Heckfield Place in Hampshire has been on the verge of opening for six years. On Saturday, it finally launches as a country house hotel with a genuine difference. Janet Harmer receives a grand tour from general manager Olivia Richli
Expectations are high. Ever since writing about Heckfield Place for the first time in early 2011, when it was announced that the 18th-century Georgian property was going to open as a “world-beating hotel” the following year, I have been intrigued as to exactly how the project was going to turn out.
More than six years after the original intended opening date – and following a succession of key members of staff who have come and gone in the interim (see panel) – I finally arrive along a sweeping driveway to what, in my mind, has become something of a mythical house, set in the midst of a 400-acre estate of prime rolling Hampshire countryside.
I am greeted by the delightful general manager Olivia Richli, a British hotelier of vast overseas experience but new to the UK hotel market, who whisks me to the back of the classic entrance hall to admire the view from the elevated position of the house across the grounds to the lake and woodland below. As I take in the vista and look around the extensive property, on which the overseas owner Gerald Chan and his family have spent undisclosed millions to create their version of a British country house hotel, I breathe a sigh of relief. Heckfield Place is, quite simply, a triumph.
The relaxed and warm welcome from Richli and the other members of staff is a hint that, despite the grandeur of the setting, this is a luxury hotel that does not want to be regarded as formal or traditional in any way. It is a country house hotel very much on the same wavelength as Lime Wood, Babington House and Soho Farmhouse, which all introduced a more relaxed vibe to the sector. But Heckfield is also very different in that it is not somewhere guests come to just for a good time – it will also be somewhere they visit to immerse themselves in an environment that is tied closely to the land – partly through the food offer from culinary director Skye Gyngell (see panel), and partly through the intelligent, contemporary design from Ben Thompson – and also to learn about a host of different subjects.
Richli explains that the process of opening the hotel has taken so long because of the desire to get it right. “A lot of care has been taken; the attention to detail is extraordinary. The historic property and grounds have been lovingly restored and future-proofed and we have had the luxury of time to do this. You can feel this when you spend time at Heckfield Place – you can see it in the restored architectural details, the established, fruitful gardens, the complementary interior design – you can even taste it in the quality of the produce we grow, the flavour of which has been perfected over time.”
As a result, Richli believes Heckfield will bring something new to the UK. “It is the myriad layers of Heckfield that will make us different. From the history of the estate to the biodynamic farming principles, the beautiful food, the Assembly, the design and, last but not least, as a luxury hotel.”
A touch of nature
Before we talk further about what Heckfield will offer, I take a look around the property and admire the interior, which has been sensitively created by Thompson in what is his first major hotel commission. He joined the project three and a half years ago, following in the footsteps of earlier designers who had been and gone.
Thompson got the gig when he met Chan to talk about another project nearby. He had previously worked on country inns and hotels, including Ett Hem in Stockholm, under renowned designer Ilse Crawford. His thoughts on how the design of a property should be inspired by the surrounding landscape tied in with Chan’s vision of creating a simple country house with a connection to the land. Previously, it would appear, the design was going in the direction of something that was more in tune with an international, five-star offer.
Thompson provided the confidence that was needed to move the project forward, which was consolidated after he flew to Stockholm with Chan to visit Ett Hem, which had been converted from an arts and crafts building into a 12-bedroom guesthouse. “Ett Hem was all about joining the dots between the food, the garden and the house, and the client understood that feeling,” he explains.
“At Heckfield we wanted to create the atmosphere of a country home of a grand friend or relative, relevant to this part of the world.”
As a result, the colour palate is a calming mix of muted greys, green and blue, while the materials are frequently rough and organic, but always fitting to the environment. Hence, the bare brick walls in the Hearth restaurant and brown oak – infected by a fungus that makes the wood a rich, golden brown colour – which has been used to create the bespoke cocktail cabinets, made by local carpentry company Benchmark, in the well-appointed bedrooms.
The use of British artisan suppliers was essential to the project. The headboards, for instance, were made by Felicity Irons of Rush Matters, one of the last remaining rush weaving companies in the UK, out of reeds from the River Ouse in Cambridgeshire. These add a rustic touch and unique aroma alongside a collection of ceramic bedside lights and vases from a total of 11 potters. Meanwhile, lime plaster has been used throughout for its earthy qualities and connection to the soil.
The original features of the building have been allowed to shine again following the stripping out of panelling installed in 1983 when the former private residence was converted into a training and conference centre. The only main element to be lost was the original flooring, now replaced by a mix of distressed hard wood and terracotta tiles, covered in rush mats and Persian carpets.
Thompson wants the hotel to feel as though it has been created naturally over time and not been over-thought, but there is no doubting that everything has been carefully considered, including the extensive body of mid-20th century British artwork by, among others, David Spiller, Mary Fedden and Alberto Morrocco, personally collected by Chan over the past 15 years. A display of black and white mid-20th century photographs taken by Elsbeth Juda, working under her professional name of Jay, line the staircase wall to the first floor.
