Adrian Mourby

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Once upon a time most British inns, hotels and public houses would have had a private dining room or two, maybe several. These intimate spaces were far more common in the days when big open bars were difficult to construct.

We can perhaps blame the RSJ (rolled steel joist) for those 1960s widescreen bars which were depressingly devoid of atmosphere.  Until the second half of the twentieth century most British pubs and hotels consisted of a series of interlinked rooms. And there would always be a room or two where a group of people could dine quietly (or raucously) together. To me these private rooms represent the best of both worlds: excellent food but presented just for the few of you in splendid or amorous isolation. 
Recently British pubs and hotels have started reopening or even recreating such discreet spaces, either for corporate functions or for people who -like me- want to savour the best of both worlds: Privacy and Fine Dining.

So here are ten hotels in England – only England this time – where the idea of the private dining room is alive and fun. Most of the hotels I have visited for this article do not levy an extra charge for hire of the room – you just pay for the food and wine consumed. At all of them, however, there was an element of negotiation. If a lot of people want the private dining room on any given night, there will be a charge. If no one else is bidding you can probably negotiate to just pay for the food and drink.  Bring in a dozen friends or family and you’ll be guaranteed a good time with no one at a table nearby to ask you to keep the noise down.

Hartwell House & Spa Hotel

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. 

The MacDonald Bath Spa began life as Vellore House, an eighteenth-century private mansion above the city’s Sydney Gardens. Jane Austen lived nearby in Sydney Place (1801-04). This rather grand house was extended in 1879 to become part of Bath College, but the expansion was artfully managed. A second building, a duplicate of Vellore House, was built 100 yards away and a long glass-fronted colonnade was constructed between them. Today the hotel uses this attractive corridor as a seating area with a bar (called the Colonnade) behind it. This cosy drinking space is decorated with marquetry panelling, faux bookshelf wallpaper and old leather chairs, giving it the feel of London clubland.

Also off the Colonnade is the Admiralty Dining Room. The hotel has its main dining room – the Vellore Restaurant - in what was once the ballroom of the main house and very glamorous that is too with its domed roof. But Admiralty with its two fireplaces, its woodblock floor and small chandeliers has a quieter charm.  Food in both rooms is under the direction of executive chef Jonathan Machin.

The MacDonald Spa has a number of these unexpected, hidden spaces.  There’s a second small bar off the Vellore Restaurant that was once a vestibule for the ballroom, and an even smaller drinking area, seating no more than ten, next to it. Private drinking as well as private dining is available in Bath.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the railways made Dartmoor an accessible place for wealthy men to build themselves great country houses. One such pile was Bovey Castle, a huge stone structure commissioned by the WHSmith family of newsagent fame (and now a hotel). Another was Castle Drogo, built by the visionary architect Edwin Lutyens for Julius Drewe, the man who made a fortune shipping British goods out to the Empire. A third was created for a retired Australian sheep farmer and shipping magnate, Charles Harold Campbell McIlwraith. In 1925 McIlwraith bought Gidleigh Park and engaged the architect Stanley Philpot from Tunbridge Wells to draw up plans for a magnificent new country seat overlooking his recently acquired 107 acres. The house was completed in four years in a mock-Tudor style but then all three of these Dartmoor mansions refer back in different ways to England’s baronial past. What amazes me is that they were all constructed within a mere six miles of each other.

Sadly Mcllwraith did not enjoy his estate long. He died prematurely in 1932 at the age of 57. His estate was put up for sale and sold for a princely £15,000. Thereafter the park went through a number of afterlives before being bought by Paul and Kay Henderson in 1978. The Hendersons turned it into a leading exponent of the budding “English Country House Hotel” style. In 1994 the Henderson’s brought in Michael Caines as head chef and he directed the kitchens for the next 21 years, raising Gidleigh’s reputation very high as a gourmet hotel. 
In 2005 the Hendersons sold Gidleigh to Andrew Brownsword whose Bath Priory had been one of their own personal favourite hotels. Brownsword spent a goodly fortune renovating the hotel and its restaurant in 2007 and adding another ten bedrooms to an already very long east-facing elevation.

