MANOR FROM HEAVEN
Matthew Dennison delights in an English country house hotel where tradition coexists with mod cons
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
Designed to impress: Lower Slaughter Manor, far left, and one of the drawing rooms at the country-house hotel, left