In the Great Hall of Ellenborough Park, built in 1485, a fire is quietly roaring away and Katherine Parr, Queen of England and Ireland between 1543-47 (the one who triumphantly outlived her murderous husband, Henry VIII) is imperiously staring down from her gilt frame.
She is dainty and slender, her hourglass torso appears to all but disappear into an impossible waist, and she is extravagantly dressed. To the left of the fire is a rather different character – the splendidly flamboyant Richard Sackville (1589-1624), a wicked rogue and hopeless gambler, but one who at least knew how to dress, as his elaborate high heels with giant pom poms demonstrate.
There’s no one about in the lavishly furnished room, with the only sound coming from the crackle of the fire. The penetrating gaze of my two mute companions is rather unsettling, until a member of staff at this charming Cotswolds hotel bustles in through a side door, lays down a wonderfully heavy silver teapot, silver strainers and cups and saucers, rearranges the logs on the fire, and then disappears.
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Described as a ‘pretty manor place’ in 1533 by the King’s Antiquary, Ellenborough Park was first built by a local farmer, Thomas Goodman, who rented the land from King Henry VII. It’s been added to and improved on ever since, with intricate stained glass – some of which commemorates Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York – gorgeous stone fireplaces, and impressive oak beams.
I am told by staff that Parr would stop and visit Ellenborough Park on her way to her home of Sudeley Castle, just a few miles from the hotel, where she is buried in the castle chapel. It’s hard to verify whether Parr did actually visit Ellenborough or not, but her portrait certainly lends this majestic hall a dash of authenticity. Sackville, meanwhile, the third earl of Dorset, was an infamous wastrel and gambler, and perhaps best known as the first husband of the free-spirited and strong-willed Lady Anne Clifford – who spent much of her life in a legal battle to obtain the rights of her inheritance and was thought to be thoroughly unimpressed by her husband’s debts. His presence in the Great Hall serves as a warning to any keen gamblers wanting to have a flutter on the races – after all, the hotel’s sprawling 90 acre estate overlooks Cheltenham’s world-famous race-course.
In fact the hotel’s excellent situation is partly what makes it so special. Staff will happily kit you out in Dubarry boots or Hunter wellies and guide you to the bottom of Cleve Hill, a short, fairly steep walk to the highest point in the Cotswolds. At the top, two trees have entwined themselves next to two benches which overlook sweeping views below – it’s a romantic spot. Closer to the hotel, the outdoor poor in the courtyard is a real bonus, heated throughout the winter months, and the spa is small, but all the better for it, with a sauna, steam room and jacuzzi. There’s also the hotel’s five star country pub, the Horse Box, once you’ve prised yourself out of your muddy wellies and into a beckoning armchair. In the grounds, a wonderfully creepy swing hangs down from a very tall tree, swaying softly in the wind, like something out of a Victorian horror novel.
There’s a good range of rooms spread out in different buildings across the estate, all with en-suite bathrooms and underfloor heating and some with roll top baths, four poster beds and great views – although not all. The rooms are classic, luxurious and make for a pleasant and relaxing night’s rest.
Dinner is served in the large formal, wood-panelled restaurant, with both a head chef, and head waiter, who really know what they’re doing. There is a good range of seasonal meat, fish and vegetarian options, and fantastic snails for starters. For main, the trout is cooked to perfection, although accompanied by a mushroom risotto which is entirely surplus to requirements, and which oddly contains picked clams, which it needn’t. A praline-based dessert follows, with dainty stems of lemon balm strewn across it. The wine pairing is faultless, and highly recommended, with a beautiful Joseph Mellot Sancerre and an excellent Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape (white), being the real stars of the show. The service is faultless – prompt, discreet, professional. The breakfast, in comparison, is fine, but nothing to write home about. In fact, confusion reigns, with guests trampling in and out of a small room for the buffet. A few timid guests squeak to enquire whether there are any vegetarian options or coffee other than the filter option in the buffet room. There’s both, thankfully, but you might not know it unless you ask.
All in all Ellenborough Park, roughly a three-hour, easy drive from London is the place to go for anyone looking for a luxurious and relaxing break in the countryside, and one seeped in charm and history. Its surroundings are beautiful and interiors are majestic, yet it also somehow manages to remain unpretentious and unstuffy. Fit for a queen, and just about as glamorous and intriguing as a pair of pom pom-adorned Tudor shoes.
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