A little over an hour from London, a hotel with a no-expense spared approach to design is redefining British country stays. Chantal Borciani discovers the hotel Meghan and Harry chose for their private getaway
They say the best things come to those who wait, and in the case of Heckfield Place, the world was waiting a while. Originally due to open in 2012, the launch of the most exciting country house hotel to hit the UK hospitality landscape in two decades finally opened its doors in September 2018. Passion project of billionaire owner Gerald Chan, it is rumoured the wait was so the owner could get things just right. Though, renovating a Grade II listed mansion, where even the stone plant pots flanking the ornamental fountain are under protective covenant, would be no nimble feat for any owner.
Set in 400 acres of bucolic Hampshire countryside, Heckfield Place was home to the Lefevre family for most of the 19th century, one of the most notable residents being Charles Shaw-Lefevre, Viscount Eversley, speaker of the House of Commons. Under Eversley’s head gardener, William Wildsmith, the estate gained an arboretum and ornamental lake, and became renowned for its exotic hothouse fruits. Today, undisclosed millions have been spent on the renovations and the refined and elegant result is still just as tightly interwoven with the landscape as ever. Mature woodland cocoons the estate, walled gardens are fragrant with roses and lavender, and a market garden and biodynamic farm supplies the hotel’s exquisite restaurants.
At the entrance we are ushered past a sweeping staircase lined with black and white prints to a floor to ceiling French window. The team like guests to instantly lay eyes on the rolling countryside that surrounds them, and the picture window overlooking not one but two lakes certainly sets the tone for things to come.
We move through to the vast ‘morning room’ (the name denotes the ideal time to repose and drink in the views) where early spring sunlight streams through yet more lofty windows, illuminating reading chairs and silken soft sofas. The bookcase is filled with literature to make “guests think”, while in the adjoining Drawing Room an original fireplace is offset with a giant gilded mirror, and contemporary art punctuates the soothing grey walls wonderfully. Every day, homemade scones, whipped butter and seasonal homemade preserves are laid out for afternoon tea; a blissful nod to the traditions of proper country life.
The interior vision is the work of designer Ben Thompson, who trained under Ilse Crawford and worked on the revered Ett Hem hotel in Stockholm. In Heckfield, Thompson has created a sublime detailed country retreat, where natural textures, plants and a palette of muted greys, velvet creams and forest greens reflect the surroundings, while antiques, hand-picked art and crystal chandeliers add dashes of drama.
In the main house, six spectacular signature rooms are the grandest offerings, each providing acres of space, lavish bathrooms, individual designs and even their own bespoke scent. These start from £1,750 a night, rocketing up to £10,000 for a night in the hotel’s Long Room. The preserve of the Hollywood elite and nobility – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are rumoured to have chosen Heckfield for their babymoon this year – the Long Room offers a vast private apartment with vaulted ceiling, private kitchen, sitting and dining room and secluded terrace. Fortunately for mere mortals, entry-level ‘Friends’ rooms start at £350 per night.
For (seriously) special occasions, our Master Room, at £800 a night, was set in the wing known as the ‘Corridors’, and was all but flawless. Alongside the dressing room, there’s a luxurious country style bathroom, ample loft-feel style living space and capacious bed. The suite is dressed with Georgian timber furniture, hand-knotted wool rugs, original British artworks from the owner’s private collection, handmade throws and antiquities that feel lavishly curated yet rooted in place and purpose. Smaller, artisanal touches embolden the narrative; a corn dolly is used as the ‘do not disturb’ sign, your wooden room key (the hotel is soon to be fully plastic-free) comes in an envelope embossed with your initials, seasonal bouquets and single stems are deftly positioned, and woven baskets hang on hooks next to a wool covered hot water bottle – is there anything more delightfully English? On the writing desk, a selection of three tomes including John Ruskin’s On Art & Life and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own feel thoughtfully selected. Even the mini bars prove noteworthy. Each cabinet is bespoke and painted to match its room, drawers glide open, freshly ground coffee is set in handmade pots, a run of supple leather pouches hold other accoutrement while homemade cordials and freshly baked cookies sit snugly in place. Even the kettle is bespoke; jet black and modernist.
Despite the achingly good interior, Heckfield is as much about ensconcing one’s self in the land as it is about snuggling down in your suite’s billowing sofas. There are Hunter wellies, wax jackets and umbrellas on hand for guests in the Boot Room and maps of the gardens and routes around the undulating woodland to follow.
We stroll down the gentle slope past Heckfield’s upper and lower lakes looping around to the ancient woodland where California Coast Redwood Sequoias, Blue Atlas Cedars, Grand Firs and Douglas Firs tower – with some trees dating back to the 18th Century. A testament to pioneering horticulturalist William Wildsmith, Heckfield’s forest, gardens, terraces and walled oasis have been expertly restored in the last few years and are now a pleasure ground for guests to explore.
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Run biodynamically, Home Farm is also open to guests and lies at one end of the estate with crops, chickens, saddleback pigs, a 70-strong flock of sheep and an expansive market garden and orchard. When we visit, thousands of tulip bulbs are nearing bloom, soon to be whisked up the hill to adorn the myriad vases in Heckfield’s rooms and corridors. In a few weeks, the farm’s peonies, sweet peas and roses will take their place. Similarly, the produce that grows supplies the changing menus at Heckfield’s two restaurants; Marle and Hearth.
Skye Gyngell, of London’s Spring restaurant, is the hotel’s culinary director and both restaurants smack wonderfully of her commitment to produce and ‘field to fork’ dining. Centred around an open fire, Hearth is as intimate as it is atmospheric. Housed in the renovated coaching stables and a haven of exposed brick, beams and earthenware styling, the restaurant is only open to guests of the hotel and all dishes are cooked on the crackling fire. Ensure to look skyward during your meal, as the bell in the clock tower above the Hearth’s tables is not only older than Big Ben, it was made by the same brothers who manufactured it.
Marle, named after a class of soil, feels part verdant summerhouse, part upscale dining room. There’s a lake-view terrace or tables inside that sit under swathes of luscious foliage. At one corner, a vast skylight – adorned with yet more trailing greenery – floods the area with light and is a beautiful spot for breakfast.
This year, Heckfield will add a vast spa to its box of tricks (the current bothy spa only has three treatment rooms) and there are plans afoot for a country pub on the estate, plus homestays and cookery courses on the farm. Whatever comes, it is sure to be decidedly upscale and exceptionally well thought out.
Unstuffy yet brimming with tradition and history, Heckfield Place may have a royal price tag but it also offers a new take on sophisticated British luxury where seasons and nature are intrinsic to the design cues and character of your stay.
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