Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
Many hotels in Britain were once the homes of lords and ladies, barons and dukes. When Evelyn Waugh published his Brideshead Revisited in 1945 he did not believe that the English country house would survive in new post-World War II Britain. Many country houses were demolished as too costly to keep up. Waugh was wrong, however. The majority did survive, some as private homes, or National Trust properties, or country house hotels.

This list of ten British hotels looks mainly at those that were once lived in by aristocrats, places where today you can still catch a sense of what it must have been like to be lord of all you surveyed. But there are also a few hotels that were built by enterprising members of the nobility as money-spinning ventures. Not surprisingly they too reflect something of the aristocratic lifestyle.

So why not live like a Lord (or Lady) in 2019? Even if it's just for a weekend.
Ettington Park

Ettington Park is a neo-Gothic mansion just six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Today it is run by Handpicked Hotels but its lordly story can be traced through the Shirley family all the way back to the Domesday Book. In 1086 William the Conqueror's surveyors recorded that the Manor of Ettington was held by one Sewallis, a Saxon thane who had made his peace with the Normans. Over many centuries Sewallis's family became the Shirleys of Warwickshire. Sir Ralph Shirley aided King Edward I in his conquests of Wales and Scotland. He was instrumental in the defeat of the Welsh prince Llewelyn and the capture and execution of the Scottish leader William “Braveheart” Wallace. He received his knighthood after the English victory at Falkirk in 1290. Sir Ralph died in 1327 and today his tomb can be seen in the family chapel that has been fashioned out of a ruined church that stands in the grounds. Sir Ralph's descendants rebuilt Ettington on a number of occasions, in 1641,1740 and 1767. Then in 1820 as neo-Gothic became fashionable both in architecture and art a new chimney place was added to Ettington's library that was a copy of one at Windsor Castle. A stained-glass window was brought from an old chapel in Chipping Camden and placed over it to enhance the mediaeval ambience. Finally, in 1858, Evelyn Philip Shirley brought in the Puginist architect John Prichard. Prichard's team worked for four years to turn Ettington into the neo-Gothic brick mansion we see today. Evelyn Philip Shirley died in 1882. His son Sewallis was the last member of the family to live at Ettington. After his death in 1912, the house was leased to the Duchess of Westminster. Like so many English country houses Ettington was commandeered during World War II, serving as a POW camp for captured Italian soldiers. And like so many country houses it also suffered a major fire. This one was in 1979 and did a lot of damage. Ettington remained empty until 1983 when the lengthy business of turning the Shirley's ancestral home into a hotel began. Its neo-Gothic dining room, now the Oak Room Restaurant, is lined with wood panelling which displays the coats of arms of the many families into which the Shirleys married over the centuries. It is very easy to feel close to the Shirley family and their thousand-year history while staying at this stirringly historic hotel.

Tylney Hall Hotel

The last actual Tylney of Tylney Hall in Hampshire died in 1725. The house passed to his niece which meant that legally it became the property of her husband Richard Child, Viscount Castlemaine. In recognition of this windfall the Castlemaine viscounts took the title Earls of Tylney.

In the nineteenth century the hall was once again left to a female, Catherine Tylney-Long. When she married William Wellesley Pole, Fifth Earl of Mornington in 1812 the estate therefore became his. As Pole was keen to sell the estate's timber - and a codicil forbade this while Tylney Hall stood - he demolished the old house and built a new one, financing the rebuild with all the money he received from the timber sale.

But the hall we see today is the work of a man called Lionel Phillips. In 1898 Phillips, a financier who had made his fortune in the mines of South Africa, bought Tylney and pretty much rebuilt it from scratch. Amongst his many extravagances he imported a sixteenth-century ceiling and fireplace from the Grimani Palace in Florence. Fourteen years later in 1912 Phillips became Sir Lionel and so he now had a title to match his stately home.

Nikolaus Pevsner, the great architectural historian described Tylney after Phillips' interventions as being “conservative for its date”. Today we might say it was deliberately retro, giving the impression of an ancestral home.

During the First World War Tylney Hall served as a hospital. After the war Phillips and his wife returned to live in South Africa and the hall was acquired by Lord Rotherwick who ran his shipping line, Clan Line Steamers Ltd from it. By 1948 Tylney became a boarding school – often the fate of unwanted stately homes after the Second World War. Then in 1984 the school moved out and Tylney was converted into a country hotel and restaurant.

The Tylney Hall we see today is very much as Lionel Phillips designed it with the great hall still showing off its Florentine walnut panelling. These days the hall is owned by Elite Hotels and its finest suite is named after Thomas Mugleston, the founder of the group.

