoured mantra of “Location, location, location” being the three prime elements for establishing a successful hotel certainly apply here for visitors from Northern Ireland can take a plane from Belfast, land at London Luton Airport an hour later and within five minutes taxi ride crunch across the gravel at this truly stately pile – arguably the grandest country house hotel of them all, set less than a mile off the MI motorway, five-minutes from half-hourly trains into London St. Pancras – the Eurostar terminal – and that short ride from the airport.
Besides being less than 50 miles from Central London there are other key elements working for this truly remarkable venue – most notably the sheer magnificence of the main mansion house, whose opulence makes Buckingham Palace seem like a council house in comparison.
Basking amid a glorious 1,000-acre estate of rolling parkland, laid out above the River Lea and its man-made 50-acre lake by the redoubtable 18th Century landscape gardener Capability Brown, the house was originally completed in 11767 by genius architect Robert Adam as a new country seat for the third Earl of Bute. Following a fire in 1843, it was rebuilt by the talented Robert Smirke, who added the crowning glory of a grand entrance portico supported by six massive Portland stone columns.
Julius Wernher, a diamond magnate and one of the world’s richest men, acquired the property in 1903 and endowed it with an Aladdin’s Cave like collection of exquisite furniture, priceless paintings, porcelain, silverware objets d’art and what was at the time the world’s most fabled collection of Fabergé artefacts.
In more recent times, the house has been lavishly restored to its former glory through a no expense spared £20-million programme and it opened as a hotel in 1999. It is operated as one of four exceptional Home Counties’ properties under the Elite Hotels banner and is a member of the Pride of Britain and Small Luxury Hotels marketing consortia.
Visual feasts abound within, from the glorious oval sweep of the elegant main staircase and the spectacular private chapel, with its flamboyantly painted ceiling, to the Versailles’ proportioned public rooms, majestically gargantuan guest rooms – ours had an amazing 35-ft ceiling – a huge first-floor sitting room providing panoramic views over the park and a dining room featuring not only elaborate wood carvings by renowned Victorian craftsman Grinling Gibbons, the acknowledged maestro of the idiom, but equally artistic cuisine showboating a melange of adventurous contemporary dishes and timeless British classics, all using the freshest of mostly locally sourced produce – providing fine dining at its zenith.
Featured in numerous movies and TV series, including a James Bond epic, it’s a truly special venue.
But the 35 bedroom and suites endowed main mansion – a palace truly fit for a king – or a Queen, Her Majesty having been one of a long list of honoured guests – is just part of the Luton Hoo story. A covered walkway leads to the Parkland Wing, with its 38 rooms and suites, including the spectacular Roof Garden Suite. A short drive further into the huge estate, the purpose-built Warren Weir meeting and conference facility, which was completed in 2009 beside the sprawling lake, offers a further 84 spacious and superbly fitted guestrooms. this time in an arts-and-crafts’ inspired style. The close-by Country Club adds another 18 guest rooms, aimed principally at golf and spa guests.
Warren Weir is geared to cater for up to 400 delegates in its spacious and light-filled meeting rooms while its lower ground floor spa showcases an impressive 18-metre indoor pool, complete with whirlpool, as well as a Technogym-kitted fitness studio and a snooker room. The Country Club spa provides a full range of treatments, other amenities including a gym, a further 18-metre pool and a relaxing 19th Hole Bar, in a striking oak framed building.
Leisure facilities are comprehensive, with boating and waterskiing on the 50 acre lake, a Clay pigeon shooting school, falconry, archery, grass and hard court tennis, mapped bird and wildlife walks and one of the longest golf courses in the UK, a 7,107-yard par-73 masterpiece.
There’s lots to do locally, from watching hang gliders soaring above the chalk ridge of Dunstable Downs or taking a ride on the steam-hauled railway at Leighton Buzzard to exploring the lovely Chiltern Hills and the Thames Valley and visiting Whipsnade Zoo and the Woburn Abbey safari park.