Iain Beaumont is the founder and Managing Director of Venues and Ventures. Since ditching the City, Iain has worked on some of England’s grandest country estates and leading luxury venues, refining his eye for spotting new opportunities and helping businesses realise their potential.
It’s possible there’s never been a more appropriate time to write about the virtues of solitude. After all, most of us have experienced solitude (to a greater or lesser extent) over the last month, while separated from our family, friends and colleagues.
The thing that I – and maybe some of you – have come to realise is that enforced isolation can get boring pretty quickly. In fact, I’ll be one of the first to throw myself back into a state of social hedonism as soon as we’re allowed to go beyond the garden gate. However, I suspect it won’t be all that long before I’m looking to escape somewhere that I can pause to take stock, far away from the general hullabaloo of everyday life.
And herein lies the joy of ‘hiding out’.
My formative years in the British Army ensured I spent a significant amount of time ‘hiding out’. The surroundings were usually far from salubrious, however, and the Ministry of Defence had an uncanny knack of selecting locations that were either exceptionally wet or excessively hot. A swimming pool did not come as standard (unless you count the river crossings) and concierge service typically involved arguments with a rotund RAF movement controller who was too close to the end of their tour to really give a damn. And who can blame them.
‘Hiding out’ therefore became an analogy for boil-in-the bag dinners and dressing up to look like a tree. Thankfully there’s a much more delightful approach to hiding out and it’s the polar opposite of digging a trench in the woods and waiting for it to fill with water.
The relatively recent development of super-exclusive estates that can be hired out by individuals has transformed the way we can spend time with friends and family. Now you get to enjoy yourself away from home, without fear of breaking the rules of a hotel or upsetting other guests. While the idea of taking over a whole hotel or large manor is not new, the recent rise in service standards and the overall experience has made exclusive-use the new go-to for discerning clients – those who expect the same exacting qualities of a 5-star hotel in Mayfair but in a country house setting.
In 2018, the Oetker Collection diversified their business by establishing a new arm dedicated to offering clients a new range of destinations. Destinations where clients were able to ‘disappear’ and, with the help of Oetker’s team, find a bespoke experience individually crafted around the needs of their families. With an existing portfolio including Le Bristol, Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, and The Lanesborough, Masterpiece Estates (the recent addition to The Oetker Collection) seeks to offer the finest country residences in the land. Guests can disappear for a while, but be assured of the same standards of service as you would expect at any one of their hotels. And most importantly, discretion.
Cowdray House in West Sussex is one such property – and it’s easy to see why. Set in the heart of a 16,500-acre estate in West Sussex, Cowdray House has strived to raise the bar on getting exclusive-use right. Until very recently, it was the family home of Lord and Lady Cowdray. Now it attracts families from across the world who are looking for a piece of rural Britain they can call their own – albeit for a short period of time. With 22 en-suite bedrooms, two swimming pools, a bowling alley, tennis court, helipad and 110 acres of private grounds, it’s easy to see the attraction. The wider estate also boasts agriculture, forestry, a championship golf course, and an award-winning farm shop and café.
Until earlier this year, I was in the enviable position of managing the house and the team looking after the guests. I’ve now set up my own consultancy advising landed estates on how they can diversify and attract new audiences, so I wanted to share my unique insight into why hiring a quintessentially English manor house is so appealing.
When I first set eyes on Cowdray House, one of the most striking aspects was that, despite being only a stone’s throw from the town of Midhurst, it manages to offer a 360-degree vista stretching out to the South Downs without a single other house in view. When the estate says it offers privacy, it really means it.
And that’s what really stands out. When you head through the ornate wrought iron gates leading onto the estate, the house is invisible. It’s only after you pass the private polo grounds beyond the cricket pitch – Cowdray is after all the home of British polo and host of the annual Gold Cup – that the house comes into view. Swinging past two griffin sentries standing at the head of the bridge that spans the Ha-Ha (a form of sunken barrier that stops ponies nibbling your lawns, while allowing uninterrupted views of the countryside), the gravel drive draws you to the front door. There you are warmly greeted by a team who have worked hard to perfect the art of relaxed yet precise hospitality.