The Mugleston Suite has a balcony overlooking the hall's Long Vista of redwood trees. It is said to have been used by Sir Lionel's wife, Lady Florence Phillips (whose portrait hangs in the hotel's Grey Lounge). Lady Phillips is best known for founding of the Johannesburg Art Gallery to which she donated her lace collection, seven oil paintings, and a Rodin sculpture that belonged to her husband.

Guests who stay in the Mugleston Suite today get the assistance of their own butler, a nice touch that recalls the lifestyle to which Sir Lionel aspired at Tylney.

The Grand Hotel

Unusually the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne was never an aristocratic home but rather a hotel built by an aristocrat. In the nineteenth century the seaside resort we now known as Eastbourne was part of the Compton Estate, owned by the wealthy dukes of Devonshire whose seat is still at Chatsworth. As sea-bathing became fashionable, successive dukes divided up the estate, making part of it a golf course and the rest a southwestern extension to the town of Eastbourne - in a series of sea-facing terraces that wouldn't have looked out of place in Cheltenham or Bath. At the western end of their the dukes decided to construct a grand hotel.

The architect was William Earp, with his budget at a hefty £50,000. The new Grand Hotel opened in 1875 and confirmed Eastbourne's place on the Victorian holiday map. This was a massive building whose dimensions and lofty public spaces spoke of Britain's imperial aspirations. The dukes themselves always stayed at the hotel when in Eastbourne and entertained the royal family here too, so it had to impress.

In May 1901 Edward VII, who had only been king four months, came to Eastbourne for a royal house party at the Devonshire's home, Compton Place. By this time the Seventh Duke of Devonshire was busy turning his old home into a golf course and so the king was brought to The Grand Hotel to inspect.

To this day the incumbent Duke of Devonshire always has a suite reserved for his use in hotel's eastern extension. The Grand still impresses though its gardens that once looked onto the English Channel have been turned into a car park. Another change has been that reception has been moved from Compton Street to the old garden entrance, but the Victorian dimensions of the façade remain unchanged and the dining room looks as if King Edward might wander in at any moment.

Chateau Rhianfa

Anyone familiar with the plots of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Downton Abbey will know the difficulties that used to face English gentlemen whose wives had only presented them with daughters. Jane Austen's Mr Bennet has no son and so on his death the family home must pass to his nearest male relative, Mr Collins. This will leave his wife and daughters “cast out” (as Mrs Bennet puts it) unless one of them can be married off to the obsequious clergyman. Property that is “entailed” also worries Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, and Lord Grantham in Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey.

A similar dilemma explains the presence of Château Rhianfa on the Welsh island of Anglesey. The builder was Sir John Hay Williams (1794 – 1859) who was High Sheriff of Anglesey and the owner of Bodelwyddan Castle on the mainland. Sir John had inherited this, the family home from his father. In 1842 he married Lady Sarah Amherst, the daughter of the Earl Amherst, and the couple had two daughters but no son. In his mid-fifties and looking towards the end of his life, Sir John knew that his younger brother Sir Hugh Williams would end up inheriting the family seat. In 1849 he began building a dower house for his wife where she and her daughters could live after leaving Bodelwyddan Castle.

Lady Sarah was responsible for the design of her new home, which was built down a steep slope leading to wide gardens overlooking the Menai Strait. Her design was influenced by the châteaux of the Loire valley where she and Sir John had often travelled. This is why when you look across the strait from Bangor University a sixteenth century French castle full of turrets suddenly rises up on the coast of Anglesey.

The Welsh name Rhianfa meaning the “place of the ladies” was given to the château by a local clergyman and, as a guest today, it is very interesting to explore this more feminine kind of Victorian architecture. There is no billiard room or great hall at Rhianfa but rather a series of four large rooms that can be opened up to create a big space for parties or closed off to create a series of drawing rooms and music rooms. Two of the turrets on the piano nobile are accessed from balconies and have comfy seats where one can sit and read a book on a warm day. And another turret contains an ensuite bathroom. Still today Chateau Rhanifa is a relaxed and pleasant living space.

In 1955 Sir John's granddaughter gave to house to her grandson as a wedding present. As he lived in London, he sold it on in 1957 and it became a hotel in 2012. Although the grounds have mostly been parcelled off and sold now, there are still lawns running down to the Menai Strait and even steps for sea-bathing. Here's a hotel in which to live like a Lady rather than a Lord.

The Elms Hotel

The Elms in Worcestershire was built by the Bury family in 1710. Not surprisingly, given that Britain was ruled by Queen Anne at the time the original design was very Queen Anne style. The Bury family were Sheriffs of Worcestershire. When Thomas Bury died in 1778, he left all his property to his wife Cecilia who willed The Elms to her nephew Colonel James Wakeman Newport.

