Top 3 small, charming, luxury English hotels

England is resplendent with charming small hotels where guests can savor all the essentials of contemporary luxury as they sample the bright flavors of each distinctive property. Here are three of my favorite homes away from home, spread across English soil, starting with the urban chic of The Dorset Square Hotel in London, then on to Ellenborough Park Hotel in the horsey Cotswolds, and finally to Hambleton Hall in the woodsy Midlands.

Dorset Square Hotel, London

As a New Yorker who has passed many a lovely evening in the restaurant and public rooms of Firmdale Hotels‘ sole American property, the Crosby Street Hotel, I was already a rabid fan of Kit Kemp’s signature interior design by the time I booked a trip to London.  So, naturally, I had to stay in one of Firmdale’s fashionable digs when on their home turf.

Dorset Square

The truth is, I think one could literally throw a dart at a map of Firmdale locations and be happy to spend time in any of them—“happy” being the operative word, for that’s what Kemp’s decor elicits. Every nuance of color, texture, space and art within this family of hotels adds up to an atmosphere that practically squeals with happiness. Though each property exudes purely individual personality, all display happy colors, happy patterns, and a happy kind of beauty.  The impression is vibrant and fully alive—yet, never “big top” or even over the top.

The Dorset Square Hotel was actually the very first of Tim and Kit Kemp’s properties, opened way back in 1985.  It was sold and then later repurchased by the Kemps and completely refurbished before reopening in 2012.  The Regency townhouse has 38 cozy, smartly turned-out bedrooms.  Well, Ok, read that as “compactly sized”–but so well organized that you hardly realize their petite proportions unless, like me, you need to stuff three oversized suitcases into as many corners.

Many of the hotel’s rooms overlook the leafy private garden of Dorset Square itself, once the site of Thomas Lord’s first cricket ground, and now just a few blocks from fashionable Marylebone High Street.  The cricket and field theme runs subtly and cleverly throughout the chambers; from the leafy artwork and botanical memorabilia, to a stunning collection of bats in the restaurant, and tiny cricket balls used for closet handles in the bedrooms.

A sumptuously appointed drawing room has a fireplace and honor bar; The Potting Shed restaurant serves meals all day.  This is where I had my first true “British breakfast”—and where the bar was set to a ridiculously high standard in comparing the many English breakfasts still to come.  A cold buffet included varieties of organic granolas, some with (yummy) chocolate bits or exotic dried fruits, plus tempting baked goods, an array of meats/fishes/cheeses, and a choice of superb cooked items.

An interesting side note:  A month prior to my own stay at Dorset Square, my Boston-based sister had traveled to England and by sheer coincidence stayed at a different Firmdale location: London’s Haymarket Hotel.   She was recovering from an injury, still sporting a crutch, and had to rely on Haymarket staff to help her organize a number of special services.  Help they did, coming through like champs.  Nearly every day I received an email from her detailing how the attentive staff provided assistance “above and beyond.”  While I didn’t require any such extras myself, the staff at Dorset Square were always warm, friendly and as helpful as possible.

My grades for the hotel:

Public rooms: Size C, Decor A
Guest rooms: Size C, Decor A
Breakfast: A
Service: A
Tech: B  Consistent WiFi access, acceptable speed

Ellenborough Park Hotel, Cheltenham, the Cotswolds

Multi-award winning Ellenborough Park Hotel is the epitome of 16th Century manor house grandeur.  Breathtaking 90 acre grounds stretch all the way to the nearby racecourse; the gorgeously plush and gilded Great Room is the idyllic spot for a perfectly English “something”—whether afternoon tea or a Hendricks and Fever Tree. Tales of the scandalous affairs of one Jane Digby – none other than Lady Ellenborough, herself – add character to a mansion already brimming with it.

Ellenborough

Guest rooms in the main building gorgeously reflect the hotel’s historic credentials while providing every proper modern luxury.  Those in a building addition surround the outdoor swimming pool and are done with classic contemporary panache, yet lack the bygone era splendor found in the manor itself.