Today Gidleigh Park has the feel of someone’s home, an hospitable someone who has invited you for the weekend. A large drawing room at the house’s south end is used for indulging in delicious canapes while and menu-browsing. Next door is the small panelled bar and beyond it three dining rooms overlooking the River Teign. The smallest of these is called “Teign” and seats just 12. It is beautifully decorated with Andrew Brownsword’s extensive and varied art collection.  If you have friends or family in the Devon area treat them to a private dinner in Teign – or bring them down on the train as the Smiths and Drewes were wont to do. 

Hambleton Hall sits on Rutland’s “Peninsula”. This hill ridge has since 1975 been surrounded on three sides by the reservoir known as Rutland Water. The original builder of Hambleton Hall, Walter Marshall, had no idea that one day his hunting lodge would have such a spectacular lakeside view. 

Marshall, a wealthy Nottinghamshire brewer, built the house in 1881 for the enjoyment of himself and his friends.  When he died it passed to his sister, Eva Astley Paston Cooper who was a famous society hostess in the 20s and 30s.  Noël Coward, Malcolm Sargent and Charles Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust, all gathered here for Eva’s weekend salons. Coward was said to have written Hay Fever at Hambleton. Aptly his comedy concerns four eccentric members of the Bliss family who each invite a guest to stay at their country house. The outlandish behaviour of the family eventually drives all the guests away, but the Blisses are so engaged in an internecine row that they do not notice as their guests subtly depart.

In 1979 Hambleton Hall was converted into a country house hotel by Tim and Stefa Hart and it gained its Michelin Star just three years later in 1982. Today the hotel offers 17 bedrooms, a roaring fire in reception and two private dining rooms. The smaller of these, known as “The Study” can seat a maximum of 16 guests and there is no minimum spend or even requirement to book bedrooms.  
This dining room has an attractive, tucked-away feeling, with unobtrusive floral wallpaper and a large chandelier over the table. As with all meals at Hambleton, the wine and menu are overseen by Head Chef Aaron Patterson, Restaurant Director Graeme Matheson and Sommelier Dominique Baduel. As Tim Hart proudly points out, the three men have between them notched up 65 years at Hambleton so they must be getting something right!

In 2008 Mr Hart established Hambleton Bakery six miles north of the hotel and today all the bread, rolls and pastries served at Hambleton come from this bakery, which has proved something of a tourist attraction in its own right. One of its loaves, Borodinsky Bread is named after the Napoleonic Battle of Borodino. The recipe is genuinely nineteenth century but how it got its name is still being argued over by bread scholars (of which there are a surprising number!).

In the gentle, stone town of Sherbourne the lovely Eastbury Hotel has recently built its Potting Shed Garden Rooms. Behind their light-green tongue and groove doors, each room has a dash of Smegginess. There’s an orange Smeg fridge, a blue Smeg kettle and a shiny red Nespresso. Each also has a small walled suntrap garden with fixed chairs beyond large trifold doors.  In the bedrooms themselves bright tartan chairs sit on floors of distressed blue tiles. It’s all totally 2019 in style and probably quite 2020 too. An old silvered mirror on the wall transmutes into TV at the flick of an eyebrow. (OK, you have the use the remote control).

The walled garden itself is full of things to do – croquet, giant chess, even badminton. A new bijou woodland spa towards the car park looks like Bilbo’s home in BagEnd with a round wooden entrance door.

The old house also has its charms however. It dates from 1740 and was recently acquired by Peter de Savary, the entrepreneur who once owned John O'Groats and Land's End and is now the owner of Merry Harriers, the funkiest pub in the UK. If you have not gone on a llama trek with your picnic carried in panniers by one of these bemusedly benevolent animals then you haven’t lived the full English pub experience. 

Anyway, back at The Eastbury Peter and his wife Lana have kept the main hotel traditional in style, retaining a large billiard table in what was once probably the family dining room. This commodious room has a large eighteenth-century fireplace and green-striped wallpaper and in its midst a large table covered with green baize. When the cover is removed there is indeed a billiard table underneath but with it in place here is a fine dining table that can be set for ten people with ease. Executive Chef Matthew Street and Sous Chef Ashley Millar work together here to serve up traditional dishes with their own innovative twists. The seven-course tasting menu dinner  – exceptional value at £45 – includes such surprises as Vale of Camelot cheese brûlée, Devon crab with cucumber and horseradish, and rump of lamb with caramelised red onions and Greek yoghurt.

