Oh to have met Lady Jane Digby, the most notorious Lady Ellenborough. What a colourful Mrs Smith she would have made. Briefly the lady of this Cotswold house, one wonders what she would make of her grand once-marital home now hosting loved-up weekend awayers? I am confident the 1807-born aristocrat – who in her time eloped with an Austrian prince, married a Bedoin sheikh and a German baron, and had affairs with an Albanian brigand general and the King of Bavaria – would thoroughly approve...
A distinguished vignette greets us at the Cotswold-stone hotel for our arrival: cornflower-blue sky and a Kermit-green lawn that stretches to wild fields that roll down to the edge of Cheltenham’s groomed racetrack. Sunshine alchemised the crenallated towers and centuries-old stonework to pure gold. We couldn’t help but be curious about this property’s heritage. (Especially when Mr Smith scrutinised the bricks and pointed out sections clearly added in different eras.) But what should prove a most memorable part of our recent stay at the new luxury Cheltenham hotel? When someone recommended a copy of Lady Jane’s biography by Mary S Lovell. (A gentle enquiry into the history of the house from a sweet member of staff had her disappearing off, and moments later, cheerily popping a copy of this very paperback into my paws.)
Architecture buffs will recognise the property as an anomaly. Thomas Goodman's construction of Southam House, as it was known until the Seventies, first began in 1500; eventually the estate passed to Richard de la Bere who was the first person to come over all Grand Designs on it – in a 17th-century kind of way. By 1833 it was the first Earl of Ellenborough's; then in the 20th century it hosted a private girls school and a hotel. But nothing in the league of its latest incarnation. 2007 marked the dawn of a new era when asset managers got their mitts on the property; after four years of extravagant remodelling a very new beast emerged.
And so, to these two Smith turning up at this TripAdvisor high-ranker – a day early. After a few blank looks from the friendly receptionists and a little gentle head-shaking, we unnervingly discover there is no record of our booking. Oh no. Turns out we’ve committed the ultimate hotel-reviewing faux pas: I got our dates jumbled. Smiling throughout, the receptionist graciously finds us a room quick-smart (despite Ellenborough Park being almost fully booked), and we're invited to take tea in the Great Hall while they get our suite readied. It is betwixt the centuries-old carved stone fireplace, and delicate stained-glass windows, under huge Tudor portraits, that we learn about the scandalising Lady Ellenbrough.
Just-baked scones, Earl Grey and tales of yore devoured, and we’re steered to our luxury double bedroom in the new wing. With our hotel-critic heads on we weigh up this newly created hotel decked out in Nina Campbell interior design; hmm, not a big fan of brass name badges, but since the staff are so friendly, it is nice to know their names. Electronic photo frames with a loop of brochure-type shots? Slightly dubious. But such corporate details are soon forgotten when our chaperone steers us into a boot room and invites us to borrow wellies. Fun.
Being in the purpose-built Woodland Court rather than the hotel’s more historic main house sees our door opening to a super high-quality, stylish modern-classic bedroom. It could be a Four Seasons showroom: huge, inviting bed clearly clad in top-notch freshly starched linens, resplendent marble ensuite bathroom, big desk with information folders, and a whopping widescreen with a hotel video of guests having a whale of a time in a hot tub. No, no – it’s not a steamy adult channel, but a corporate film of Ellenborough Park’s marvelous facilities in full glory.
And boy, are there facilities. Fans of shooting, polo and golf will like it here, but we’ve booked in for my personal pastime favourite: the spa. Steered into the juice bar (although, disappointingly as it’s a Sunday no one offers to rustle us up anything freshly squeezed), we wait for our therapists. Spa snobs, take note, the Discovery Prescription Facial is a winner. As I lie there taking in the classical music in my candlelit cubby, soaking up the Babor oils, it’s impossible to conceive that there is in fact a wedding going on right below in De la Bere Court.
From pampering to pigging out – via an elegant aperitif. It’s a Lady Ellenborough cocktail for me (Hendrick's gin, champagne and elderflower cordial) and a classic martini for Mr Smith, in the minstrel’s gallery overlooking that harp-boasting history-steeped hall. There is a more traditional hotel watering hole which doubles as a brasserie, the Brasserie bar – but tonight it is commandeered by the wedding party. No worry, we prefer this spot anyway to the more conventional bar that is a tad masculine for my taste. (Racing enthusiasts will find the whisky-toting, cigar-selling Brasserie bar a must-visit though when it comes to eavesdropping for tip-offs from visiting jockeys and horse trainers.)
For us, it is the Beaufort Dining Room where Ellenborough truly wows. The Italian maitre d’ Sandro is the first agent in transporting us from country-house-hotel to sophisticated gastronome’s paradise, eased along with excellent advice from sommelier Tobias Brauweiler. It’s an exciting Modern British menu laced with every epicurean indulgence (foie gras, lobster – you name it.) A few bites of the quality ingredients and you are likely to consider the £60 price tag for four courses perfectly reasonable.
A bracing* dip in the slate-lined outdoor pool the next morning washes away any traces of Tobias’ expert wine-matching. (*It is heated, but this is England after all.) We then make the most of our near-town location with a wander into Cheltenham itself. (If I’m to be brutal dear reader, we miss out on a true bank holiday lie-in due to our previous guests setting the alarm in our room for 5.55am. Thankfully the pastry-, fruit- and charcuterie-laden breakfast table is a magnificent incentive to get us out of that fine-linened cloud of a bed.)
After a day of poking our noses into cute delis, galleries and boutiques in the Montpellier district, we’re happy to be relaxing in the Great Hall again with another afternoon tea. Peering over that chic specially commissioned bone china, we observe two couples canoodling in different cosy corners of the reception room. My, my, what would Lady Ellenborough make of it all? I have no doubt: she would be very, very proud.