Colonel Newport did not live at the Elms but rented it out as a source of income. This was not uncommon with English country houses which were often treated as investments. In 1828 the house was bought by retired admiral then sold it to a banker James Moilliet who in 1867 sold it to Joseph Jones. Stability returned, and the Jones family lived at The Elms for several generations until in 1916 it was let to Sir Richard Christopher Brooke of Norton Priory in Cheshire.

Sir Christopher and his wife Lady Marion Brooke took to The Elms so much that they bought it in 1927 and cannibalised their other properties to make The Elms their most attractive residence. The Brookes were responsible for two large projecting wings to the front elevation of the house that obscured its Queen Anne origins. Following the victory of the Labour party in 1946 – and the change to inheritance tax laws - the Brooke family sold off The Elms and it became a hotel.

It still serves this function today with dinner served in the fine dining Brookes Restaurant which occupies the northern wing. The Library Bar still looks as if it could date from the hotel's heyday when affluent young men would drive up from London after World War II specifically to eat at The Elms.

Recent changes have included a complete makeover of the ground floor by Focus Interior Design who have worked on the hotel for 25 years. Some radical things have happened - a large bust of Louis XIV has appeared in the bar; the grand staircase has been painted a Farrow & Ball grey oversized ginger jars full of giant orchids have appeared in the larger rooms but it's all surprisingly harmonious.

Hoar Cross Hall

The original Hoar Cross was a moated Tudor hall in Staffordshire's Needwood Forest with a real, functioning drawbridge. That was demolished in 1740 and in 1793 the owner of the Hoar Cross estate, one Hugo Meynell built himself a hunting lodge on the site. This lodge descended through the Meynell family until 1863 when Hugo's grandson, Hugo Francis Meynell Ingram decided to build an impressive new Hoar Cross Hall to celebrate his marriage to Lady Charlotte Wood, daughter of the Lord Chancellor.

Given his august in-laws, Meynell Ingram recruited a top Victorian architect, Henry Clutton. Clutton's specialities were aristocratic houses – he also worked on Cliveden and Grosvenor House in London – especially in historical style.

Clutton came up with a pastiched design that featured 48 chimneys in the Tudor style and a Long Gallery 114 feet long with a private chapel is its east end. There was also a wood-panelled library and dining room off the gallery.

When Meynell Ingram died in 1871 Lady Charlotte built the local church in his memory. She remained in occupation of the hall until her death in 1904 when her nephew inherited the estate. After World War II when the fate of so many of these English country houses hung in the balance because of death duties, the Meynell Ingram family moved to a smaller house in a local village, leaving a caretaker to look after the hall as best he could.

After a long period without occupation the hall was bought in 1989 by Walsall businessman Stephen Joynes. He refurbished it, creating a new health spa in the basement and inviting the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones, Clive Owen, and Robbie Williams to visit and be photographed. In 2012, Hoar Cross became a hotel and in recent years it has undergone a sympathetic refurbishment as part of the Barons Eden Group. The Long Gallery and rooms off it are much closer now to the Hoar Cross that the Meynell Ingrams would have recognised. The spa created by Joynes continues in the basement and is a major lure but the hall itself is looking more like its Victorian self these days.

The Cholmondeley Arms

This nineteenth century homage to crenelated medieval castles was built in 1801 for George Cholmondeley, 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley, who designed most of it himself. Today it is owned by his descendant the 7th Marquess who lives on the other side of the country at Houghton Castle in Norfolk. You can't stay but during the summer season the gardens and tea rooms at Cholmondeley are open to the public.

Where you can stay however is on the edge of the estate at the Cholmondeley Arms or The Chum, as it is known locally. The Chum sits on the A49 and does not look much like a pub or hotel. This is not surprising as it was built as the Cholmondeley estate school. Once you step inside this fact becomes apparent with those very high ceilings typical of Victorian classrooms. Today The Chum is a warm friendly pub with a great selection of gins and a loyal local clientele, many of whom went to school here. The guests stay on the other side of the old school yard (now a car park) in what was once the headmaster's house. This was built in the exact same style as the school, as was the Victorian fashion.

Since the property was taken over by Cheshire Cat Pubs and Hotels, the six bedrooms in the headmaster's house have been named after famous fictional teachers including Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter, Miss Eyre from Jane Eyre and Mr Keating (Dead Poets' Society). The one named teacher that few people have heard of is Mr Bird, a real-life headmaster who died in 2016 who happens to have been the father of Cheshire Cat's co-founder Tim Bird.

The Chum is a lovely warm, cosy place to stay and ideal if you do want to go and wander the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle next door.

Balbirnie House Hotel

In 1817 Lieutenant General Robert Balfour of Balbirnie had a Greek Revival style house built for himself by the architect Richard Crichton. There had been several Balfour houses on this site near Glenrothes since 1640. (Sometimes it seems that each aristocratic generation is only interested in demolishing what the previous generation achieved). The Balbirnie House of 1817 was however the last. It was constructed in the short-lived Greek Revival style which was big in Scotland but mainly absent in England.

