DISNEY BROUGHT ME BACK TO BRITAIN FOR THE SECOND TIME. Sometime in the mid-’00s I got on the movie junket circuit, and the most generous sponsor of those junkets – almost inevitably a night or two in a really good hotel in New York or Los Angeles, a preview screening of a new motion picture, a round of interviews with the stars and a bunch of branded swag – was Disney. It was fun while it lasted, and this trip would be my farewell to the junket life.
It was a great farewell. To publicize the DVD release of Enchanted and the second National Treasure film, Disney flew dozens of international press to the UK for a few days at Luton Hoo, a country estate in Bedfordshire that had just been turned into a luxury resort. While my first trip to the UK had seen me spend most of two weeks in London in and around Notting Hill, this trip was even more localized, and except for the car ride to and from Heathrow, I didn’t leave the grounds of Luton Hoo. Not that I was complaining.
The heart of the estate is an 18th century manor house designed by architect Robert Adam for the 3rd Earl of Bute. There was the usual subsequent country house history – new owners, fires, renovations and the like – until Sir Julius Wernher bought it in 1903 and had the interior remodeled to match the interior of The Ritz, his favorite London hotel, by Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, the same architects who had done the hotel.
My knowledge of English country houses comes primarily from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, and Luton Hoo didn’t disappoint me. The manor house became renowned for Wernher’s art collection, which was said to rival that of the Rothschilds. When Wernher’s son Augustus married Anastasia de Torby, a member of the ill-fated Russian royal family, the chapel – luckily already designed in the Byzantine style in 1875 – was converted to the Eastern Orthodox rite. It’s been deconsecrated, but the room still makes for a spectacular wedding venue.
My room was in the new wing of the hotel, built so discreetly that it’s virtually invisible when you admire the main building, with its Grade 1 English Heritage listing. Rooms in the old building were more full of character, or so I was told, but I wasn’t complaining about my lodgings, which were larger than my first two apartments combined. As with most surviving country homes, Luton Hoo has been a popular movie and TV location, appearing onscreen in films like A Shot In The Dark, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Eyes Wide Shut, two James Bond films and Ali G Indahouse.
The grounds were laid out by the legendary Lancelot Capability Brown – a man whose talent and reputation was thankfully appropriate to his wonderful name. The view down the lawn behind the house to the River Lea is, believe it or not, a rather subdued vista for Brown, who made his name by “naturalizing” the grounds around his clients’ country homes by radically reshaping the landscape to make it look less formal and more picturesque.
Our party of journalists were booked into the hotel just a few months after it had been re-opened as a hotel and spa, and the facilities were still only just near completion. The 18-hole golf course wasn’t quite ready, if I recall correctly, and the gym was open but not quite finished. The grounds, however, were spectacular, even under the low, gloomy skies of early spring in England, and I couldn’t resist taking a long stroll during a pause in the hectic program of interviews, etiquette classes and stunt driving demonstrations Disney had laid on for us.
There was a formal garden adjacent to the library, which featured a neoclassical stone gazebo. With only movies and novels to prepare me for a stay in a real English country house, this obligatory feature of any Georgian country home – the titled aristocracy’s version of a concrete bird bath or fire pit – gave me a rube-like thrill that no similar facility in a public park back home, made from pressure-treated lumber or aluminum tubes, could quite match. It all looked too perfect.
As with any Capability Brown landscape, the great feature is the woodland – stands of trees planted in carefully-chosen isolation or in manicured imitation of ancient forests.
After I’d gotten over the luxurious house and the spectacular landscape, my eye (and my camera) was inevitably drawn to individual trees, which seemed to have matured into a storybook character. I’m no botanist, so I couldn’t tell you just which tree impressed me with its torso studded with limbs, or the precise species that had become host to a monstrous nest for some avian creature straight out of a John Tenniel illustration.
England’s great intangible amenity is its history, glimpsed everywhere from little plaques pounded into the base of a tree to the big one on the portico at the front of Luton Hoo, commemorating a speech given there by Sir Winston Churchill during his fight back to power while in parliamentary opposition after World War Two. My own history as a travel journalist had a significant stop at Luton Hoo, which was my first taste of life at a luxury spa, and which I’d love to revisit again.
Photos and story © 2019 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved