There’s something deliciously decadent about leaving town just before the holidays begin in earnest. It’s a tradition I adopted years ago that not only preps me for the onslaught of seasonal merriment, but takes me to the most interesting of places.
This year’s very English invitations took me to London with a quick pit-stop for afternoon tea at the landmark Milestone Hotel, followed by a hop, skip and a jump by train to explore a 430-plus-acre estate in the heart of the British countryside. After a decade-long revamp, Heckfield Place, owned by an elusive real-estate billionaire from America, is now one of the UK’s most talked about country house hotels.
My welcoming transportation is a pastel-green Land Rover Expedition that’s country-road agile. It’s driven by a cheerful, gnome-like fellow wearing baggy, tree-brown, ankle-length pants, a matching waistcoat and on-trend leather plimsolls. His “haute couture” has apparently been custom-tailored by British cult fashion house Egg, with hopes that it will catch on as de rigueur for “about town” gents. I’m soon to see variations on the theme worn by other hotel staffers. As The Times reviewer so tactfully suggests of the uniform: “It’s eye-catching but a tad Gilead—the dystopian setting of The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Heckfield’s media-shy owner, Dr. Gerald Chan, who resides with his family in Boston, bought the property a decade or two ago. Since then, he’s sunk millions of dollars and hundred of hours into its visionary restoration. Today— many, many years, building permits, general managers and designers later—what I see, as I exit my mud-splattered chariot, is the epitome of an elegant Georgian house, authentically rewoven into a modern-day restorative retreat with its own biodynamic farm.
Under Chan’s moneyed wand, the Heckfield Place that once welcomed the great and the good and hosted grand parties has been beautifully and authentically transformed, ready for a new collection of colourful characters to pass through its doors.
Getting down with nature
For Chan, it’s plain to see that the devil was in every tiny de- tail. Multiple re-drafts and a cast of hundreds on the job made for a lengthy process, but it seems the admirable results were worth the wait. The new Heckfield is both authentic and resolutely natural in its design and operating protocols. Indeed, its farming and horticultural practices hark back to the legacy of former head gardener William Walker Wild- smith, in whose hands the farm and its surrounds provided the house with all of its needs: Milk, cream, butter, cheese, fish and game, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, Chan’s 21st century agricultural team has adopted a unique bio-diverse, straight-from-the-earth farming philosophy designed to deliver healthy, high-quality foods that are in tune with the natural rhythm of the growing season.
Like other guests, I’m encouraged to nurture my inner country girl and don Hunters and a raincoat for a woodland walk with the resident arborists.
Yes, we’re on a “tree tour” along backwoods paths and trails that wind around the fish-stocked upper and lower lakes, which were dug in the olden days by no less than 30 men. Some of the oldest, largest and most magnificent trees in England are here, along with an unusual selection of exotic species imported as “trophy” exhibits by former owners. The most majestic of trees, now maintained by Heckfield’s tree specialists, include towering Douglas firs, resplendent copper beeches and gnarly, storytelling oaks.
Here, under ancient willows, I’m told tales of wild swimming and fishing on summer days and romantic walks through buttercup-filled meadows. In contrast, my overland trek to the farm is a rather messy affair that has me squelch- ing ankle-deep in thick mud and not so gracefully slipping into the river during a crossing. (Hilarious, of course, for my fellow trekkers—sorry, no video footage.)
Open to guests on guided tours or to visit on an ad-hoc ba- sis, spending time at Heckfield’s Home Farm is an inventive way for guests, young and old, to learn about sustainability and how their food begins its journey.
Heritage breeds of pigs, sheep and chickens are here for all to see, as is the dairy farmer’s milking operation, the greenhouses and tidy rows of berries and salad greens.
Guests are encouraged to explore with the farm team and pick fresh ingredients to be prepared for supper.
Back to the house
Back at the labyrinth of a house, we understand the beauty of “less is more.” With 45 lovely rooms and suites, which are simply adorned with tasteful accessories, well-curated original art and florals, Heckfield’s interiors have been, I understand, a somewhat collective effort. Finalized by and now credited to Ben Thompson (a protégé of Ilse Crawford), the last of many interior designers invited to translate Chan’s vision into reality, Heckfield is at once familiar and awe-inspiring.
Off grand hallways, common rooms lead to lush sitting rooms, the romantically cozy Moon Bar, a sizable screening room and the charmingly comfortable Hearth restaurant— my preferred dining option for both its ambiance and splendid food. Under the stewardship of Culinary Director Skye Gynegell, food here celebrates simplicity. It’s an epicurean alchemy with a pleasing sense of place.
A second restaurant, Marle, located in the larger, more expansive dining room, uses a delightful pared-back style of cooking to provide diners with a sense of excitement and the immediacy of the kitchen’s farm-to-table approach. Quite magical! Unfortunately, months in, the wait staff are still falling over each other and a little too green. Nonetheless, the breakfast, lunch and dinner experiences are still enjoyable.
When it’s time for the trip back to London, we leave feeling refreshed. There’s no question that despite its long time coming, the reborn, holistic Heckfield has plotted a progressive new path with a clear narrative that connects the house and its grounds in a very modern, yet sustainable way.
Staying here is not only back-to-the-earth revitalizing, but a fresh take on hospitality. No doubt about it, we’ll be back in a year or two when Chan’s much-awaited spa and well- ness retreat makes its debut.