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Reinventing the country-house hotel

Insight Archive

Until relatively recently, you knew what you were getting from the Great British country-house hotel: white linens and waist-coated staff, chintz and pelmets, tweed and brandy. Barring the view from the windows, the template was generally the same, whether you were in Hampshire or Herefordshire.

Now, things have changed. In the last few years the world of the country-house hotel has been transformed by the arrival of bold and imaginative properties that have set new standards in design and experience. Places like Lime Wood (Hampshire), Dormy House (Cotswolds), Barnsley House (Cotswolds) and The Pig (throughout the South) have redefined rural luxury, injecting a distinct contemporary sensibility into a sector more closely associated with tradition.

But this is an evolution, not a revolution; a sensitive rethink, rather than a radical overhaul. Successfully updating the country-house model takes more than chucking out the chintz and ditching the traditional for the sake of it. The best country hotels get the balance right between looking to the future and cherishing the past.

The cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work anymore. Location has always been important, of course, but today’s travellers want to feel that the hotel they are staying in had a palpable sense of place – that it has grown naturally from its setting, not just been dumped there. A truly great country-house hotel belongs where it is; it couldn’t exist in the same way anywhere else.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk, involving thousands of decisions that are all too easy to get wrong – a bad call on the design, a misjudgement on the menu, or a poor choice on the playlist can all burst a guest’s bubble. With so many elements to consider, it’s no wonder it has taken Heckfield Place six years to get around to opening.

Gerald Chan, the owner of the grand Georgian family home and 400-acre estate in Hampshire recognised that, if he were to launch a new, modern-minded property into the this freshly evolved and increasingly competitive country-house landscape, every sensory detail had to be perfectly judged – furnishings, art, books, food, music and more. Chan spent significant time recruiting the right creative team: ex-Aman manager Olivia Richli as launch GM; Petersham Nurseries chef Skye Gyngell to take charge of Marle and Hearth Restaurants and the extensive kitchen garden; Ilse Crawford protegé Ben Thompson on design duty – and Music Concierge to set the scene with sound.

Of all the sensory touch points that shape the guest experience, sound is perhaps the easiest to overlook, but it’s arguably the linchpin that ties the other senses together and breathes life into the atmosphere. Sound is also the easiest element to overdo – when you’re creating a soundscape it can be tempting to cram in attention-grabbing tracks that you love to hear in isolation, but which sound brash and indulgent when they become part of a soundtrack on-site.

At Heckfield Place, designer Ben Thompson deployed a a calming palette of muted greys, greens and blues to provide a rustic feel that complemented the Georgian building and sat well with the bucolic setting. A restrained, effortlessly elegant look that didn’t attempt to outshine its surroundings. We followed suit with the soundtrack, developing a delicate and distinctive blend of contemporary classical and delicate folk-oriented vocal tracks that support the Heckfield mood: elegant, relaxed and pastoral – underlining, not overpowering, the natural beauty of the landscape.

To enrich the atmosphere of the Moon Bar, the hotel’s intimate nightspot, we injected a dose of rock ’n’ roll into the air to keep the evening energy up. In the screening room bar attached to Heckfield Place’s full-size, Dolby surround-sound cinema, we made sure that the playlist made thoughtful references to cult film soundtracks where the eagle-eared might hear the work of Nino Rota, Bernard Hermann, or Lalo Schifrin. The Little Bothy Spa, set to open fully in 2019, has a soothing classical sound interspersed with spoken-word English literature to relax both body and mind. Despite the subtle shifts in sound, in every area of the hotel, our aim was the same – to elevate the mood and cultivate the beauty of the moment.

Often the most successful elements of a hotel are its smallest touches, not its boldest statements. At Heckfield, there is a thoughtfulness behind every detail, from the corn-dolly do-not-disturb signs to the cocktails mixed from estate-grown ingredients. One of the most distinctive touches is the vinyl library. You can tell a lot about a person from their record collection, after all.

As well as creating Heckfield’s audio identity, GM Olivia Richli asked Music Concierge to put together a collection of albums that would reflect the hotel’s personality and surprise and impress its guests. Hopping between genres and across eras, the Heckfield collection is a something-for-everyone selection of iconic British masters, rock legends, soul giants and classical greats. A harmonious marriage of contemporary and traditional executed with care and near-obsessive consideration – just like Heckfield Place itself.