The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Billesley Manor When the quirks don’t work

The Bard is said to have penned a play at this history-rich hotel – but Fiona Duncan finds it not quite as she likes it


Here’s the thing. I’m a hotel critic, and hotel critics are a damn spoilt bunch, covering all the latest openings. Some places make us swoon, others leave us cold, and that is down to individual taste.

As a critic, I’m able to compare hotels, and in this case several recently and expensivel­y refurbishe­d country houses. Perhaps unfairly, I couldn’t help but think of them during my time at Billesley Manor. Though the guests to whom I chatted were more than happy, they are unlikely to have stayed recently at Callow Hall in Derbyshire, Glenmorang­ie House in Scotland, or the new Pig in West Sussex. Even if they had, they may not have liked them as much as I did, and preferred them, as I did, to Billesley Manor. In the end, I can only report my opinion, which may not be yours.

As I say, Billesley Manor is yet another example of a country house that has been the recipient of massive investment and a new lease of life. In this case, the money has come from India, where businessma­n Shashank Bhagat heads the BI Group, which spans hotels, publishing, media and education.

For him, the long history of the house, its proximity to Stratford-uponAvon and its associatio­ns with Shakespear­e were a very strong draw. The Manor, four miles from Stratford, was revamped for £5.6million during the two lockdowns, reopening last year and immediatel­y attracting staycation­ers booking multiple nights, whereas in the past a one-night stay was the norm.

Heaven knows what would have happened if Mr Bhagat hadn’t come along. In private hands since the Middle Ages (the present stone building dates from the early 17th century), it became a hotel in the 1980s and bounced from one group to another, including, for a period of calm and expansion, that of Haydn Fentum, now chairman of Bespoke Hotels, which has been given the job of managing Billesley Manor.

Country-house hotels with outsourced management are never going to feel as enveloping as those that are owner-managed, but now the Manor

feels solid, purposeful and well cared for, its future assured. So why can’t I love it as I should? Could it be the bedrooms, all decorated pretty much the same (not the case at the above-mentioned hotels), often with armchairs covered in a particular­ly garish floral velvet fabric? Could it be the thoughtles­sness of putting a long mirror right beside a short mirror on one wall of my £230-a-night room (or perhaps that was meant to be clever)? Could it be the “quirky” touches, such as a ceiling of floating books in the room where, we are told, Shakespear­e wrote As You Like It (he didn’t, as the room was built long after he died, though he may well have hung out at Billesley Manor, enjoying its bucolic charms). Could it be the dire artwork in the panelled dining room: framed photograph­s of classic portraits disfigured by splodges of paint-like colour? Or the sea of armchairs and sofas that all look the same?

I could go on, but I won’t; as I say, I was in a minority of one. Suffice to say that hospitalit­y designers DesignLSM are adept at glitzy restaurant­s and bars, but I feel that somewhere as historic as this deserves a more singular and personal touch. As for the irritating Billesley Bear teddy on sale at reception… goodness, I’m getting grouchy.

But not unreasonab­ly grouchy, I hope. I had a perfectly pleasant stay, and my rack of lamb at dinner was excellent (breakfast not so great, with an unimaginat­ive cold buffet and hot food that had to be queued for), and the staff, though stretched as everywhere, were uniformly switched on and helpful. Best of all, Billesley Manor delivered something that I always love to find in hotels: unexpected surprises.

Surprise number one was a fantastic 130-year-old topiary garden within the 11 acres of attractive grounds; and surprise number two was the diminutive 11th-century church, next to the Manor, where Shakespear­e may have married Anne Hathaway, and his granddaugh­ter definitely did get hitched.

I also had a very good Decléor facial in the hotel’s spa. With that, plus its indoor pool, gym, yoga suite and tennis courts, Billesley offers far more than Stratford’s rather mediocre hotels, and when I next go to the RSC, I will probably choose to stay there. If they will have me, that is.

Doubles from £169, including breakfast

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 ?? ?? Too dramatic? Billesley Manor has a new lease of life, but the clever design feels out of sync with the building
Too dramatic? Billesley Manor has a new lease of life, but the clever design feels out of sync with the building

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