While innovation is the lifeblood of a hotel, a healthy respect for a room’s historical usage can be just as effective. 

High on the magnificent Malvern Hills stands an old dower house surrounded by seven acres of woodland. In 1919 this Georgian villa was opened as an hotel and public tearoom known as The Cottage in the Woods. It had been part of the massive 3,226 acre Blackmoor Park Estate that in the nineteenth century stretched as far as the eye can see across the Severn Valley.  The mansion at Blackmoor Park burned down in 1921 so today the old dower house is all that remains of Worcestershire’s mightiest estate. 

Today guests stay in the house itself, which has seven bedrooms, or in the modern Coach House where there are 19 rooms with individual patios and balconies. There’s also Beech Cottage, which was built as a house for the estate’s woodman in the eighteenth century and was later a scrumpy house for making cider. Beech Cottage has just four rooms and is the actual cottage in the woods from which the hotel first took its name. 
The hotel’s dining room is called 1919, for obvious reasons. It has two AA Rosettes and describes its menu as offering the best from “Forest and Coast” so you will find plenty of local Hereford rib-eye steak and braised pig head as well as roast Cornish cod in a shellfish sauce, and Zarzuela spiced Spanish fish stew. Vegetarians are also well catered for: ask for the roast cauliflower with confit egg purée, the apple, sorrel and celeriac crumb or the goat's curd mousse with salt baked heritage beetroot, pink grapefruit and chicory.  

1919 is in fact two dining rooms with its entrance through the first smaller room. Glass doors then let into the main room. It is possible for the first smaller room to be closed off, creating a pleasant, sunny private dining room for 20 people or an intimate space at night.
When the smaller room is booked, other guests are rerouted into the main dining room past a mural of Sir Edward Elgar, who was a great walker on the Malvern Hills in his lifetime. This explains the staff telling you, somewhat gnomically “Turn left after Elgar” when a private dinner party is taking place.   

In the Sussex town of Midhurst there stands an imposing public house. It’s the amalgam of an old fifteenth-century half-timbered building and a larger, perhaps seventeenth century brick structure with the two of them linked by a narrow, roofed alleyway known as Red Brick Hall.  

The Spread Eagle probably takes its name from the coat of arms of Sir William Fitzwilliam whose home was nearby Cowdray Castle (now a ruin). The inn stands on a major routeway between London and Portsmouth, which accounts for reports than Admiral Lord Nelson stayed on more than one occasion. The writer Hilaire Belloc was also a guest.  His contemporary the novelist H.G. Wells actually taught at the small half-timbered school opposite the pub (which now provides overspill accommodation for the pub). Belloc and Wells are commemorated in two suites that lead off the bar and there is also a suite dedicated to King Edward VII. In this you’ll find a letter displayed in which Francis, Lord Knollys, the King’s private secretary makes it clear to Alfred Freemantle (the owner) that his majesty will not be visiting the Spread Eagle in 1906.  However the enterprising Mr Freemantle did later prevail on the king to drop by. He subsequently hung a sign that read “Patronised by King Edward VII and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught”.  

The hotel displays many historic artefacts acquired over the years. These include three pairs of Flemish painted windows, so rare that the Victoria and Albert Museum have asked about acquiring them as well as an even rare wig cupboard of a kind that were often found in bedrooms before the aristocracy started wearing their own hair again plus a large wall-mounted metal eagle that is said to have come from Hermann Goering’s Berlin headquarters. American servicemen who had enjoyed the Spread Eagle’s hospitality before D-Day captured and donated it.

But for me the Queen’s Room is the highlight of the hotel. It’s a small panelled dining room lined that seats eight -or possibly ten- with instructive 18th century prints on the wall contrasting the Idle and Industrious Apprentices (no guessing which one comes to a bad end!). With a window to reception that can be curtained off this is just the kind of room in which you can imagine Lord Nelson entertaining Lady Hamilton (her husband was the local MP). 

At Brockencote Manor there are two private dining rooms named after birds that can be seen on the house’s 70 acre estate. “Swan” is the larger and has more the feel of a boardroom with its own private link to the bar. “Heron” will seat a maximum of 14 guests round the table. It’s located at the front of the house, just off reception and feels as if this were the family’s dining room when Brockencote was a home and not a hotel.

