Room Service: Heritage for the Home Counties
Laura Ashley The Manor, Herts
Swags, bows and ruffles may spring to mind at the mention of a Laura Ashley concept hotel, but the people behind the 60-year-old brand are keen to exorcise the ghosts of chintzy past. Instead, the former Edgwarebury Hotel in Elstree, Hertfordshire, is decorated with a contemporary theme, which is something of a shame because rather than a cosy, country-house hotel, the look here is of generic good taste. This is a perfectly fine prospect for the home – and catalogues in each of the 49 rooms indicate the brand is keen for you to replicate the look in your own – but it's nothing out of the ordinary.
Laura Ashley heritage notwithstanding, history is redolent at the hotel: a building of some description has existed on the site since 1540, although the hotel in its current Tudor revival state, including a rather incongruous 1989 extension, is more recent. It's believed that the original owner was a sailor, and that some of the beams in the hallway were made from a Spanish Armada wreck, while carved mantelpieces appear to be further evidence of those sea-faring days. And yet, instead of housing roaring log fires, these grand fireplaces now dwarf flame-effect electric heaters.
The original dark wood panelled walls have been painted a light cream but, happily, the leaded windows, some with beautiful stained flags and crests, have been left untouched. The view through many of them, over the grounds and across to high-rise London, is one of the more pleasant surprises.
The grounds, spread across 10 acres, are yet to be properly landscaped. The main boast here is a giant chessboard where tennis courts once stood, although a yet-to-mature rose arbour will be a fitting backdrop for bridal photographs. Indeed, weddings are set to be a speciality of the hotel, which is approved for civil ceremonies. By the end of this year it will have hosted 50.
Formal dining is offered in the Cavendish Restaurant, where diners can choose from two menus. An affordable Malaysian menu represents the owner's Asian roots, while the prices on the British alternative are surprisingly high: risotto of pea and broad beans, £20. Once the shock of the prices subsided, we enjoyed our meal. Service was speedy and friendly, although the hushed atmosphere of an almost empty restaurant on a Friday evening was a strain. Were it filled with your nearest and dearest for your wedding breakfast, the experience would perhaps be more celebratory. Afternoon tea can be taken in the terrace bar or lobby, and the many groups enjoying it on my visit indicated another of the hotel's fortes.
The hotel is easily accessible from the M1, although its site, on the edge of Elstree's verdant fields, leaves it somewhat remote with little of interest in the immediate vicinity. Central London is a nine-mile drive. First Capital Connect trains run from London St Pancras International to Elstree & Borehamwood, a mile-and-a-half away. Luton airport is 20 miles, linked by train to the Parkway station with a bus connection.
Each of the 49 rooms has been designed with a feature colour running through the soft furnishings, fixtures and decor using the current Laura Ashley range. The five best rooms, including the bridal suite, are on the first floor. They all lead off a guest lounge which becomes a private area when all rooms are taken by the same party.
As you would expect, soft furnishings play a key part in adding to the comfort of guests. The public areas are also decorated with prints from the Laura Ashley advertising archive. The large rooms in the former attic are accessible only by very steep stairs. A somewhat boxy standard double in the newer part of the building is charged at £150, but an additional £25 will get you a superior room with a bit more space and a Juliet balcony.
All rooms are furnished with a desk area and comfortable chair. Larger rooms and suites come replete with armchairs, sofas and coffee tables, while iPod docks can be found on the bedside tables. Hi-tech Japanese lavatories with combined bidets are a final surprise in all rooms. These cater for Laura Ashley's huge customer base in Asia, which the hotel hopes to attract. They sit somewhat superfluously in what is otherwise a standard bathroom with plastic tub and incorporated shower. There's free Wi-Fi and all rooms have flatscreen digital televisions.
Laura Ashley The Manor, Barnet Lane, Elstree, Hertfordshire, WD6 3RE (020-8953 8227; lauraashleyhotels.com).
Doubles start at £150, including breakfast.
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