There are a number of socioeconomic factors driving the investment and interest in refurbished luxury English countryside escapes, but the most basic is a driving desire from all involved to reconnect with sunlight, nature, and conscious meals in a comfortable setting.
Brexit worries aside, there’s a new generation of luxury accommodations opening in the English countryside that capture the height of new luxury trends: well-designed accommodations; conscious, locally sourced meals; and integration with nature and knowledge-based pursuits.
Chewton Glen, a privately owned, five-star luxury country house hotel and spa located two hours outside of London, recently underwent a major refreshment with the addition of private treehouse suites and a family program.
“Chewton Glen’s age demographic has dropped by 10–15 years. As the property has been refurbished, all of the country house chintz has disappeared as the audience has become younger,” said Andrew Stembridge, executive director of Iconic Luxury Hotels.
Another example is the 400-plus acre Heckfield Place. The estate, hotel, and farm has experienced occupancy growth since opening in September 2018.
“I think the change in English country house hotels in the last 10 years is very refreshing, and the demand is impressive. Our guests are very young, and they keep coming back. The biggest change from 25 years ago is that the city dwellers who used to buy their cottage in the country and visit the same spot every weekend have changed their habits. Rather than buy — they have become too expensive, are hard to find and to upkeep — they now spend their money on country escapes each weekend,” said Heckfield general manager Olivia Richli.
“It is not about pretending to be ‘lord of the manor’ or re-create ‘to the manor born.’ It is far more about getting back in touch with the land, breathing clean air, appreciating the simple things in life, taking long walks, and for a moment reconnecting with green.”
As these spaces and places are refurbished and reimagined, a younger, wealthier, and more mobile demographic has come to play.
Heckfield’s guests are “surprisingly young,” said Richli. They come from London and stay on the property throughout their stay. Some come for the comfort and other seek out the farmers and gardeners to learn about how the space operates.
These operations are renovations and reimaginings of centuries-old estates with ties to the earliest iterations of luxury hospitality. They boast storied guests of the past but required serious work to appeal to a new generation of country seekers.
Cliveden House is a 350-year-old stately home, which the Astor family gifted to the National Trust in the 1960s. Its recent renovation altered the course of its future. While the pre-refurbishment Cliveden was discounting heavily, it now attracts a high-end international audience. The food and beverage offering is simpler and healthier.
A Boon in Investment
There might be another factor driving investment in these special properties. Beyond consumers’ search for meaningful experiences, investors are looking to develop spaces that leave more than money behind.
“Refurbishing Cliveden really was a ‘labor of love’ with every room being a project in its own right, and as you would imagine it involved countless discussions with the National Trust’s curators and also English Heritage, especially as we had to install modern features such as air conditioning,” said Stembridge.
“It is very interesting to watch who is actually investing in rural properties, and many are clearly private investors looking to create a legacy rather than a healthy ROI.”
Monkey Island Estate, Bray-on-Thames, officially opened in April 2019. YTL Hotels bought the 800-year-old property in 2016 and set about refurbishing the seven-acre property for a new generation of visitors.
“In May 2015 the chairman of YTL fell in love with the peaceful old island with its verdant gardens, silky lawn, and Georgian retreat,” said Andrew Jordan, executive vice president of YTL Hotels.
“The subsequent purchase marked the beginning of the resurrection of this famous destination. This massive undertaking was made possible by YTL’s extensive experience in restoring historical buildings.”
In addition to its historic draw, YTL crafted a new spa offering and restaurants. It’s particularly focused on the events space as well as drawing overseas business from Asia where YTL already has a large customer base.
A small team of gardeners tend to Monkey Island Estate’s grounds, including a chef’s garden where herbs, spices, tea, and pickling vegetables are grown for the kitchen and spa. There are also four bee hives and a chicken run for fresh eggs and honey.
Where Luxury and Experience Seekers Meet
There is an experiential element to these properties where guests can participate in gardeners’ and ground staffs’ activities.
While the proximity to rolling grounds adds an experiential element with guests participating in farming, horseback riding, nature walks, and bee-keeping, there are added challenges in developing a property whose surrounding grounds and nature are as much a draw as any amenity or renowned chef.
“We are very lucky because the 376 acres at Cliveden are actually looked after by the National Trust. All guests staying at Cliveden are also charged a small fee, which goes to the National Trust in lieu of them enjoying the estate. The grounds stretch right down to the River Thames where the hotel has a couple of vintage launches. The grounds and especially the formal gardens directly surrounding the hotel are a very important part of the Cliveden experience,” said Stembridge.
Chewton Glen’s founder Martin Skan regularly reminds his team that people often have more money than imagination, spurring them to create new packages and experiences for guests once on property.
Heckfield, for example, leans into its biodynamic farm and presence of culinary director Skye Gyngell for an experience beyond beautiful grounds. Chewton Glenn has also developed a significant fruit and vegetable production, which has become an important part of guests’ experience.
Sociopolitical issues do also have a role as Brexit controversies remain heavy in the warming summer air.
“The weak pound is supporting the staycation phenomenon, and it is still very fashionable to holiday or at least take short breaks in the UK,” said Stembridge.
“Although there are a few downsides to a weak pound, the UK hotel business is benefiting enormously as more domestic leisure business remains in the UK. The trend for more regular short breaks versus traditional longer holidays continues, and hence being within two hours of any major conurbation enables you to tap into these markets.”
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Photo credit: The grounds outside of the recently reopened Monkey Island Estate outside of London. Monkey Island Estate