England is chock-a-block with beautiful country manor houses, both grand and small, that are ideal for spending a Christmas crafted out of traditions of days gone by in postcard-perfect settings. Arguably, nowhere is lovelier than the typically English hills and vales of the charming corner known as the Cotswolds. And could hardly be pricier.
Don’t worry about the airport; snow at Christmas is far from a sure bet. It snows rather infrequently in the south of England and quite rarely is there more than a dusting in London.
While it was always lovely to get back to see the folks across the big pond for the holidays, 24 years spent living in London meant that it was not always possible, and so some of the finest short stays were spent in these places. Then came the recession.
What is run by a Swiss general manager, has a two-star Michelin chef and a La Prairie spa in a charming Cotswold village? Whatley Manor. A member of Relais & Chateaux, this restored Cotswold stone manor house in Malmesbury, Wiltshire is a haven of relaxation and a destination for fine food and five-star spa experiences. There are two restaurants serving fifteen rooms and eight suites. Arrive for Christmas on December 23 and a bottle of champagne awaits in your room. Loosen your belt! The following days are filled with afternoon teas and live musical entertainment, a candlelit four-course dinner, a five-course Christmas lunch, movie screenings and popcorn in the manor’s own private cinema and more champagne over breakfast on Boxing Day. Loosen your wallet! The three night Christmas Celebration package starts at £2,190 in a standard room and ranges to £3,920 for the grand suite. (Mind you, that’s about $3,400 to $6,000 for two. At least tax and gratuity are included.) The town’s 12th century Malmesbury Abbey is stunningly beautiful and beyond town there is serene countryside with just 15 minutes to picturesque Chippenham, 30 minutes to historic Bath. However, if you are lucky enough to be a guest here, you will surely want to spend the whole time at Whatley Manor itself and allow the attentive staff to fuss over you as a Christmas present to yourself. Naturally, for your convenience Whatley Manor has its own helicopter landing coordinates posted on their website.
Take the kids, too. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care at Woolley Grange. This country house of 26 bedrooms is designed for families. A very pretty Jacobean manor house with barn which was a private home for 400 years sits in 14 acres in Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire, eight miles from Bath. There is a new spa, sauna and team room, a créche, indoor and outdoor pools and babysitters! Checking in with two toddlers, I was thrilled to see that the kids were introduced to the hotel’s staff of nannies who organize games and entertainment in the Woolley Bears Den at the barn. Parents of younger ones are provided with baby-listening devices that work throughout the place and older kids are treated to a movie and popcorn. Over Christmas, Woolley Grange has planned wreath-making classes, wine-tasting sessions, dinner with live music and a fun-for-all trivia quiz night. There is air rifle shooting, a visit from Santa in the Den, carol singers from the local parish champagne by the fireside and a magic show and black tie dinner. Traditional Christmas dinner and quad bikes for teenagers, face painting for the younger set and a casino night for the adults. The four night package starts at £2,600 ($4,000) and goes up to £5,190 ($8,000) for two interconnecting rooms for the whole family, including tax. Well, at least babysitting is included and for years Woolley Grange sent my children a lovely poster urging a return visit. Pets welcomed.
Lords of the Manor
Located in Upper Slaughter the country house is set in eight pretty acres with walled garden, parkland and lake. Lords of the Manor is a privately owned 17th century former rectory built of the ubiquitous honey-colored Cotswold stone. They call themselves “a haven for those afflicted with the deeply unfashionable desire to do nothing but sink into a large sofa with a drink and a book.” However, if one can manage to rise from that comfortable place, there is always the races nearby at Cheltenham to consider. Following a $3 million renovation of the 26 guest room property in 2009, the restaurant boasts a Michelin star. Their Christmas special offer begins early afternoon on Christmas eve with afternoon tea in the drawing room by the crackling log fire. A tradition since 1932, The Queen’s Christmas Message is broadcast at 3:00 p.m. Champagne and canapés are served prior to the Christmas meal followed by an in-house version of antiques roadshow. Boxing Day means more delicious dining and a black tie casino night organized for guests. Before check-out there is the traditional spectacle of the Dummer Beagles’ annual meet while guests enjoy some mince pies and port. Tariff for the three nights begins at £1,730 per room inclusive of tax ($2,700) but excluding 10% gratuity, and the Lords Room is priced at £2,100 ($3,250).