Lucknam Park, one of the country’s most distinguished country house hotels, has been bestowed with a host of top awards, including a Michelin Star, five AA Red Stars and the Visit Britain Gold Award. As a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux Association, it offers in abundance the five Cs – character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.
Few approaches to a country house hotel can match the grandeur of the mile long drive to the main house. Set in 500 acres of gardens and parkland, the double avenue of 400 ancient lime and beech trees, which famously hid spitfires in the Second World War, opens onto manicured lawns, attractive gardens and open parkland.
The grey stoned mansion, the central core designed in Palladian style, has an elegantly symmetrical frontage, complete with columned portico, sash windows, mini gables, and bow wing extensions. The courtyard behind is reminiscent of Oxford architecture, a blend of the ivy clad walls of Exeter College and the honey coloured buildings of Hertford.
Here, just as in that city of dreaming spires, the buildings have character and charm in an atmosphere of calm tranquillity.
These qualities are displayed also in the public rooms and guest accommodation. An inviting entrance hall leads to the stately, wood paneled library and bow fronted, brightly lit Georgian drawing room beyond.
The tall windows are dressed with heavy, luxurious drapes, a key feature of the hotel. With leather chesterfields, settees and armchairs in sumptuous fabrics, large gilt mirrors and period paintings, both lounges retain a distinct period feel, exuding comfort and sophistication. The feeling of wealthy but restrained elegance is almost palpable.
The Park Restaurant, with its high ceiling, magnificent chandeliers, wall lighting, mirrors and artwork, is a suitably grand setting for the Michelin starred cuisine served there. Throne-like chairs offer comfortable seating around well-spaced tables dressed in fine napery and decorated with pot plants and candles.
The 42 refurbished guest rooms and suites retain the traditional atmosphere and classical good taste of the public rooms, along with every modern amenity. The supremely comfortable and spacious Camelia Suite in which I stayed is located above the main entrance, commanding fine views of the drive and parkland. In the gold flock papered sitting room, traditional furniture and fittings – a Queen Anne armchair, writing desk and gold plated chandelier – exist alongside a flat screen satellite television, a Bose hi-fi and an iPod dock. Similarly, the bedroom’s period pieces – a magnificent, high four poster bed, a chaise longue, an antique dressing table and a chest of drawers – are supplemented by another giant flat screen TV and reading spotlights on the bed The marble tiled bathroom is well appointed with twin sinks, douche and hand held showers, fluffy towels, dressing gowns, still and sparkling mineral water and Anne Semonin toiletries. Overall, there was everything anyone would need for a peaceful, restful stay; certainly, the guest book testifies to the enjoyment of previous guests, some on repeat visits.
If guests wish to luxuriate elsewhere, no better place can be found than the award winning Spa. Located in the walled garden beyond the courtyard, this marble, glass and wood structure offers treatments using Anne Semonin and Carita care products, a 20 metre swimming pool, and a range of indulgent activities. For non-swimmers like me, the indoor/ outdoor hydrotherapy pool, with water jets was an invigorating treat. Five thermal cabins offer guests an unequalled range of temperatures; for me the heat and calm of the Japanese Salt and Aromatic Steam rooms were the most relaxing. Fortunately, it was too cold to try the outdoor saltwater plunge pool! Given time, which others clearly had, it would be easy to spend the whole day in the Spa, taking lunch in the adjacent brasserie.
In good weather, guests might prefer to tour the extensive grounds, particularly the five acres of gardens. The Walled Garden, with its late 18th century dovecot, is the most traditional in lay out, whilst the Rose Garden has a symmetrical design inspired by a French courtyard. In addition, there is a Victorian kitchen herb garden, dominated by lavender, and a miniature oriental tropical garden. Of special interest to nature lovers will be the Arboretum, designed by landscape designer Antony Young to accommodate 600 trees, many of them rare and unusual such as the Chinese Crab tree. Guests can choose from a list of 64 species, with prices ranging from £20 to over £150, their names commemorated on a tree plaque.
For the more active, the renowned Equestrian Centre provides horses and ponies for both lessons and hacks. Three new packages have been provided for all levels of ability. Alternatively, the new Cookery School, to open in November 2012, will be an added attraction for the more gastronomically inclined.
Overseeing the whole operation is Claire Randall (Left), Managing Director for the last two years and General Manager for the previous 11. This considerable experience gives her a realistic appreciation of the hotel’s strengths and a confident plan for improvement.
Her approach is essentially hands on, talking to guests, observing staff in action, and ensuring that service is offered in an unstinting, caring and unobtrusive fashion. Nothing should be too much trouble for the staff.
Given that 90% of business is from the UK, with Londoners on a luxury break making up most of week-end trade, she is keen to build on this market.
Claire’s mission statement for Lucknam Park is “to provide a home, away from home, with country house living at its very best.” Relaxation and comfort, with personal, friendly service are paramount considerations in making a guest’s stay memorable. Given that many jobs in the hotel do not require advanced technical skills, it important to employ those with a positive, caring attitude and a willingness to please.
Claire’s vision for the future is dynamic and ambitious: she aims to consolidate existing and initiate new developments to ensure a steady stream of revenue, especially with weekdays and the winter months in mind.
The new Spa, opened in November 2008, provides world class facilities and has further enhanced the fortunes of the hotel. The Brasserie, which holds an AA rosette, has enabled residents to eat well but more informally inside the hotel, rather than seeking meals outside. The new Cookery School, opening in November 2012 and led by Roux Scholar and National Chef of the Year Hrishikesh Desai, will attract a range of aspiring chefs to its 26 courses. The Indian regional cookery and Street Food courses are already heavily subscribed.
A Well Being Centre, based in a quiet cottage on the estate, is planned to open in 2013. It will offer a range of therapies, such as ‘dry flotation’ and Sleep therapy, and activities such as Palates and Tai Chi. All these initiatives also have the potential to increase the accommodation rate.
Having seen Lucknam win most of the top hotel awards, and receive glowing reviews on websites, it would be easy to stand still. This is not in Claire Randall’s nature, which is always to look for progression. It will involve a degree of lateral thinking, a thorough dissection of all jobs, an appreciation of who excels in which part –even small parts – and a concentration on maximising individual abilities to improve the performance of the whole team. With a staff of 150, this no simple task, but it is one that will raise standards to a level even higher than they are already.
During my stay at Lucknam Park, service at all times was fault free. At check in, my bags were swiftly taken to my room where champagne on ice, grapes and chocolates awaited my arrival. I was given a detailed tour of the facilities. Service, both in The Brasserie for lunch and The Park for dinner and breakfast was beyond reproach. The nightly turn down of the bedroom was completed efficiently and discretely. Even my failure to open my locker in the Spa changing room was managed with the minimum of fuss. Finally, the razor I left in the bathroom was quickly despatched to me two days after my departure. Clearly, the service could hardly be better!
Staying at Lucknam Park is a real joy, one that is truly memorable and which totally justifies the recognition it has received.