A glimpse of the latest trail blazing plans taking shape at Chewton Glen
PUBLISHED: 15:10 26 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:06 27 September 2016
Described as 'An English Original', for the past 50 years Chewton Glen's reputation as one of the county's most prestigious and innovative hotels has earned it a stack of awards. Viv Micklefield heads to New Milton
Arriving at some hotels there’s a sense of anticipation even before stepping foot through the door. And for Chewton Glen to be celebrating five decades as a five-star, privately-owned hospitality hotspot sandwiched between the forest and the sea, there must be a secret recipe.
To get to the bottom of this, the clock needs to be reset to 1966 when brothers, Martin and Trevor Skan combined business nous with a family inheritance to transform an ailing 16-bedroom residence into an esteemed Relais & Chateaux member within a decade. Whilst in the outside world Beatlemania turned to Bowie, a talented team - including the indomitable Joe Simonini, and Robin Hutson (who later formed the Hotel du Vin, and The Pig group), embraced the Skans’ vision - with Chewton Glen’s culinary credentials cemented by the likes of Pierre Chevillard and Jean-Christophe Novelli.
What survives is a resilience to external challenges, whether hotel inspectors or economic recessions, coupled with a pioneering spirit that understands what their guests really want. And be they rock stars, prime ministers, or lovers of the good things in life, this blueprint has set its future trajectory.
“It’s quite unusual for a rural hotel to have gone from strength to strength”, says Andrew Stembridge, Chewton Glen’s current managing director, who’s been at the helm for 13 years. “There’s a humbleness here that you don’t often get at the world’s top hotels,” he reflects, adding: “We never rest on our laurels.
“Martin Skan once said of the four successive MDs, each of us is appropriate for the decade in which we’ve managed. In fact, there hasn’t been a single year when we’ve not refurbished some of the bedrooms or introduced something new. And, in many ways, the pace of that change has increased.
“Whilst people often come to us for inspiration, we have a saying here ‘borrow with pride’, which means putting our own twist on something - the treehouse suites aren’t a new idea, but few are so luxurious.”
And, Andrew wryly observes, so popular are the 12 designer decorated hideaways built four years ago amid the leafy canopy that “the treehouse hotel” has become an oft-used nickname. He’s keen however, to leave a bigger legacy.
“I would also like to think that I’ve made Chewton Glen more ‘local’. With ‘Hampshire’ now part of our logo, that’s something we’re really proud of.”
A renewed sense of place echoed by estate manager Darren Venables who, born and bred close to the hotel’s 135-acre estate, has worked here since 1989 when things looked very different to the naturalistic planting greeting today’s visitors.
“Back then it was incredibly manicured, there wasn’t a weed to be seen. But you never heard a bird sing,” recalls Darren. “We now want to create an eco-estate and central to this are our bee hives. So you’ll see lots of gorse bushes, which bees love, and then the flowers are used to make our own gin.
“What we call the ‘back of house’ areas are open to everyone… guests can come and pick the tayberries for example, while the barmen will be out picking borage for the cocktails.”
From building a quintessentially English walled kitchen garden, where the paths are wide enough to host wedding ceremonies, to greenhouses bursting with chilli plants, Darren’s eight-strong team continue to surprise by building “the best bug hotel in the world”, and new nature trails alongside the established croquet lawn and nine-hole golf course. Meanwhile, excitement grows for a particularly ambitious project.
“For the 50th anniversary I wanted to start an orchard with the most significant collection of heritage fruit trees anywhere in the country,” Darren says, continuing: “My real favourite are the mulberries. And, eventually, we’ll be able to produce our own heritage cider.”
Also keen to make the most of the garden’s rich pickings is Kerry Hudson, Chewton Glen’s spa director, who champions the holistic approach to wellbeing offered at the ground-breaking facilities.
“We’ll make a ‘smoothie of the day’ and pick herbs for tea infusions for the pool bar, where there’s been an alkaline diet available for the past four years, so you can have both healthy food and healthy treatments.
“These days everybody uses the pool and hydrotherapy spa, with some non-residents spending the whole day here. And we also run a club membership scheme - High Impact Training (HIT) classes outdoors are currently very popular as is yoga which might be held in the kitchen garden gazebo.”
And, as Chewton Glen now caters for the younger generation too, Kerry wears another hat. “With my fitness background I’ve been used to organising people. Taking on the weekend and holiday Kid’s Club really seemed quite natural,” she laughs.
“We haven’t looked back,” confirms Andrew who, with young children of his own, is keen to attract families. This means the well drilled team of room attendants might have dozens of bedrooms to prepare under the watchful eye of head housekeeper Martine Menestrier.
“There are some days when the whole hotel checks out just as the next guests arrive for lunch,” says Martine. “The challenge then is the short timeframe to turn the rooms around so I start at seven o’clock in the morning, because I know then that the guests will have everything they might need.” And according to the self-confessed mistress of the plumped-up cushion and freshly dusted surface: “Every room is different but the mix of the old and the new works so well”.
It’s a feature of Chewton Glen that often has returning guests requesting their favourite bolt-hole. And unflappable reception manager Alison Shaw aims to please.
“It’s like seeing old friends,” she says, admitting that although hectic, the forthcoming festive season is always special. “Each Christmas we have a massive tree which stands at the foot of the main staircase. It’s like hosting a very traditional house party and we sometimes receive bookings up to two years in advance. The children even have their own named stockings - it’s these little touches that matter.”
Alison goes on: “I’m proud of the level of service and of working in such a fantastic place - it is quite unique in not being part of a chain. I’m sure the planned cookery school will bring in a lot of new guests.”
“It’s very exciting,” agrees executive head chef Luke Matthews who, like Alison, has enjoyed 23 years at Chewton Glen. “The Kitchen, our purpose-built cookery school, is overseen by James Martin who was a pastry chef here when I first started, so working with him again will be fun. And the plan is to invite other chefs to come in and cook for the day too.
“The new restaurant alongside this will be much more informal, and completely different to what’s available within the main hotel. The emphasis is on flavour and simply cooked food, using more produce from our own garden as well as the great ingredients from our Hampshire suppliers.”
With all eyes on these winter openings, back in the existing cocoon of understated luxury, where discarding one’s shoes before a log burning fire or wandering out of one’s bedroom wearing a fluffy bathrobe is these days de rigueur, an enduring appeal prevails.
Which, it turns out, is no mystery, because as Andrew says: “Chewton Glen has still got a real heart and soul.”
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