Playtime for mum, dad and the kids

Fifteen years ago Woolley Grange rewrote the rule book for family friendly hotels. Kate Simon finds out what's happened since
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The Independent Travel

Fifteen years ago a mini-revolution took place in the hotel industry. Tired of running his London accountancy firm, Nigel Chapman and his wife, Heather, embarked on a life-changing project by opening a family friendly hotel called Woolley Grange just outside Bradford-on-Avon. Now it is one of four hotels of its kind owned by Chapman and his business partner Nicholas Dickinson, with whom he founded Luxury Family Hotels in the early 1990s. It continues to be the benchmark by which all family-friendly hotels are measured.

Fifteen years ago a mini-revolution took place in the hotel industry. Tired of running his London accountancy firm, Nigel Chapman and his wife, Heather, embarked on a life-changing project by opening a family friendly hotel called Woolley Grange just outside Bradford-on-Avon. Now it is one of four hotels of its kind owned by Chapman and his business partner Nicholas Dickinson, with whom he founded Luxury Family Hotels in the early 1990s. It continues to be the benchmark by which all family-friendly hotels are measured.

Deservedly so. Its ethos - to provide a break for both parent and child - is often copied but rarely achieved. Woolley Grange and its sister hotels, Moonfleet Manor, Fowey Hall and Ickworth House, aim to match parents' desire to be pampered in a stylish environment, eat gourmet food and enjoy spa treatments, with their children's appetite for play. "You can't bolt on a few extras and become family-friendly. You've got to start from the bottom," says Chapman. "It's not really to do with how many bells and whistles you've got, or what size your indoor swimming pool is. It's a way of life."

Chapman's vision for Woolley Grange was inspired by a visit in the mid-1970s to Ballymaloe House, the fêted gourmands' hotel in County Cork, Ireland. "I was gobsmacked by the way they approached life. They had this very relaxed, natural approach to families. Families are part of life, and you need to make sure that it all fits together rather than trying to split everybody up and have one kind of hotel for couples and another for kids, and never the twain shall meet.

"When we put together Woolley Grange we had Ballymaloe in mind - Ballymaloe is about wonderful food, a very relaxed atmosphere, quite stylish in its way, with a welcome for families, but not quite as extensive as Woolley Grange turned out. We thought what parents needed was somewhere to park the children for a while and take some time on their own.

"The appeal of Woolley Grange today is very similar to what it was 15 years ago. It's all about being among people who are in the same boat as you. You walk in the door, you're absolutely shattered, you've driven from London, it's a wet night and everybody's fractious - and it feels good. There's a child walking across your vision in a pair of pyjamas and you think: 'Oh, this is going to be fine. I can relax now.' You get down to breakfast the next day and your child starts throwing boiled egg around, but there are three other children doing the same thing. So you don't feel you have to keep hushing up the children. You can relax and they can relax."

Luxury Family Hotels has few direct competitors. When I venture that one might be Babington House - the Somerset retreat also beloved of metropolitan types and their offspring - Chapman says that it offers a different experience and attracts a different kind of people. Richard Ball, managing director at nearby Calcot Manor, which Chapman will draw parallels with, is quicker to point to potential competition. He has his eye on The Grove, in Hertfordshire, and Bovey Castle, on Dartmoor, both of which recently opened and are welcoming children. He also notes that "virtually every hotel offering a break this half-term is encouraging children", though, like Chapman, he doesn't believe they have got the facilities to match Woolley or Calcot.

Ball easily concedes that it was Chapman who "opened my eyes" to the benefits of a family market. Calcot Manor opened in 1984 and was resolutely free of children until about 10 years ago, when Ball did a volte-face. "My wife and I had young children and we realised how hard it was to stay anywhere apart from Woolley Grange. Turning family-friendly has hugely increased our client base, and changed it. We now attract a younger, more relaxed market and the hotel is much more relaxed because of it. It was always a bit false before, but now it's more real."

Calcot Manor has 30 rooms compared with 23 at Woolley Grange. Whereas all Woolley's rooms are bookable by families, Calcot restricts them to the 10 specially built in an annexe. It's a conscious separation to keep down noise and maintain the hotel's appeal to childless guests who still make up the majority of the clientele. Like Woolley Grange, the hotel has an Ofsted-registered dedicated play area for children, the PlayZone. Whereas Woolley offers treatments in guests' rooms, Calcot added a spa in 2003, and Ball has plans to develop outdoor facilities and an indoor pool for children.

Luxury Family Hotels and Calcot Manor have created a circuit, with some families taking up to four short breaks a year at the hotels. For new parents, it's a revelation to arrive at a hotel where they'll wash your baby's milk bottles while you settle down to dinner. But such service comes at a price. A two-night weekend break at Woolley Grange will set a family of three back £570 for dinner and bed and breakfast, with children paying extra for meals, or £610 at Calcot Manor, all-in. Both rates are based on the children sharing your room and include use of all the facilities, though spa treatments cost extra. Depending on the power of your purse that could seem a lot; then again it might seem a bargain considering what's included. But the clientele is inevitably well-heeled, predominantly white, and comes from London and the Home Counties.

Chapman won't be making big changes to Woolley, although he believes in time it will have a spa and some self-catering apartments like the ones opened at Ickworth House in 2002. "We've been able to carry on doing what we started out doing in much the same way, and I don't feel the pressure to greatly change that. We will move forward in response to what people need, but gently." Neither is he planning to expand Luxury Family Hotels, although he says he would open another hotel if the right opportunity came along.

His attention is turning instead to a new venture in the French ski resort of Meribel, where he and Dickinson have just bought Meriski, a collection of chalets that they intend to run along similar lines to their UK hotels. He is confident that there is a gap in the holiday market for their kind of business but is reticent about revealing just what their plans are at this point. "People keep having kids and lead stressful lives. Now and again they need a break. We offer a solution to that."

Woolley Grange (01225 864705; www.luxuryfamilyhotels.com); Calcot Manor (01666 890391; www.calcotmanor.co.uk).

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