I don’t want to boast but over the past 15 years, I’ve stayed in incredible places. From B&Bs in northern Kenya to eco-hotels in South America – and all manner of spa hotels in the UK, I’ve seen it all. But, still, one of the loveliest places I’ve visited in the past year has been Cowley Manor. This Grade 2 listed manor, in that Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty known as the Cotswolds, was built in 1855 and has been turned by its owners, the Horlicks (of malted drink fame) into a country house hotel poised to offer the best in both traditional and modern pleasures.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you say: another country pad funked up with modern art and clashing colours. And, on paper, that’s sort of correct. The papier mache trophy heads in the bar may have you tutting. But just wait till you, as we did, step through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Italianate manor onto the terrace, gaze down across the rolling lawns beyond, watch the swans idly sailing across the lake whilst sipping a glass of fine wine. Then, you too will start to understand that you are not at home, surrounded by washing up, or in the office, surrounded by admin. You’re in a Very Special Place Indeed.
It’s smaller than you imagine, just 30 rooms, which is all to the good. You don’t want to feel as though you’re in a resort. The rooms are rated ‘good’ to ‘better’ to ‘great’ – although it’s a moot point. They’re all great, really. I’ve stayed at Cowley before, in the main house. And of course, it was lovely, modernist and bright with a ridiculously wide comfy bed, winged armchairs and a wood-and-white bathroom so spacious and amply well-equipped it might well qualify as a small spa.
But given the choice, I’d always come back to the stable-block, where we stay this time. Traditionally, the ‘modern wings’ of country house hotels are where poor relations reside, denied the ambience of history or the proximity of eating spaces in return lower prices. Not so at Cowley, where the stables have been converted into two or three storey apartments, each with their own enclosed patio area overlooking the original courtyard.
Wood panelling and a bathroom which looms over the main bed on a cantilevered ‘first floor’ give the impression you’re in some uniquely luxurious Swedish log cabin; the Blu-ray player, Nespresso coffee machine and Bose iPod docking station make it clear you’re not completely in the woods. Posh magazines such as Porter – as well as copies of Charles Lewinsky’s Melnitz: Roman and The Emerald Atlas – show who the hotel is aiming at: the modern Renaissance family, interested in everything, equally at home in the great outdoors as in a place like, well, Cowley Manor.
There’s plenty to do: from the functioning 12th century church nestled by the Manor’s side to the 60 acres of gardens, woodland and lakes with quiet dells and hidden walkways. Take a book to the Herb Garden, views of the upper lake or the Secret Garden behind fresh water springs. Hours will pass. There’s few things sweeter than ending your day with a gentle game of croquet or pool – and of course, there’s the Cotswolds, spectacularly beautiful, on the Manor’s doorstep.
And yet – and, given the delights on offer, I’m almost reluctant to say this – the jewel in Cowley Manor’s crown is not the rooms, the service, the food or the grounds. It’s the Spa, amusingly named C-Side, with its 17m green slate-lined indoor pool, 15m outdoor pool, and four treatment rooms, all using the hotel’s very own, very nice Green & Spring products. And, because we’re blessed with one bakingly warm and sunny April day, this is where we – and many of the guests (although the area never feels full) spend most of that Saturday.
And what an easy Saturday it is. Ambient club tracks pulse hypnotically under the trickle and splash of pool water, the quiet chatter of adults and the giggles of children, the clinking of forks on plates. The air is suffused with the clean scent of sun tan lotion on warm skin. Bamboos line the poolside; above us, pigeons bounce and flutter on the branches of spruce pines. Sedum and wild grasses flutter on the roof of the indoor pool, to which we periodically retreat when the heat gets too much. Darker, cooler, lined with green slate, with none of those white markings that make modern pools feel primed for training, it gives the impression of an underwater cave.
From midday, lunch is a flurry of pool staff emerging from the kitchens bearing salads and burgers, garnished with sweet bacon pickle, local ales and fruit juice. Periodically, throughout the day, much to the delight of the kids, they bring out popsicles to refresh weary guests. It starts to feel distinctly Mediterranean. By 2.30pm, everyone on the sun loungers by the outdoor pool is soporific with sunshine and gently digesting lunches but it’s impossible to leave. After a long winter, it feels like a rebirth.
Summer will be a special time at the manor, when its annual outdoor sculpture competition takes over part of the grounds. It’s the third year Cowley Manor has partnered with the Royal College of Art to showcase emerging talents in sculpture and, from now through to the end of September, Cowley’s parkland, lakes and meadows will be sensitively dotted with works from shortlisted students, including Laura O’Neill’s ‘The Hand of Hulk’ (1986) and a piece by Julia Frank ‘Memory’ which draws from her classical training and playfully echo’s Cowley’s wartime history.
But sculpture or no sculpture, Cowley Manor is a fabulous place to come, to shed daily pressures and to enjoy both a unique contemporary luxury in a refined environment and also the house’s spectacular environs. From Cowley, you can get to all manner of areas of great beauty – if you can pull yourself away from the property itself, that is, and that wonderful duo of pools. It’s a delightful dilemma. I suggest you book soon to enjoy it.
Double rooms from £195 per night based on double occupancy in a Good Room. The Cowley Picnic Hamper costs £60 for two people, excluding drinks (but with a key to the drinks chest) and is available 7 days a week July to September