For anyone whose heart is filled with dread at the words "country-house hotel", let me reassure you: Ellenborough Park is an exception. This new venture on the outskirts of Cheltenham entirely avoids the usual hurdles of country-house hospitality: namely, signs on every surface telling you what you can and cannot do; décor that makes you think of Oscar Wilde's desire to die rather than look at the horrible wallpaper; and hopeless staff.
Three years of a very expensive restoration have paid off. After a new owner bought the hotel in 2008, several million pounds have been spent on it. It opened in May and has already won Leading Country House Hotel in the World Travel Awards.
The building, a handsome 15th-century manor house built in Cotswold stone, is replete with striking turrets, arches and a bell tower. Importantly, the rooms have given way to the architecture, rather than being carved out in an unnatural fashion, and consequently each room is different. There are three buildings housing the rooms, all designed by Nina Campbell. It really does pay to get a brilliant interior designer who completely understands her brief. If you want proper English Style, after John Fowler, there is only Campbell.
The large drawing room serves as a bar, in a suitably baronial style, and there is also a more contemporary brasserie which is open all day. The posh dining room, called the Beaufort Room, is a very beautiful, light-coloured panelled space.
The hushed dinner is usually the low-point of one of these types of hotel experiences and I was braced for the worst. But no, there was relief all round once delicious grilled scallops and perfect chateaubriand arrived for a not-unreasonable £50 for two courses per person.
There is an outdoor swimming pool and, of course, a spa. I'd always thought I didn't like spas but a quick resumé of my most recent travels reveals a habit which has taken in Austria, Italy, Germany and even Surrey. The signature treatment is called "Nemaste", a little tribute to Lord Ellenborough who bagged some of India for the British Empire. It involves a head-massage to get your body and soul in sync. I had a more prosaic Fake Bake tan and found the therapists to be the nicest I have come across.
The only part of the equation that seemed lacking was outdoors. Ellenborough Park's brochure reveals that there are 90 acres of park surrounding the hotel; the neighbouring houses nevertheless seemed very close. However, when I visited the gardens had not been laid; they have since been landscaped and in time will no doubt mature into the required bucolic serenity.
Ellenborough Park is set on a hillside looking down over Cheltenham race course. During the festival, in March, it's the perfect place to stay – you need only drive down the hotel's private road for five minutes to get there. If racing doesn't lure you, the spa town of Cheltenham is a 10-minute drive away.
There are 62 bedrooms including four suites named after iconic racehorses. Mine was huge and was called Kauto Star (fortuitously, as he is my favourite). Nina Campbell has managed to retain a private house sensibility in the bedrooms without compromising comfort.
Kauto Star was wood panelled, with mahogany furniture, a Georgian cheval mirror, original paintings, as well as cosy velvet sofas and thick carpeting. There is a bit of chintz here and there but not too much – you really can't have a country house without some, and anything too contemporary would have seemed bogus. The bathroom was vast too, and done out in traditional style.
The hotel's biggest asset though is the staff – young, local and enthusiastic.
Ellenborough Park, Southam, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL52 3NH (01242 545454; ellenboroughpark.com).
Double rooms start at £210, including breakfast.Reuse content