Andrew Stembridge kindly interrupted his busy schedule to meet us for pre-dinner drinks. Discussing subjects as diverse as microclimates, his foodie children, guest chefs, the 50th Anniversary book, restaurant guides, Edinburgh, and, not least, recent developments at Chewton Glen, the inexhaustible energy and dynamic vision of this 44 year old Managing Director were abundantly clear.
Having taken Chewton Glen forward in major directions during his 12 years at the helm, he might reasonably be expected to take stock and consolidate, but this is far from being the case; indeed, new projects are always in the pipeline. Perhaps this is not so surprising from a man named the “2010 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Hotelier of the Year”. Despite its Relais & Chateaux membership, five AA red stars, being recently voted “Best UK Holiday Hotel” and listed as one of the “World’s Best Hotels” by Conde Nast Traveller readers in 2014, the need to improve even further is constantly present.
Andrew’s restaurant initiative, started five years ago by creating one dining room with a wide ranging menu suitable for all tastes, has worked well. Given the large number of guests who stay for a few nights and do not want fine dining every day, this change satisfied an essential need that Luke Matthews, his head chef, was happy to embrace. Described admiringly by Andrew as a chef with “no ego”, Luke is not obsessed with chasing accolades; instead, accommodating the wishes of the guests has always been his first priority. This is true whether it be an off menu dish requested in a busy evening’s service, or, at the other end of the scale, executing a bespoke wedding menu planned by the bride and groom.
Andrew spoke enthusiastically about the treehouses, his major building initiative in a secluded part of the hotel’s extensive grounds. Having admired them from the access lane during my early morning walk, I could see why. The six treehouses, each containing two luxury suites, all of which have kitchenettes, outdoor terraces and hot tubs, are built on stilts overlooking a peaceful wooded valley. The fully glazed walls give panoramic views and ample natural light, whilst paneled exteriors mirror the arboreal surroundings. In four categories –Studio, Loft, Hideaway and Private – the Loft suites, with secret galleried bunk areas for children are popular with families, whereas the Hideaway suites, with separate bedroom “pods” accessed by a covered walkway, are often booked by small wedding parties and those wishing for a romantic getaway.
The next exciting project is a cookery school to be housed, hopefully, in a lodge by the main road. With the aim of providing not just haute cuisine tuition but more accessible courses such as cooking for men, it is likely to appeal to a wider clientele. It will also incorporate a gastropub and bakery, giving guests who might wish to eat outside the hotel an alternative, as pubs serving good food are a rarity in the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, the gastropub should fill a much needed gap as well as capturing passing trade.
Another important development has been the Kitchen Garden, a tour of which Darren Venables, the passionate and engaging Estate Manager, found time to give us the following morning. The Walled Garden, started four years ago, has been designed not just for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs, but also as a useable open space for weddings, conferences and barbeques, hence the wide paths and central patio and pergola. In this use, it has been highly successful.
At this early stage of development, the garden’s aim is not for self-sufficiency, although the output will increase annually. Rather, it is to focus on produce the kitchen cannot buy easily or cheaply, such as chive and courgette flowers, chard leaves and honey. To celebrate the hotel’s 50th Anniversary, the planting of 200 heritage variety trees in the orchard beyond the walled garden is a major part of the expansion plan. So too is the cultivation of gorse flowers for the production of in-house gin, with a distillery built within the cookery school. Foraging by Jennifer Williams occurs within the hotel’s extensive grounds, producing ingredients for jams and jellies. Duncan will be joining her for a special event “Syrups and Preserves – foraging, fruit and fun” in September.
Refurbishment is on-going in different wings of the hotel which has 70 bedrooms and suites. One of the most recent improvements (December 2013) is to be seen in the Coach House suites, which include the Alice Beverley suite where we stayed. This spacious, split level accommodation is ideal for families, each floor having its own bathroom and semi-private courtyard (downstairs) and rooftop balcony. Downstairs, new oak flooring covered by flat weave rugs give a classic country house feel, whilst and putty colour décor offer a neutral backdrop to the Burgundy Howard style velvet armchair and sofa, and eclectic combination of traditional and contemporary fixtures and fittings.
On each floor, supremely comfortable King sized beds dressed in the finest Egyptian cotton are supplemented by sofa/armchairs which convert to beds for children. Upstairs, a delightful secret snug area also sleeps two small children.
After a long drive to New Milton, we decided to luxuriate, maximising the use of the suite’s facilities. Champagne, fruit and chocolates on arrival were gratefully sampled. We caught up with the news on the flat screen television whilst sipping coffee from the easy to use Nespresso machine. Next for me was an indulgent soak in the luxurious marbled bathroom, complete with a built in waterproof TV and double walk in shower. Donning a soft, fluffy bathrobe I spent a nostalgic 30 minutes listening to Carol King’s “Tapestry” on the Bang and Olufsen CD player before changing for dinner.
Attention to detail and finishing touches are impressive. The umbrella stand; a blanket on the back of a Windsor chair; an iPhone docking station; a Sky TV box for recording; slippers – yippee!; a pull out shower attachment essential for rinsing after a bubble bath; fine Ren toiletries; ample supplies of bottled water; fresh milk in the fridge; a gift of Chewton honey and Marryat’s “Children of the New Forest” for bedtime reading (left at turndown), all enhance the guest experience. Enjoying your room may come at the expense of not taking full advantage of the excellent facilities Chewton Glen has to offer. Sadly, on a one night stay with dinner I had no time to sample the multi-award winning spa, complete with swimming pool, hydrotherapy pool and gym. (This is the obvious reason for a return visit).
I opted instead for a brisk, invigorating 20 minute early morning walk through the grounds and “Chewton Bunny” nature reserve to the coast, where a fine view of the Isle of Wight was the reward. The public areas are comforting and relaxing. The spacious Elphinstone Lounge and Morning room are ideal for taking morning coffee or afternoon tea. By contrast, the more compact paneled Colonel Tinker’s bar in rich red with leather arm chairs is popular for pre and post dinner drinks. The Terrace, ideal in good weather for al fresco consumption, can also be used in the cooler evenings, given the recent addition of giant heated parasols.
Ultimately, despite the splendid accommodation, luxurious facilities, and beautiful grounds, the greatest asset Chewton Glen has is its people. This says much about the theme of staff as a “family”, treated as individuals at all levels. Some have been long serving and others have returned after stints elsewhere. Therefore Chewton has had the continuity and stability that a large scale operation needs to be successful. Apart from Andrew’s 12 years as Managing Director, Luke Mathews has served for over 20 years, and Darren Venables and Angela Day, Public Relations Manager, for over 15 years. From the welcome at check in, the tour of the facilities by Food and Beverage Manager, Ed Fitzpatrick, through to the helpful menu advice given by Restaurant Manager Alex Von Ulmenstein, and the breakfast service overseen by Head Waiter Tim Archer, the seamless service was at once professional, welcoming, informative and friendly. Making guests feel at home, going that extra mile to please, has helped to ensure that some 70% of guests are on repeat visits, probably the finest testament to Chewton Glen’s success.