A hall has stood on this site, across Hockley Brook from the huge mediaeval Church of St Cassian for three centuries but it’s looked very different over the years. At the beginning of the twentieth century Brockencote used to be a rather grotesque neogothic pile belonging to the Butler family (of the Mitchell and Butler Brewery fame). It positively bristled with bay windows and had a half-timbered tower to the front a conical tower worthy of Rapunzel to its rear. On a dark night it would have passed for the Addams family home. Fate took a hand however in 1940 with a major fire that inspired the Butlers - keen travellers to France - to rebuild in the style of a somewhat restrained and elegant French chateau. Down came the towers, out came the bay windows and a formal regularity was created that is much more pleasing to the eye. An old neoclassical stone portico was added to complete the effect.  

In 1985 a newly-married French couple called Joseph and Alison Petitjean were on their honeymoon in England and saw Brockencourt was up for sale. Maybe it was the graceful, Loire Valley lines of the property but they could immediately see its potential as a hotel and restaurant with rooms. Over the years the couple invested heavily in Brockencote, adding a conservatory to the rear and a clever new extra wing that looks like a separate building at first but is in fact a new block with larger bedrooms.  They also brought in a French wine list causing Brockencote to be described as “a little piece of France in the English countryside”. The Petitjeans ran their dining hotel successfully for 25 years but then sold it to Sir Peter Rigby’s Eden Hotel Collection in 2011.

Today Brockencote is popular with locals who dine here regularly but it’s also a fine place to visit for the weekend and the Heron makes for an excellent dining experience if you want to entertain friends privately.

The George Town House in Shipston on Stour is created from the merging of two buildings. One is a Grade II-listed eighteenth century brick coaching inn, the other a magnificent, early Victorian, three-storeyed, bay-windowed house next door. For centuries this coaching inn stood on the main carriage route from London to Stratford and, as was the practice in the eighteenth century, the building had a big central entrance, a tunnel through which a carriage could be driven in order to have horses changed within the inner courtyard. This entrance has now been panelled with a door and windows so that the whole carriageway has become both the hotel entrance and a location for its long, modern wooden bar. Dining areas emanate off this focal point and it is one of the pleasures of the George Townhouse that so many nooks still exist for a quiet drink or bar meal. They have names like “The Snug” and “The Parlour”. There is also one designated private dining room that can be booked for up to ten people. It sits behind sliding doors and is called, not surprisingly the Carriage Room.  

Food is important at The George Townhouse but so is drink. The 15-bedroom pub-hotel is owned by the Brakespear brewing family and serves two classic local beers, Brakspear Gravity and Brakspear Oxford Gold, which are brewed just 40 minutes away at Witney’s Wychwood Brewery. The pub also promotes gins created at the nearby Cotswolds Distillery. The George’s own Cotswolds G&T is served with Double Dutch tonic, plenty of ice, and either a wedge of pink grapefruit or home-grown lavender (which is what the Distillery recommends).

What could be better than to sit yourself down in The Snug or Parlour for a preprandial Brakespear pint – or indeed a lavender-infused G&T – before making your way to the Carriage Room for a private dinner with friends?

James Mearing is the new chef at The Bear, Woodstock’s oldest inn. After success at The Wild Rabbit in Kingham and The Gainsborough in Bath, James has come up with an innovative new menu that could soon make The Bear a destination hotel for fine-diners.  For those who want to eat more privately at The Bear there is a private dining room at the front of the hotel known, (rather unimaginatively) as The Front Room and next to it a smaller private room known as The Gun Room (with real guns on the wall). The Churchill Suite on the hotel’s first floor sometimes doubles as a dining room and so does the Newbold Room in hotel’s Glove Factory annex. With its low-beamed ceilings, historic portraits and steps down into a secret tunnel that allegedly runs all the way to Blenheim Palace this is a private dining room of character.

The (former) Glove Factory also contains some of the more interesting bedrooms at The Bear including one that offers you a four poster bed in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are said to have slept.

I’d definitely recommend trying out the new menu at The Bear in 2020. And while you’re at it, get a group together to try out one of the private dining rooms. Good food needs great surroundings.

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