Food is top notch at the casual Brasserie, where fish dishes become airy perfection. In the formal Beaufort Dining Room, Tudor fireplaces, stained glass Oriel windows and fine bone china form a traditional counterpoint to the modern locovorian cuisine.  Each dish and its wine pairing are carefully wrought, and even a “simple” cheese course will surprise the most jaded of palates.

At Ellenborough Park guests begin the day with what may be the most divine breakfast spread in all of Great Britain. This epicurean buffet and the faultlessly cooked dishes are far more than an afterthought. Thank goodness for the fitness equipment—serviceable though contained—or better yet, the expansive Spa, where you can revel in treatments that keep the effects of such indulgence at bay.

My grades for the hotel:

Public rooms: A-
Guest rooms   Size B+, Decor B+
Breakfast:  A+
Cuisine: A
Service: B+
Tech: D – the one truly sore spot.  Painfully slow, spotty internet connections during my stay. Repair promised. If speedy connectivity matters, it would be wise to ask if this has been addressed before booking.

Hambleton Hall, Rutland, Midlands

There’s a reason that so many of Hambleton Hall’s guests are repeat visitors who come back again and again, like clockwork.

As a Relais & Chateaux property, one would expect to find a refined aesthetic and requisite set of creature comforts at Hambleton Hall—and one does—but what owners Tom and Stefa Hart do better than anyone is create a sense that guests are grandly “at home.”  Here, it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re spending time with old friends at their stunning Victorian estate, rather than among strangers at a hotel, even if it is one of the premier country house hotels in all of Britain.

Hambleton Hall

There’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about this very special property, though. Whether you’re taking a rest in your sunny canopied bedroom, or lounging with a book in one of the living room’s richly upholstered, snuggle-worthy sofas, or just having a chat and a cocktail in the clubby wood-paneled bar, you’ll also be breathing deeply of the clean woodland air and openhearted spirit of this place.  You’ll feel your tension drain away as you gaze out over the manicured grounds toward the lake, and days will pass in the blink of an eye.  And that’s just one of the reasons you’ll come back.

You’ll also come back for the food.  All of it is very good. Some of it is absolutely sublime. The hotel serves only homemade breads from their award-winning bakery in nearby Rutland.  At dinner, Lamb Five Ways is an epicurean classic that outshines every other lamb preparation in my recent memory. There’s a delicate, yet quirky aspect to that dish which I dare not reveal—you’ll want to experience it for yourself.  Then, be sure to follow with the lemon meringue tart, which is quite a few notches above what mother used to make.  Thick, pillowy, sticky, tangy.  Heaven.

After a meal like this you’ll likely retire to your comfortable, tasteful, and very well thought-out bedroom. It’s actually far lovelier than it may have appeared on the hotel’s website, which, (at least at the time of my stay) imparted a falsely timeworn appearance to the interiors.  But have no worries: bedrooms, large en suite bathrooms and living rooms are religiously refreshed, reupholstered, polished, painted, and buffed long before you’ll notice that maintenance is needed.  Upkeep is pristine here. And to my joy, someone decided to drape fresh starched linen squares over the beds’ headboards so that each guest has her own immaculate little headrest. (Thank you Mrs. Hart!) So much better than the recent hotel trend toward giant padded monstrosities—where every guest rests her/his weary head against exactly the same spot as those who preceded him.

Absolutely the only problem with Hambleton Hall is that, at some point, you have to leave it.

My grades for the hotel:

Public rooms: A- – the dining room could use a little décor “oomph”
Guest rooms: Size A, Decor: B+
Breakfast: B+
Cuisine: A
Service: A
Tech: B+ – good and reliable WiFi

Comments (1)

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  1. Elyn Aviva says:

    Another winner, Joy! I especially like the rating system you have developed–great way to compare. And very important to make those distinctions and include the wifi access. Your reviews show an attention to detail totally in keeping with the luxury locales you are reviewing. Looking forward to more.

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