On a frosty, autumn weekend few places are more magical than the New Forest in Hampshire. The morning sunlight is turning the shaggy coats of the wild ponies the colour of horse chestnuts as they saunter across our path single-file. We make our way through the trees to the edge of the forest where our cottage is waiting, kick off our wellies at the front door and set about building a fire in the wood burner. It’s almost lunchtime and I’m feeling peckish, so I pick up the phone. Within minutes, a golf buggy comes trundling up the drive laden with goodies.
Our woodland hideaway may be rustic, but we’re certainly not roughing it. It’s one of three new cottages recently opened within the grounds of Lime Wood, the five-star country house hotel run by Robin Hutson, co-founder of the Hotel du Vin chain. Hutson felt the hotel was not fully geared up to accommodate families, so he set about converting the former gatehouse and an old stable block of the Regency manor house into three self-contained cottages.
“Everyone loves the idea of a cabin in the woods,” says Hutson. “We knew we could never match the nobility of the main house, so it was important to give the cottages a character of their own.”
The designer’s brief was to recreate the rough-hewn romance of a “woodsman’s cottage” – albeit a woodsman with a subscription to Elle Decor magazine and a taste for the finer things in life. Chunky wooden bed frames are softened with the finest white bed linen, dark walls of unvarnished oak are offset with funky gilt mirrors, while the rustic-luxe theme reaches its apogee in the enormous upstairs bathroom with its walk-in shower for two, roll-top bath, Bamford organic unguents and “chill-out zone” with two leather armchairs and a pile of Vogue back issues.
So far, so stylish. But the all-important family-friendly details are in place too: my daughter is captivated by the cosy little bunk room (with a pile of Julia Donaldson books for bedtime reading), there’s a stack of board games downstairs, and the tiny kitchenette is just right for heating up some pasta or baked beans. You probably wouldn’t attempt to cook a Sunday roast in it, but then, why would you want to, with Angela Hartnett’s new restaurant, Hartnett Holder & Co, at the top of the drive?
It’s a winning combination: guests get the freedom, space and privacy of their own house, but with the facilities of a five-star hotel on tap, while hoteliers get to add to their bed count without having to carry out disruptive building work on the main hotel. It’s no surprise to learn that Hutson is looking for other suitable spots within the grounds of Lime Wood to “sneak a couple more in”, nor that the concept is being emulated at five-star hotels across the country, as they look to tap into the increasingly lucrative family market.
At Barnsley House, a beautiful Cotswold stone manor house in Gloucestershire, expansion within the boundaries of the 17th-century listed building and gardens was out of the question and the room layout of the historic building was far from family-friendly. So when the opportunity to take over the lease of a historic cottage in the village came up, the owners jumped at the chance. Home Farm Cottage opened its doors in August. Unlike many of the cottages found within the grounds of hotels, this one is completely self-contained and fully equipped for self-catering. Guests can immerse themselves in village life, but with the added benefit of luxury fittings and furnishings on a par with those found in the hotel, and access to all of the facilities, including the spa and cinema, a short walk away.
“We live hectic lives and the reality is that we often don’t get to spend a great deal of time with our kids. Luxury hotels were missing out on this market, but if you do it well, you can welcome children and it doesn’t have to impact on the other guests,” says Barnsley House general manager Michele Mella.
It’s not a case of guests in the cottages in the grounds being the poor relations to those in the big house – quite the reverse in fact. Prices at these new deluxe cottages usually start well above the rate for a hotel room, so the onus is on hoteliers to come up with something pretty special.
At Cliveden House in Berkshire, for example, guests pay upwards of £1,800 a night to stay in the beautifully restored summer house that reopened earlier this year on the banks of the river Thames. Originally built as a tea room for the Countess of Orkney in 1813, Spring Cottage was a favourite haunt of Queen Victoria. In the 1960s it became infamous as the house where Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler were staying at the time of the Profumo scandal. It had fallen into dilapidation but has now been transformed into a secluded and exclusive retreat for up to six guests, with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, landscaped gardens and a private river launch. The hotel can provide a personal butler and guests get full use of the main house, the spa, gym and tennis centre, and free range of the gorgeous National Trust-owned grounds.
While the advantages for families are clear, it’s not only parents who value the added privacy that a cottage brings. Dormy House, a hotel close to the Cotswolds village of Broadway, is about to complete a £10m, 10-month renovation, which includes the conversion of a stone outbuilding (once used as a cleaners’ storeroom) into Rose Cottage. To be fair, it is on the far side of the car park from the main hotel, rather than lost in woodland on a huge estate, but it is still an ideal retreat for couples, blending pretty floral fabrics with some high-tech gadgets and a luxurious bathroom.
Over the coming months, more country house hotels will be putting their stamp on the humble holiday cottage. The Celtic Manor Resort, near Newport in Wales, will launch 10 four-bedroom wooden lodges with saunas and whirlpool baths in February. And the Isle of Eriska Hotel, a Baronial pile on a private island on the west coast of Scotland, will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year with the opening of two standalone suites on the bluff above the main house. Built to a modern, sustainable design, the Applecrates (which take their name from the company that designs them) will have floor-to-ceiling windows and hot tubs with views of Loch Creran. The new properties join the existing Arnott’s House, a three-bedroom beachside house, which the hotel is letting on an exclusive-use basis for the first time this winter.
Back in the New Forest, Robin Hutson is looking into the possibility of creating three new family cottages within the grounds of The Pig, the popular Hampshire bolt-hole credited with reinventing the country house hotel when it opened three years ago.
“It’s not like 20 years ago when country house hotels didn’t want children running around,” says Hutson. “People don’t necessarily want to dumb down their travel experience when they have children these days. They want to stay in nice places and be looked after. If we are going to accommodate them, then let’s make sure we do it properly.”
Joanne O’Connor was a guest of Lime Wood (limewoodhotel.co.uk). Its Forest Cottages, which sleep up to four, cost from £650 per night. Home Farm Cottage at Barnsley House (barnsleyhouse.com) sleeps up to six and costs from £575. Spring Cottage at Cliveden (clivedenhouse.co.uk) sleeps up to six and costs from £1,854 per night. Rose Cottage at Dormy House (dormyhouse.co.uk) sleeps two, from £300 per night. Hunter Lodges at The Celtic Manor Resort (celtic-manor.com) will sleep eight and cost from £1,350 for a three-night break. The Applecrates at Isle of Eriska (eriska-hotel.co.uk) will sleep two and cost from £200 per night; Arnott’s Hous sleeps six, from £500 per night