For more than 100 years, Britain’s most glamorous large hotels have soothed their guests’ way through life. And come May, when Covid restrictions are due to be relaxed, they’ll be on hand to inject some much needed luxury back into our lives with sweeping staircases, expansive lobbies, magnificent rooms and battalions of staff.
As a guest you can forget boutique and intimate – staying at one of these big beauties is like taking part in a perfectly choreographed piece of theatre.
Head to Newquay in Cornwall and you can’t miss The Headland hotel, a six-storey building on its own peninsula complete with turrets, conservatories and terraces.
The Headland hotel in Newquay is a sight to behold with its turrets and terraces. And the coastline is eye-catching, too
Built by the magnificently named Slivanus Trevail, the Headland was so grand when it first opened in 1900 that it even had quarters for guests’ servants, but by the 1950s the grandeur had all but disappeared.
In 1979, John and Carolyn Armstrong were in their early 20s when they bought a very faded Headland, and during their 40-year tenure it has gone from four employees and winter closure to a five-star hotel with 160 employees.
When the Headland reopens in May, a £10 million new spa and pool area will be in place in a superb position overlooking Fistral Beach. It will feature six swimming pools, a sun terrace and restaurant.
‘We contacted 40,000 people on our database who’d stayed at the hotel and asked them what changes they’d make at the Headland if they owned it,’ says Carolyn. ‘The answer we got back most was “nothing”, but hotels do need to evolve.’
Part of the Headland Hotel’s £10million new spa and pool area, which has a superb position overlooking Fistral Beach
One of the 91 bedrooms at the Headland Hotel. There are another 84 rooms spread around its self-catering cottages
The Edwardian stateliness remains in place, though, from the grandfather clocks and bars to corridors wide enough to promenade along. The first guests played croquet and tennis; now Headland’s main beach, Fistral, is known as Cornwall’s finest surfing beach. There have been other changes too.
‘When we bought the hotel, the ballroom was really just used for dancing,’ Carolyn adds. ‘Now it’s where we have afternoon tea. Instead of just being used in the evening, it’s used all the time and that’s so nice.’
There are 91 bedrooms in the hotel and another 84 spread around the self-catering cottages. Two-night breaks start at £650, including breakfast (headlandhotel.co.uk).
London’s grandest hotels can also deliver on size and experience. With 267 rooms, the Savoy, built by the theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, still throws sensory overload into the mix, with butlers and concierge, a domed lobby for afternoon tea and celebrities alongside the beautiful Art Deco styling.
It has its quirks – its entrance is the only place in Britain where you drive on the right – and its own museum. It also has a writer in residence programme. In 2019, Kate Atkinson, whose novels include Behind The Scenes At The Museum, spent three weeks there – mostly, she admitted, sitting in the lobby with her notebook.
Double rooms are from £640 a night, including breakfast (thesavoylondon.com).
With such superb people-watching possibilities, it’s easy to see why writers are drawn to large hotels.
In Edinburgh, The Balmoral looms over Waverley Station with a clock tower that’s deliberately kept three minutes fast to help passengers catch their trains – it shows the actual time only on New Year’s Eve.
With 267 rooms, the Savoy (pictured), built by the theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, still throws sensory overload into the mix, with butlers and concierge, a domed lobby for afternoon tea and celebrities alongside the beautiful Art Deco styling
Have your cake and eat it: An afternoon tea spread in the palm court at The Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh. The property has 167 rooms and a bar with 500 whiskies
It’s awash with grandiose suites and in one of them J. K. Rowling finished her final Harry Potter book in 2007, signing its bust of Hermes before she left.
Built with full Victorian splendour, including a palm court, 167 rooms and a bar with 500 whiskies, the Balmoral has film-set looks. Double rooms, including breakfast, from £338 a night (roccofortehotels.com).
The aptly named Grand in York is so entwined with the railway system that it has a secret door for guests which leads straight to platform one.
The arrivals lounge at The Grand in York, where guests will also discover ‘a soaring staircase and a drawing room with stately proportions and iron pillars’. Plus a secret door to the station’s platform one
I remember visiting 20 years ago, when the place felt tired and institutional. But before lockdown I returned to find it full of life and its vaults transformed into a spa with a swimming pool.
Above all it celebrates its glorious Victorian engineering, featuring a soaring staircase and a drawing room with stately proportions and iron pillars. B&B from £199 a night (thegrandyork.co.uk).
Gleneagles, which has 200 rooms, even has its own railway station. Yes, golf is important, as is the odd G8 summit, but there’s also a kennel of 18 fully trained gundogs to put through their paces, a falconry school and ferrets.
Above par: Gleneagles has its own railway station and a restaurant with two Michelin stars. Pictured is one of the spacious rooms
Its restaurant has two Michelin stars and, with afternoon tea offered and whisky snugs, it’s a hotel that provides an updated blend of outdoors activities and indoor glamour that Downton Abbey-style country estates had in the 1930s. B&B from £425 a night (gleneagles.com).
