Cowley Manor has been delighting residents, guests and writers for many years. Following its imaginative refurbishment, it now combines the charm of a classic Cotswolds country house with contemporary interiors and a beautiful spa. Jane Knight, Founder of Spavellous, checked in to check out the much-loved Cotswolds Manor’s new look.
Located in the lesser-known Churn Valley on the western edge of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, the Italianate Manor feels a million miles away from the cutesy thatched chocolate box cottages and their admiring crowds. Its location is stunning, sitting in over 50 acres of glorious grounds, with woodlands and well-kept gardens cascading down to a classic oval lake.
New owners, the trendsetting Experimental Group, have refurbished and revived the Palladian pile, calling on interior designer Dorothée Meilichzon to inject a little French flair into the Villa Borghese-inspired building. The Parisian designer has breathed new life into the rooms playfully combining bold colours, Art Deco curves and geometric prints to create an unrivalled aesthetic that complements the hotel’s beautiful architectural features.
There’s a contemporary speakeasy-inspired lounge where mixologists shake seasonal cocktails behind its cobalt lava stone bar and across the hallway a games room with a pool table surrounded by quirky walking stick motif wallpaper.
According to local legend – and bar staff – Cowley Manor’s charming grounds provided the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dodgson, to use the author’s real name, is rumoured to have been wandering around the gardens with his niece Alice, when they saw a white rabbit dart down a hole, and the seed for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was sown. Visual references to Alice and her colourful crew are subtly stitched and stencilled all around the hotel, and you can visit the hotel’s Secret Garden where the magic is said to have happened.
The hotel has 31 contemporary and comfortable bedrooms and suites decorated in fresh, natural tones, with textured fabrics and up-lit plants creating a restful feel. Rooms are split between the main house and a converted stable block opposite and range from cosy ‘Petite Cowley’ to spacious four-poster suites and two-storey family rooms. Dogs are welcome in Wildflower terrace rooms and some Alpaca accommodation. Several rooms come with their own balcony, and all have 21st century mod cons like Nespresso machines, and well-stocked mini bars full of ‘drink me’ delights.
Bathrooms are equally stylish, with inviting bathtubs, rainforest showers, and bunny-logoed bathrobes. The bathroom for my stay in the fabulous four-poster Cowley Manor Suite, was particularly spacious, with a huge terracotta lava stone tub and double sinks, a spacious stand-alone rainfall shower and shuttered French windows that open out onto a large balcony overlooking the lake.
The hotel’s restaurant is in the grand ground floor dining room, overlooking the pretty terrace. It features soaring moulded ceilings and carved wooden panelling, which the new owners have painstakingly stripped back to its former natural glory. Daylight floods in through the arched windows onto chunky lacquered tables and geometric furnishings. The decadent dining room’s ambiance is transformed in the evening, when tasselled lights suspended from long cords give the room a cosy glow.
The new owners are passionate about food and drink and brought in London chef Jackson Boxer to create a menu which focuses on local, seasonal ingredients and gives a nod to the group’s French heritage. ‘Raw beef’ and foie gras sit alongside local Bibury trout, and vegetables feature prominently on the menu, as do artistic patisserie-style desserts. Breakfasts are a grand affair too, with the choice of cooked options and a smorgasbord of continental delights, which are laid out on a huge marble table next door. Choose from pastries and fresh fruit, cured meats and yoghurts, and make sure you try the honey from the hotel’s estate.
No stay at Cowley Manor is complete without a visit to the spa. C-Side is one of the UK’s early ‘destination spas’, and Cowley Manor was given special permission by English Heritage to sink the building into its Grade II Listed grounds back in the early noughties. Beautifully designed to blend with its surroundings, the glass, stone and concrete spa has a living roof and houses a green slate-lined indoor swimming pool, plus a sauna and steam room. The 17-metre pool’s natural feel is enhanced by floor-to-ceiling windows which frame the calming woodland vista and flood the pool with natural light.
There’s also a large heated outdoor pool with its own terrace, which comes into its own during the summer months, when it’s surrounded by poolside loungers, and yoga classes are hosted on the deck. The pool has its own bar too, and stylish umbrellas which give it a Mediterranean vibe when the English weather’s playing ball. The spa offers treatments from local skincare brand Monuskin, and there’s a well-equipped gym plus a shop and café space in the foyer.
For those looking to explore the Cotswolds, the hotel makes a perfect base, with 13th-century St Mary’s church next door being a great place to start. Or you can head to nearby pub, the Green Dragon, for a different kind of spiritual experience and quality pub grub. There are lots of lovely country walks nearby too, and if you’re visiting early in the year, you can see England’s greatest snowdrop collection at nearby Colesbourne Park.
For something a little less rural, the Regency town of Cheltenham is just a 20-minute drive away. Or you can head south to the ‘the capital of the Cotswolds’ and check out the lively market town of Cirencester.
History fans will be in their element too. Cowley Manor was built c.1855 on the site of an early-17th-century house on land once owned by Edward the Confessor, and it’s had many different incarnations and residents over the years. During World War II the building was leased to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and following that became a conference centre, then a particularly enviable nursing home. At the end of the 19th century, it was owned and modified by James Horlick, creator of the malted bedtime drink of the same name, and you can raise a toast to him at the bar where they serve a Horlicks Milk Punch cocktail.
Now in the 21st century, Cowley Manor Experimental provides the perfect destination for anyone looking to stay in a Cotswolds country house hotel with a difference. And, if you do step into the hotel’s rather magical world, you’ll likely leave grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
→ Find out more: cowleymanorexperimental.com
Words | Jane Knight – Spavellous