Since Cowley Manor launched as a chic country house hotel and spa, it has been Gentrystyle’s preferred detox getaway. As we all know, there are two trends in recent years that we all ought to be wary of – the rise of pseudo-fashionable boutique hotels the world over and the return of the chintzy country house hotel. Too often, boutique hotels disappoint with bad soft furnishings, and country house hotels disappoint with bad food and too many old people. Happily, Cowley Manor, outside Cheltenham, has hardly put a foot wrong in reinventing the English country house for the 21st century – its bespoke soft furnishings are impeccable, its guests still have a spring in their step.
Cowley Manor has a varied history. The picturesque church which sits adjacent to the main house has been there since the 13th century, and while the original manor house was established there in 1695, it was eventually pulled down. The current house dates from 1860, overseen by the architect George Somers Clarke. (A bit of London trivia: Somers Clarke isn’t nearly as well known as many other Victorian architects, but we like him because of his link to that sartorial playground for men – Jermyn Street – because it was Somers Clarke who built a fabulously Orientalist Turkish Bath on that street, catering for the gentlemen of St. James, in the 1860s, see image to the right.) Somers Clarke’s Victorian country house – later used by Cheltenham Ladies College and sundry others – has been painstakingly gutted and intelligently renewed in form of a 30-bedroom luxury hotel with restaurant, bar and spa.
Like so many good country homes which amassed fine collections of art, Cowley has begun gathering an eye-catching collection of contemporary work. While there are some ‘big’ name artists like Gavin Turk, one of the original YBAs, many of the artists dotted throughout the house are less well known. We particularly came to admire the work of Katarina Ivanisin, who featured in the sitting room of our suite, but whose work is found throughout the house. A graduate of the Royal College of Art whose work is informed by her experiences of Dubrovnik, Ivanisin’s work is hazy and shifting, gesturing toward the abstract while hinting at landscapes and architectural structures. The evocative Atomic Explosion series at the bottom of a set of back stairs, opposite the basement, is worth pausing over. Other artists to keep an eye out for include David Farrer, whose animal head sculptures cheekily adorn the bar, Swiss-born Andreas Ruthi, textile designer Ptolemy Mann, and Mark Thompson whose moody canvases adorn the sitting room.
Rest assured, you won’t find a heavy gilt frame anywhere, which is just as well since the décor throughout the hotel is strictly contemporary, and, perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t dated in the least over the past few years. Unlike so many post-Wallpaper hotels that plumped for too-dark woods (wenge!) and a too-limited colour palette (beige!), Cowley balances lighter woods with a subtle range of colours – olive greens and raspberry pinks, for example. It makes for a laid back environment, sympathetic for the display of the art.
One place that you won’t find much art, but which is a work of art itself, is the spa – a new, classically modernist building which houses the gym, pool, steam rooms and treatment rooms. To our minds, it’s still the best country house spa in England – not necessarily the biggest and happily not the flashest, it’s elegant and cool without being austere and arsey. The treatments are a real pleasure – you won’t be disappointed with the ‘C Minus’ detox and exfoliating treatment – and you should obviously try to steal as many bathroom samples of their signature products (lots of geranium and orange and rosemary) as you can, though they’re also for sale.
Best of all, Cowley Manor is only an hour and a half from London. No airport required.