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Behind the scenes at Hampshire Life Food & Drink Awards dinner venue The Elvetham

PUBLISHED: 10:01 01 September 2014 | UPDATED: 10:02 01 September 2014

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The Elvetham has a rich and colourful past - not least in laying on lavish banquets for royalty. Chosen as the venue for our glittering Hampshire Life Food & Drink Awards dinner, the hotel knows a thing or two about parties, says Elizabeth Barnett

Walking through the imposing front door of this majestic 19th century mansion, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A grand, stone clad reception leads to an even more impressive drawing room with illustrated ceiling and stained glass window. Although it was rebuilt in 1860 after a fire, there is a palpable sense of the building’s rich history here. The original house dates back to 1426 and belonged to the Seymour family, relatives of the third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour. Nowadays, unlike other stately homes around the county with admission fees and tour guides, The Elvetham Hotel is a place for rest and relaxation. It’s a chance to play Lord and Lady of the manor and within minutes of sinking into one of the many deep sofas, you know it’s going to be hard to leave.

Elvetham Hall, as it was once known, lies on the site of an old medieval manor and is crammed with stories of lavish royal visits and scandalous liaisons. Linda Taylor, Deputy General Manager at the hotel, is on hand to show you around and explain its diverse history.

“We’ve recently found out that Henry VIII did actually meet Jane Seymour at Elvetham after we found reference to their connection in the books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, written by Hilary Mantel,” says Linda. “There is a little bit in Wolf Hall about Henry VIII spying on Jane Seymour here, and his impression of her being very modest with her head drooped. It describes his first impressions, and what he thought of her so it was before they got together.”

The house was passed down through a succession of Seymours, including Edward, the brother of Jane Seymour (mother of Edward VI), who became Lord Protector to the boy King after the death of Henry VIII and who was eventually beheaded for high treason in 1551.

Jane and Edward were not the only link to Henry VIII as their brother, Thomas, married Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife who outlived the King. Thomas too was beheaded for high treason after becoming embroiled in scandalous liaisons with the young Princess Elizabeth. After his death, his estates were forfeited but eventually restored to his son Edward, by the Earl of Hertford.

To soothe the relationship between his family and Elizabeth, who was now Queen, Edward Seymour invited her to Elvetham in 1591. Directly in front of the restaurant you can see the giant oak tree, measuring 32 feet in circumference, which she planted in commemoration of the occasion. The bountiful entertainment lasted for four days, culminating in a huge banquet..

“There were over 1,000 dishes put before her,” says Linda, “and they made almost any animal you could think of out of sugar work. There were 100 men carrying torches to light the banquet as it was put down in front of the lake, and then they set off fireworks with Catherine wheels and great balls of fire.” Inspiration perhaps for any future brides who are planning a wedding at The Elvetham.

On Edward’s death the house passed to his grandson, William Seymour, who became Marquis of Hertford and Duke of Somerset. In 1649 he sold Elvetham to Sir Robert Reynolds, Solicitor General of the Commonwealth.

The original house that Queen Elizabeth visited burned down in 1840. The new house, developed into the present mansion by Frederick, 4th Baron Calthorpe, commemorates Hampshire’s famous historical figures.

There are later additions including the Library and the Oak Room (originally the Billiard room) built between 1911 -1913. In 1901 the carriage porch was added, the first conservatory was built in 1956 (later rebuilt in 1998 when it was turned into the restaurant area for the hotel) and a further wing in 1977.

With its striking, winding staircase and broad corridors, the feeling of space is vast within the walls of The Elvetham. But it is when you walk around the grounds that the hotel really comes into its own.

The surrounding 35 acres are much the same today as those recorded in the Domesday Book. A formal garden was created in 1860 and a mile-long avenue of Wellingtonias were planted. After many years of neglect the gardens were restored in 1962 and now include a broad walk of Irish Yews, a croquet lawn, 80 ornamental trees and a kitchen garden.

Take a stroll among the manicured lawns and you will find secret gardens, ornamental ponds and arches framing hidden vistas across the surrounding countryside. As you explore, keep an eye out for the famous Magnolia Soulangiana, which is said to be the largest in England.

Standing proud within the grounds is the fascinating St Mary’s church. Built in 1840, it was designed by Sir Henry Roberts to resemble a Twelfth Century Norman church; with a later addition of four corner angels and the flying buttresses giving it a gothic feel.

Linda tells me that out of all the places in the hotel, the church is the only place she wouldn’t go after dark.

“There is definitely something over there that doesn’t like noise. We now don’t hoover over there; we just use a dustpan and brush as we’ve had incidents when the hoover has been turned off.”

Ghostly goings on aside, it’s a sense of grandeur, luxury and lavish entertainment that eminates throughout the passageways, halls and grounds of The Elvetham - which has been a hotel since 2001.

But there is also a cosy charm, and I cannot wait to see the kind of party it can throw in the 21st century.

***

MEET THE TEAM

Linda Taylor - Deputy General Manager

“I’ve been at the hotel for a long time now and I feel it is a special, magical place. It has a really lovely atmosphere and the staff are like a big family. We are really lucky to have such a beautiful building and grounds and all the history that is connected with it.

My favourite room in the hotel is the morning room. I think that it’s the prettiest room, and the views out over the gardens are fantastic. The original features are stunning; we have quotes from the Bible up on the ceiling and famous people throughout history, like Shakespeare, up there looking down on us.”

Andrew Shaw - Food and Beverage Manager

“I came here over 20 years ago now so I’ve been here quite a long time. I like the fact that it is warm and friendly and a privately owned family business.

My job entails working both inside the house and in the gardens so I do see every aspect of the hotel. I love the avenue of Irish yews, it’s a nice peaceful area to go and relax when you get some downtime.

I like the history of the house and often like to contemplate what it would have been like when it was a house and how people would have lived in it.”

Darren Williams - Head Chef

“Down by the river near the bridge, for me, is the nicest place within the hotel. It’s quite calm down there and away from everybody. There are a lot of places around that you can get away from it all, but down there you don’t tend to get many customers and you can just chill out. It’s fairly hectic in the kitchen so having that time to just have nobody asking you questions or calling your name is lovely. Also I’ve got a kitchen garden out the back so whenever I need some herbs or veg I’ll nominate myself to go down there. You don’t get many people bothering you, other than the rabbits of course.”

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