A truly great hotel is one that makes you feel wonderfully important while allowing you to disappear, if that’s what you prefer.
Pennyhill Park may have 123 rooms but it also has 120 acres of choice Surrey countryside surrounding it, so you’ll have plenty of space (exclusive.co.uk/pennyhill-park).
It’s the same at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. If you’re staying in one of its treehouses, they’ll give you a map to find yours (and the path to the beach) while making delicious deliveries by hamper to ensure privacy (chewtonglen.com).
Pennyhill Park, pictured, is set in 120 acres of Surrey countryside so you will have plenty of space
The luxurious spa at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. Want to branch out accommodation-wise? Opt for one of the property’s splendid treehouses
Stay at one of the lodges at Bovey Castle on Dartmoor in Devon and, if you tire of the self-catering, you can be picked up for your dinner reservation by a chauffeur-driven golf cart (boveycastle.com).
A relative newcomer to the realm of grand hotels can be found in Newport, on the Welsh border. Celtic Manor first opened in 1982 with 17 bedrooms, and now boasts 400 rooms across four properties.
It has hosted Nato summits and Ryder Cups, but also has serious family appeal, with fishing, golf, high ropes, laser combats and tennis courts, along with seven restaurants, two spas and 2,000 acres to explore. B&B from £151 a night (celtic-manor.com).
After years of burgeoning boutique properties, big hotels are back in fashion. Fairmont Windsor Park is to open soon with more than 200 rooms and suites, all with proportions where no one will feel crowded, and a huge spa.
The lounge inside one of the lodges at Bovey Castle on Dartmoor in Devon. You can be picked up for your dinner reservation by a chauffeur-driven golf cart
Celtic Manor in Newport first opened in 1982 with 17 bedrooms. It now boasts 400 rooms across four properties. The hotel’s offerings also include two spas and seven restaurants
A rendering of a bedroom at Fairmont Windsor Park, which is due to open soon with more than 200 rooms and suites
Guests will be able to go riding in Windsor Great Park, play croquet and head into the grounds for barbecues with chefs and butlers on hand. Prices are yet to be confirmed (fairmont-windsorpark.com).
In nearby Bray, Oakley Court will also show off a revamp later this year.
The mansion has a new kitchen garden to supply its restaurants and bold Victorian-inspired furniture to fit in with the Gothic looks that saw it star in the 1970s cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Berkshire hotel is set in 35 acres, which includes private river frontage, an indoor swimming pool and a nine-hole golf course. Prices are yet to be confirmed (oakleycourt.co.uk).
Stately style: The magnificent Oakley Court in Bray is set in 35 acres, which includes a nine-hole golf course
So far, so luxurious. However, last summer, Birch opened in Cheshunt, just outside North London in Hertfordshire. This enormous Georgian beauty is offering something rather different.
Going there just after lockdown ended was like being presented with a glorious, beautifully honed buffet of experiences. While there are spa treatments, the idea is that guests try new activities. I opted for pottery and glass-blowing, and the results were far better than I expected.
One of the Birch team said: ‘We want people to feel energised, learn, get inspired, and leave with new ideas and stories to tell, having met new people and had fun.’
Birch is located in Cheshunt, just outside North London in Hertfordshire. It opened last summer
One room has films showing on a loop with beanbags and deckchairs to lounge in. Outside, there is a series of firepits – book one and the kitchen will get a barbecue pack ready for you. Guests can also join Tom, the resident farmer, visit the rescue chickens, help fold croissants in the bakery or just relax on the sofas.
Housed in the former stables, The Zebra Riding Club does glam dining, with food from acclaimed chef Robin Gill, and Valeries does family-friendly whole roast chickens. When Birch opens again in May, there will also be a heated swimming pool along with a cafe and visits from food trucks.
The cost of rooms – from £100 a night – is delightfully reasonable.
To keep costs low, frills have been stripped out of the 141 bedrooms that are split between a glorious main mansion house and less attractive modern block, although designers have had fun with interiors to give it a 1970s vibe.
Birch encourages guests to try new activities. Pictured is the sweeping staircase in the entrance lobby
One room at Birch has films showing on a loop with beanbags and deckchairs to lounge in, pictured
Things are kept simple, so there’s no room service, nor do the rooms have TVs or wardrobes, and the bathrooms have not been updated, but I adored it from the minute I arrived (birchcommunity.com).
Big hotels have to have big visions; whether it was Slivanus Trevail in 1900s Cornwall, the Armstrongs breathing new life in the 1970s or the Victorian entrepreneurs who harnessed the power of the railways that allowed people to travel.
And now, hoteliers have anticipated that what we need in 2021 is space to socialise in a joyously gentle and civilised way.