Deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside Hartwell House is a most comely stone structure. Today this Jacobean mansion is owned by the National Trust and operated by Historic Hotels. There has been a residence here back until the time of the Anglo Saxon king, Edward the Confessor and William Peveral, an illegitimate son of King William the Conqueror, is said to have built a home on this site.
The Lee family had the most impact on Hartwell House. This old Buckinghamshire family can count General Robert E. Lee amongst their descendants and some time in the 1850s the Lees married into the Hampden family who at the time owned Hartwell. The Lees held the house until 1938 when it was sold to Ernest Cooke, the philanthropist grandson of travel agent, Thomas Cooke. The Ernest Cooke Trust eventually donated the house to the National Trust, precipitating its reinvention as a hotel.
Today Hartwell House still looks like the Lee family home. Their late-Jacobean mansion had a later wing wrapped round it and the courtyard between the two has been glazed in. It’s a charming and unusual structure, with a neogothic staircase lined with carved caricature statues of British kings and warriors.
Staying at Hartwell is like being a guest in the home of a wealthy land-owning friend. As at Llangoed Hall in Wales and Gidleigh Park on Dartmoor, there is no obvious reception. This is a hotel that acts like a home.
There are three dining rooms at Hartwell, constructed by the architect Eric Throssell in 1989 when it was converted into a hotel. The original family dining room where (during his English exile) Louis XVIII of France could be observed eating supper, is now the morning room where afternoon tea can be taken. (If you can, look up from the cake-stand however briefly to admire the intricately plastered ceiling). The chapel that King Louis created is now the hotel’s bijou panelled bar, decorated with copies of paintings that show how Hartwell’s grounds used to look. Its formal gardens were reconceived by a follower of Capability Brown. The originals were full of Dutch boxed hedges and little canals.
The current suite of three dining rooms begins with the yellow Soane dining room, named after Sir John Soane. Anyone who has visited the eighteenth-century antiquarian’s London home will recognise the convex mirrors on its ceiling. Then there is the Doric dining room with nine pillars that have been painted to look like green marble, and finally the Octagon, a delightful eight-sided room that has been created out of the former office of the housekeeper. With a tented, aquamarine ceiling and delicious views over Hartwell’s parkland, the Octagon seats between ten and 18 people for a unique dining experience.
Talking of unique dining experiences, it’s worth mentioning that fat King Louis made a lot of money while in exile charging the local gentry to watch him gorge. It seems a strange way to expend one’s money but of course there was no television in those days. King Louis’ wife, Marie Joséphine of Savoy also had an impact on Hartwell. She disliked the carved caricatures on the staircase so much that she had it removed in its entirety. It had to be put back together after her death and Louis’ departure back home to France to reclaim his throne.