Gloucestershire GL53 9NL
Cowley Manor may be found on the outskirts of Cheltenham, but as flavour discovers this month, it’s firmly at the centre of the zeitgeist…
During my first visit to Cowley Manor almost two years ago, I left with my mother’s sage words ringing in my ears: don’t try to be all things to all people. This might sound like a criticism; in fact it’s quite the opposite. The beau monde of country house hotels currently faces the challenge of appealing to young aspirational professionals without alienating a more traditional market. But in my humble opinion, it’s those who commit to one side of the fence who seem to thrive. So it is at Cowley Manor.
Despite the estate itself dating back as far as the Doomsday Book, having been exchanged by its former owner Edward the Confessor for the land on which he built Westminster Abbey, the main house was built as little as 100 years ago. At the time its Italianate style was rare for a grand stately home, yet the aim of such architecture was to showcase a new style of modern country living. Far from being a solely conceptual aim, the inventions and designs used in its construction were considered groundbreaking – it was, as just one example, the first private house in England to use concrete.
Sadly the house fell into disrepair but was bought in 1999 and meticulously restored to its former glory, along with some very intriguing additions. In a bid to uphold the tradition of innovation, Cowley Manor is unreservedly modern with vibrant fabrics and statement artworks throughout. Perhaps my favourite is a stunning two-storey glass mobile suspended near reception.
The hotel boasts 15 spacious bedrooms in the main house with a further 15 in a renovated stable block, all of which are a showcase for young British designers’ handiwork. With attention to detail being essential to the operation, Nakamichi CD players, Bose Ipod docking stations and DVD players are all part of the service. And with a selection offering everything from Beethoven to Björk and Gone With the Wind to Gangs of New York, the impressive CD and DVD collection will make sure you make the most of them too.
Priding themselves on allowing guests to be as visible or invisible as they like, dining at Cowley Manor is as formal as you make it. You might want to simply order an open steak sandwich with rocket shallots and horseradish to your room, nibble on some prosciutto, queen green olives and thick cut sourdough in the bar or take a table in their grand 50 cover dining room.
I opted for the latter and noted a thoughtful menu and expedient service. Of particular note was a triumphant pressed ham hock and parsley with red pepper chutney, fennel salad and port reduction: in showbiz speak, this dish had the balance of light (the zing of the fennel and red pepper chutney) and shade (the richer flavours of ham hock and port reduction) just right. A dessert of caramelised apple and hazelnut pastry with white chocolate and lemon thyme sauce may well sound like a complex concoction worthy of a Masterchef hopeful, but its execution was faultless.
It seems fitting that Lewis Carroll visited Cowley regularly and drew inspiration for his greatest work Alice in Wonderland at Cowley Manor, because there really is something other-worldly about the place. Certainly not a hotel for those with a taste for the conventional, but all the better for it. After all, who’s to say what avant-garde adornments will greet visitors in another 100 years’ time…?