MANOR FROM HEAVEN

Matthew Den­ni­son de­lights in an English coun­try house ho­tel where tra­di­tion co­ex­ists with mod cons

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IN St Paul’s Cathe­dral, Lon­don, is a tablet erected in the 18th cen­tury by the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Stone Masons. Its in­scrip­tion is sim­ple: Re­mem­ber the Men who Made Shapely the Stones of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. Shapely? Isn’t that the sort of word that, de­pend­ing on age, we ap­ply to J. Lo or Gina Lol­lo­b­rigida? Shapely con­jures up images of . . . well, you know what I mean. What it does not sug­gest is stone.

Stone can be shapely, how­ever. I know now. Cotswold stone in the hands of a mas­ter ma­son, ir­ra­di­ated by the soft ca­ress of fail­ing English sun­light at the end of a sum­mer af­ter­noon. I saw it for my­self in Lower Slaugh­ter, hailed as the most beau­ti­ful vil­lage in Eng­land. I was stay­ing at Lower Slaugh­ter Manor, a hand­some 17th-cen­tury house turned ho­tel be­hind a wall be­side the church in this noise­less Cotswolds vil­lage.

Much of the house is the work of lo­cal ma­son Valen­tine Strong. In 1655 Strong ac­cepted a com­mis­sion to build the house for the sum of £200 in law­ful English money. Strong’s sons Ed­ward and Thomas left Glouces­ter­shire for Lon­don; they be­came chief stone­ma­son and prin­ci­pal con­trac­tor to Christo­pher Wren in the re­build­ing of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. Ed­ward and Thomas Strong are the men who made shapely the stones of that well-curved land­mark: they in­her­ited their tal­ent from their fa­ther.

I wasn’t con­cerned with the 17th cen­tury, stone­ma­sons or St Paul’s, let alone shape­li­ness, on my trip to the Cotswolds. What I was think­ing about much of the time was how nice it is to be or­gan­ised, a rare ex­pe­ri­ence for me. I was on a recce, my wife in tow, find­ing the per­fect place to stay for the Chel­tenham Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, where I was booked to dis­cuss the chal­lenges of be­ing born royal with no ex­pec­ta­tion of in­her­it­ing a throne. Im­por­tant stuff, not to be un­der­taken with­out a good night’s sleep and a sense of re­lax­ation and well­be­ing.

I found ev­ery­thing I wanted, and a great deal more, at lovely Lower Slaugh­ter Manor.

It was only ret­ro­spec­tively that I thought about Valen­tine Strong. Our room was called Valen­tine, and the ho­tel bumf makes ref­er­ence to the manor’s dis­tin­guished ma­son, who also built nearby Fair­ford Park. What Strong had no hand in was the build­ing that con­tains the room named af­ter him. Valen­tine is in Lower Slaugh­ter Manor’s coach-house, a sep­a­rate 18th-cen­tury struc­ture dom­i­nated by an oc­tag­o­nal wooden clock tower.

De­spite mul­lioned win­dows and painted pan­elling, the room is nei­ther 17th nor 18th­cen­tury in ap­pear­ance or at­mos­phere. It is res­o­lutely mod­ern, that blend of Hol­ly­wood art deco and pared-down neo-clas­si­cism that in­te­ri­ors glossies re­fer to as con­tem­po­rary.

Valen­tine is enor­mous and breath­tak­ing. Ini­tially, swing­ing back the door, I was seized by panic. Both my wife and I are rather small. Dom­i­nat­ing Valen­tine is a bed of Brob­d­ing­na­gian pro­por­tions, its soar­ing white posts ris­ing more than 3m to­wards the ceil­ing. The bed it­self is tall and vast. Would we even be able to climb in?

The bath­room next door is built on a sim­i­lar scale; a pair of baths stands side by side and so does a pair of basins. There is a large shower and a smart dress­ing ta­ble. Ev­ery­thing is so much nicer than any private bath­room ever man­ages to be, sump­tu­ous but un­flaunt­ing and, of course, pris­tine. Tall win­dows open on to a chic gar­den, com­plete with hot tub.

Pre­vi­ously, Lower Slaugh­ter Manor was a tra­di­tional coun­try-house ho­tel. Re­cently, it has been ex­ten­sively re­designed. In the coach­house, a mod­ern broom has swept away the old and swirled in a glam­orous 21st-cen­tury vi­sion of com­fort and el­e­gance re­mote both from the mothy car­pets and cracked soap dishes of many coun­try houses and the suf­fo­cat­ing, plump up­hol­stery typ­i­cal of so­called coun­try-house ho­tels. Here ev­ery­thing de­lights, ev­ery­thing se­duces, so that, like a good host­ess, the ho­tel leaves one feel­ing be­guiled and (in­ex­pli­ca­bly) hap­pier about one­self. I had come to the Cotswolds with my head full of his­tory but left feel­ing in­fin­itely happy to be alive now, amid the shapely stones of the past regilded by mod­ern lux­ury, eat­ing de­li­cious food, at­ten­tively but un­ob­tru­sively in­dulged by kindly staff.

Be­yond the manor walls, out­side the loop of the River Eye, through a tes­sel­la­tion of Glouces­ter­shire’s prairie-size fields, lay Chel­tenham. The great thing about do­ing a recce is that you’re forced to come back. The Spec­ta­tor

www.low­er­slaugh­ter.co.uk

De­signed to im­press: Lower Slaugh­ter Manor, far left, and one of the draw­ing rooms at the coun­try-house ho­tel, left

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