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Chewton Glen in Hampshire: The Very Best of English Country House Hotels
You could be forgiven for thinking that the green woodpeckers calling so evocatively from the gardens around Chewton Glen had been put there deliberately by Martin and Brigitte Skan. These usually shy and wary birds, with their distinctive red crowns, were amazingly tame and their laughing, kluh, kluh, kluh calls echoed around the idyllic and impeccable surroundings of this very English country house hotel. Their haunting calls drifted from the trees while we ate dinner on the terrace and they were there again at breakfast after we emerged from a swim in the outdoor pool. Even on the croquet lawn they refused to leave us alone. A touch of magic which made a welcome change from screaming peacocks!
Attention to detail in their quest for the latest and classiest hotel facility has become something of a trademark of the Skans as they strive to keep their beloved Chewton up there with the best of them. Chewton is a long standing member of Relais & Chateaux and the Skans’ knowledge and interest in what makes a good hotel tick has been gleaned from their willingness to travel the world, staying at a host of fine hotels. In the process they have unashamedly stolen ideas and adapted them for their own sleepy little corner of the New Forest in Hampshire. Their reward has been a clutch of top accolades – the latest for 2005 being voted the best hotel in the British Isles according to American readers of Condé Nast Traveller. There is a Michelin star for the restaurant and it has also been awarded Best Small Hotel in the World and Best Spa Hotel in Europe to mention only a few.
Such a reputation does not come easily. Martin Skan bought Chewton as a small, run down, eight bedroom hotel in 1966. Nearly forty years later it has fifty eight rooms and needs 200 staff to run it. The trouble is, the Skans tell us sadly, if we had to rely on British employees we’d be sunk. They just don’t want to know. So we employ waiters from all over Europe, our restaurant manager is from Madeira and some of our best cleaners are Polish.” And then he tells us with a wry smile, “In five years our business rates have doubled to more than half a million dollars a year!”
The miracle is, although very dapper and sprightly and looking nowhere near his seventy years, Martin Skan is just as passionate about owning a hotel as he ever was, although he likes to make you know that his managing director Andrew Stembridge, is very much at the helm when it comes to the day to day running of it.
Even so, it doesn’t stop him dreaming up new ideas. On the dining terrace over a cup of coffee he told us of his latest plans. “We want to build a golf academy and concentrate on the short game with the existing nine-hole course we already have. We’ll have a driving range and full time professionals to run teaching courses as well.” And with the same twinkle in his eye he tells us of his plans to start a cookery school and to build new lodges, a crèche and another swimming pool to cash in on the growing family market. “How long will that take,” we ask, suggesting that it might take five years. “Oh no, two or three at the most once we get planning permission.”
Meanwhile Brigitte was keen to show us the latest décor she has used to remodel a couple of suites. It turns out to be a triumphant mix of old and new – antique items of furniture dotted here and there with contemporary, pale wooden panelling on the walls, modern, but large, double beds, hardwood deck-terrace to sunbathe on, round bowls with mixer taps in the bathrooms and a dedicated office for the busy businessman who can’t completely switch off. Quite a leap from the traditional English country house style, “But it’s what our younger guests want,” she tells us and she looks very pleased with it.
In summer breakfast, lunch and dinner can be taken on the terrace, next to the dining room. Sometimes you risk a chilly night getting the better of you so gas heaters that try to look like old lamplights are strategically positioned to take up the challenge of keeping the diners warm. We had one next to us but a German couple made it very clear that they wanted nothing to do with it. “Please don’t light it,” they said. “But everyone is cold,” came the reply from the waiter, “it will warm you up.” “That’s precisely what we don’t want,” they insisted and the waiter went scuttling off. We looked at each other and thought our German friends must know something we didn’t.
By now we really were cold and it was either up plates and hurry inside or insist on the heater being lit. So we called the waiter and asked if he could light the lamp after all. Ingeniously he rolled it even closer towards us, while the Germans looked on approvingly as if to say, “You’re welcome to it!”. Within minutes our lamp was glowing red in the fading light and the cold night air had vanished. For the first few minutes everything was fine and then, suddenly, we began to realise what the heaters actually did. They were like a series of little bonfires warming one side of you while the other side remained cold. Your face felt as though it was burning and it wasn’t long before we had called the waiter to take it away. There is no substitute for an all round warm, English summer’s evening so we took our coffee inside and left the Germans out in the cold apparently loving every minute of it!
Chewton Glen Hotel and Restaurant
Owners: Martin and Brigitte Skan
Managing Director: Andrew Stembridge
Telephone: +44(0)1425 275341
Airports: Fly directly to London Heathrow (about 60 miles), or Gatwick and then take connecting flight to Southampton (16 miles). For connecting flights try: www.flybe.com Or take the train from London to Southampton. Chewton will also make pick ups from Southampton or London airports.
What to take
Dress up as much as you like! However, smart casual is quite acceptable in the dining room. Summers seem to be getting hotter particularly in the south of England so casual cotton or linen clothes for daytime are ideal. Take a warm sweater in case of chilly nights. Don’t forget your swimming costume for both the indoor or outdoor swimming pools and the amazing hydro pool! Remember to take comfortable shoes for walking and a light waterproof jacket. Chewton is open all year; winter can be an extremely interesting time to visit. Plenty of outdoor activities – shooting, polo, horse riding and the like. Take warm clothing.
Chewton is surrounded by the famous New Forest - 145 square miles of heath and woodland. It goes back to William the Conqueror and was the hunting ground of Norman kings. In 1100 William II was fatally wounded in a hunting accident.
A good pair of binoculars will help you spot all the wildlife and look more closely at the wild, New Forest ponies. We always use Zeiss pocket binoculars 8x30 Victory Compact. Waterproof and lightweight and easy to carry.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Great Britain by Michael Leapman. Published by Dorling Kindersley.
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland onSunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.