Lieutenant-General Robert Balfour of Balbirnie was a son of John Balfour, Fifth of Balbirnie. His younger brother James was a Member of Parliament and grandfather of Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1903 to 1905.

General Balfour had been an officer in the 2nd Dragoons and the Fife Light Horse. In 1815 the Dragoons, reorganised as the Scots Greys, saw some impressive but ultimately disorganised action at the Battle of Waterloo, losing their commanding officer in a cavalry charge that petered out on reaching the French lines.

Back in Scotland Balfour spent £16,000 on extending the family house and giving it a Greek makeover, with an Athenian portico on its south-east elevation. At the same time, the landscape gardener Thomas White provided plans for the improvement of the 18th-century parkland using specially seeds sent from India.

In 1969 Balbirnie House was sold to a development corporation that was building the new town of Glenrothes. They laid out a golf course in the grounds and converted the house into council offices. Subsequently the house was sold to a private owner who redeveloped it as a 31-bedroom hotel which opened in 1990. Today the restaurant in the Balfour family's Orangery is one of the best restaurants in Scotland.

The Chester Grosvenor

Like the Grand at Eastbourne, the Chester Grosvenor was never an aristocratic residence. Rather it was built by an aristocrat to add to his income. The hotel occupies the very best situation in the heart of Chester, close to Eastgate with its splendidly painted Victorian clock. Although it looks Tudor in style it was built 1863–66 by Richard Earl Grosvenor, the Second Marquess of Westminster. Grosvenor demolished the old Royal Hotel that stood on this site in order to build his new hotel.

In 1815 the Royal had been bought by Richard's father, Robert Earl Grosvenor. Robert was an MP who had broken with his family's long-held Tory allegiances by becoming a Whig. He was a radical aristocrat supporting the victims of the Peterloo massacre, arguing for Catholic Emancipation, for the abolition of the Corn Laws, and voting for the Reform Bill. Robert Grosvenor also famously championed George IV's much-abused wife Queen Caroline and was said to have thrown a Bible at the head of king in his anger. Grosvenor and the king later reconciled, and George made him 1st Marquess of Westminster in 1831.

On purchasing the Royal Hotel in 1815 Robert had renamed it after his family but it was Robert's son, the Second Marquis of Westminster who demolished the old hotel to build a new Grosvenor in mock-Tudor style. The style was apt as the new Grosvenor fitted in well with Chester's Tudor rows, two storey shopping arcades that run through the centre of the city.

The new Grosvenor was designed by the Chester architect Thomas Mainwaring Penson (1818–64) and was Penson's last major work. Today it is still owned by the Grosvenor family (now dukes of Westminster). The family have property primarily in Cheshire and London. The hotel has 68 guest bedrooms and 12 suites. It also has a Michelin-starred restaurant, Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor. Notable guests have included several Princes of Wales, the last in the company of Princess Diana.

From the moment you arrive at the Chester Grosvenor five-star service snaps into action. Your car disappears instantly with valet-parking costing no more than using the local multi-storey car park and there are always two doormen waiting to take your bags and usher you through.

This is all exactly as it should be.

Dunalastair Hotel Suites

Visit Dunalastair today and you catch only a hint of the turbulent times that have unfolded along Loch Rannoch.

Dùn Alastair (literally “the fort of Alexander”) was home to Alexander Robertson, laird and chieftain of the Donnachaidh clan who in the 18th century built himself a grand house on the loch which he called The Hermitage. Unfortunately, Robertson supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the uprising of 1745 and after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden the Hermitage was destroyed.

In the years that followed Culloden, Scottish soldiers released from imprisonment returned to the ruins of Robertson's Hermitage and built a new village which would go on to become Kinloch Rannoch.

In 1788, an inn was built at the entrance of this community, on the site where the Dunalastair Hotel Suites stand today. By the 1850s, following the highland clearances, the Clan Donnachaidh had been moved on from the area around Loch Rannoch. At this time General Sir John MacDonald took over the Dunalastair estate and began to develop Kinloch Rannoch with new buildings designed by the Scottish architect, Andrew Heiton Jnr. Heiton had designed a number of stations for Scottish Central Railway and was able to work well with the local stone.

General Macdonald developed the inn into a hotel which opened in the 1860s as the Macdonald Arms Hotel, Dunalastair. Macdonald also built a two-storey mansion, Dunalastair House, on the site of Robertson's Hermitage which became his family's highland home. Sadly, this burned down after World War II but the hotel survived and in 2013 was taken over by Henley Homes who transformed over four years into a luxury, boutique hotel on the shores of Loch Rannoch.

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