With so many of us forced to holiday at home this year, that most English of institutions, the country house hotel, has been experiencing something of a renaissance. The number of guests desperate for a slice of upper crust hospitality after months of slumming it at home has rocketed so you may struggle to book even the humblest of maid's quarters this summer. That said, my advice is to steer well clear.
For all their bucolic grandeur, these odes to outdated class structures have a tendency to trigger a toxic combination of unwarranted snobbery and 'what-can-we-get-away-with' mediocrity. The hushed, awkward reverence that insists we remain on our best behaviour makes me want to lob loaded cake-stands at the fake family portraits.
Which of us hasn’t at some point yearned to be a member of the landed set, with their wellington-booted insouciance? It's why we feast on Downton Abbey and creep around National Trust piles in our finest fleeces. Sadly, the country house hotel with its regimented pastoral setting and unnaturally spruced up exterior is often just an expensive front for lousy service, uncomfortable beds and unimaginative menus. Because a stay at one of these glorified B&Bs is the closest many of us get to feeling properly posh we have a tendency to put on our best airs and graces, which suits the management just fine. Dare to complain however, as I did recently about surly staff, lumpy foam pillows, unreliable WIFI and the lack of room service 'due to Covid' and you'll be treated like a pariah. This reluctance to make a fuss especially in polite circles allows penny-pinching conglomerates to cut corners with impunity.
Bar some notable exceptions - Cliveden, Goldsborough Hall, Lympstone Manor and Heckfield Place come to mind - many of these froufrou follies are little more than Best Westerns with delusions of grandeur. Guests are treated to a bland facsimile of country house living, far removed from the chilly, dog-hair-strewn squalor that most upper class folk favour.
Having to appeal to the corporate hospitably and golfing block bookers means interior decor tends to be either insipid Farrow and Ball greige or a chintzified approximation of aristocratic tastes with lashings of 'heritage' wallpaper and the occasional four-poster. In some cases, as with the 'luxury junior suite' I stayed in recently, the overall effect is more dingy US motel than olde worlde English charm. Often hidden away in a dank corner of an old stable block far from the big house, we are too often treated to a replica of country house living that makes very little effort to veil the fact that it is pretending.
My most recent suite featured a 'private garden with excellent views' which turned out to be a shared, fag-strewn patch of concrete overlooking a car park packed with silver Range Rovers. The lack of coat hangers and a functioning mini bar were inevitably blamed on Covid restrictions as was the non-existent room service although as usual no one could explain why; what could be safer than in-room dining with only a fully stocked mini bar for company?
Look, I get it, 'because of covid' hospitality is struggling to recruit (as the grumpy lady at reception kept reminding me whenever I tried to make a complaint). Luxuries such as spas and gyms have therefore remained largely off limits while struggling hotel restaurants lack the finesse that comes with a fully functioning staff. But this doesn't alter the fact that, more often than not, a relaxing weekend in the country may turn out to be little more than a frustrating series of calls to reception demanding to know why there's no one at reception. To avoid accusations of profiteering, these hotels may want to adjust their prices accordingly. The architectural gems in which many of these hotels are housed surely deserve better.