One of many reasons there’s such appeal to having a place to yourself is that you want it to feel like a second residence. It’s a place where you can relax and entertain yourself as you would at home. Having a team of people at your disposal may seem counterintuitive when you want privacy. But the staff at Cowdray have a knack of appearing just when you need them – and disappearing when you don’t. In a world where service can vary wildly between the absent and the overly-eager, it’s refreshing to find a team who strike the right balance.
I found that it typically takes no more than 30 minutes for guests at Cowdray to fully immerse themselves into the spirit of the house. Once the house begins to reveal its secrets, the shoes come off, the mood becomes familiar and the warmth of the rooms embraces you with a friendly hug. Without realising it, you are drawn into very heart of what it means to be at Cowdray.
When Lord and Lady Cowdray moved out of the house they set out to ensure it remains a home for whoever happens to be staying there. Each room has been designed and furnished by Lady Cowdray, with a detectable note of mindfulness and wellbeing at the core of each space. Spread throughout the grounds are bronze castings of The Meditator, a design of Lady Cowdray’s which represents a force for goodness, reminding us of our greatest potential.
With miles of pathways set within the private garden, it’s easy to think you could be anywhere in the country. With an impressively wide avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum (or Wellingtonia as we British stubbornly refer to it), through to a valley garden fed by two large lakes, it can feel like you’re in Scotland one moment and Cornwall the next. Understandably, children are enchanted by it.
The joy of having all this wide-open space is that you get to embrace the natural environment at your own pace. Partnering with the French company Le Chameau, we always ensured that there were plenty of wellies for guests to borrow – there should be no limits when it comes to exploring.
As evening arrives you get to see your new home in a different light – everything from the catering to the entertainment is taken care of. Cowdray is one of many exclusive-use properties that collaborate with the same renowned caterers who grace London’s finest venues, making sure you can experience some of the best British and continental cuisine throughout your stay.
If good food isn’t enough, we were also fortunate enough to be able to call upon an expert who specialises in the delights of Remy Martin Louis XIII to deliver a bespoke tasting after dinner. While I’d like to think my own knowledge of digestifs is pretty comprehensive, it’s all too rare that I’m able to sample the delights of a cognac that typically retails at over £2,500 a bottle.
One of the most fundamental aspects of running a house such as Cowdray is the attention to detail. Like many top hotels across the world, you’re only as good at the service and amenities you offer, regardless of the location. Our team were meticulous when it came to housekeeping and having made several beds in my time when last-minute amendments came in, you get to see for yourself why the bill for new linen was so eye-wateringly high. Perhaps it had something to do with the magical extra dose of softness the team managed to add to every bed.
When you’re staying in a country house, you also want to know whether there’s hot water on tap – the time it was fashionable to brag about freezing cold baths is, thankfully, a thing of the past. At Cowdray, a team of over 30 maintenance staff located on the estate were always on hand to ensure that there was an endless supply of piping hot water, without even a hint of squeaky pipes.
Cowdray aren’t shy when it comes to pulling out the stops to create amazing experiences, either. With Goodwood on the other side of the South Downs, the high-octane attraction of the Festival of Speed, Goodwood Revival and Glorious Goodwood are only a short distance away – even quicker if you ask for the Estate to open the private road.
For those looking to gain an appreciation of English sparkling wine, an ever-increasing proportion of the West Sussex countryside is now ‘under vine’ and there is an enticing range to choose from. A particular favourite is Nyetimber, based just outside Pulborough, some 15 miles away. The team at the house will be able to arrange a private tasting and even a tour for those wishing to sample fizz that is now knocking some of the most well-known French producers off the top spot.
Having seen first-hand the way that guests interact with a space, I’m sold on the value of being able to relax in a way the means you’re not bothering anyone else. The flexibility to eat when you want, entertain in a way that feels right for you, and experience everything from yoga next to a roaring log fire to fireball hockey on the cricket pitch at midnight, is what makes places like Cowdray so special.
So, when lockdown is lifted and we’re free to roam once again, I suspect that, like me, most of you will don your exploring hats and look for place like this, tucked away, just out of sight.
Just don’t expect to find me ‘hiding out’ dressed as a tree.