There are considered touchpoints and a sense of generosity everywhere, whether in the extensive collection of books in the library and bedrooms, curated by Libreria and Daunt Books, or the selection of items in the cocktail cabinets – homemade cordials of lemon verbena, raspberry and rose geranium, or lime and chilli, alongside roasted nuts and crisps – all included in the room price.
Regarding rates, they run from £350 for a Friends room at 30-32 sq m up to £10,000 for the most expensive (187 sq m) of the six signature suites, with a variety of room categories in between. These rates will remain in place until August 2019, apart from when a winter price will be introduced in January and February. “There will be no revenue management,” says Richli. “Guests get frustrated with variable rates. This way is so much fairer and clearer.”
Richli says that she never operated revenue management during her 18-year career with Aman hotels and resorts, spent largely in Indonesia, Sir Lanka and Venice. Her final role abroad was as general manager of Soneva Jani in the Maldives for nearly 18 months.
A graphic designer by training, Richli says her career in hospitality came about by default. “I married a hotelier and joined him when he ran Ackergill Tower, a castle hotel on the remote northern coastline of Scotland. In 1994 he was appointed to a position with Aman in Java and I joined him. The only opportunity I had to speak English was by working at the hotel – my first job was in the shop.”
At Heckfield, faced with the biggest challenge of her career so far, Richli will be drawing on her overseas experience, where she has opened four hotels. “The rollercoaster ride of an opening is now familiar, and while the journey has been different, the end result is the same: to bring together hundreds of different threads into a unique sensory guest experience; to gather a team of people to bring a beautiful building to life; and to do it gently and respectfully to the place and to each other.
“My experience in Asia has given me a different perspective on service – they just do it so well. There is creativity, elegance and refinement in their hospitality that is innate and I hope that we can bring a little of this to this corner of Hampshire.”
Initially “the grey skies and weather” did not inspire her to return to the UK, but on visiting Heckfield last summer, she was immediately drawn in by the vision of creating something distinctive for the UK. “Inspiration has come from overseas, in particular Babylonstoren in Franschhoek in South Africa and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee in the US.”
A different class
While there is nothing else quite like Heckfield in this country, Richli believes it is important to check out the competition and, soon after arriving in her new role, embarked on a tour of 13 properties in the south east of England, including the Four Seasons Hampshire; Lucknam Park near Bath, and Cliveden in Taplow, Berkshire. “All had some elements of what we are doing, but none had all of them,” she explains.
A key point of difference is the Assembly, a programme of monthly events, curated by journalist Lucy Hyslop, featuring talks by prominent authors and personalities that are intended to stimulate debate and discussion. This will tie into films shown in the 67-seat screening room which, with more than 50 Dolby speakers and a 4K projector, is one of the most impressive cinemas to be installed in a hotel. The subjects will change monthly, starting with food and the soil in September followed by fashion later in the year.
Richli doesn’t expect Heckfield to stand still. Despite the years that it has already been in the making, there is still a lot more to come. Next year will see the launch of the main Bothy spa with five treatment rooms, an indoor swimming pool and barber shop; and the opening of a six-bed B&B on the estate’s farm alongside a test kitchen for Gyngell.
With the Chans’ deep pockets and a willingness to take the time to create what is indeed set to become a hotel that will have a global standing, there is no limit to what can be achieved here.
About Heckfield Place
Heckfield Place, Heckfield, Hampshire RG27 OLD
Owner Gerald Chan
General manager Olivia Richli
Culinary director Skye Gyngell
F&B director Thomas Sorcinelli
Head of wine and bars Louise Gordon
Sales and marketing director Sacha Hale
Rooms division manager Nicola Miller
Front office manager Cassandra Tavares
Executive housekeeper Florence Yorwarth
Number of staff 187, wearing uniforms supplied by designer label Egg.
Food and beverage Two restaurants: Marle and Hearth (residents only); two private dining rooms; Moon bar; Cellar bar; and assembly room for 120 sit-down guests
Other features Little Bothy Spa with five treatment rooms, yoga studio and gym with partner Bodyism; 67-seat screening room; 400-acre estate with fly-fishing on River Whitewater; running and cycling trails; wild swimming in the river and lakes; and riding on the adjacent Wellington estate
Target guests 65% UK, 25% US, 10% rest of the world
Room rates Friends rooms: £350; guest rooms: £500; chamber rooms: £700; master rooms: £1,000; and signature suites: £1,750-£10,000
The history of Heckfield Place
Built in 1790 by wealthy London property owner John Lefevre, Heckfield Place was inherited by his daughter Helena, who married Whig politician Charles Shaw. It remained in the Shaw-Lefevre family until the estate was sold to Lieutenant Colonel Horace Walpole in 1895. Its history as a private home came to an end in 1982 when it was acquired by Racal Electronics and subsequently used as a training and conference centre.
Hong Kong-born billionaire and US resident Gerald Chan, of private investment company Morningside Group, and his family, bought Heckfield in 2002. Planning permission for the transformation of the property into a luxury hotel was granted by Hart District Council in 2009.
Since then the process of renovation and redevelopment has stopped and started, with a succession of key personnel – in particular general managers Charles Oak and husband and wife team Henry and Char Gray, and executive chefs Chris Staines and Barnaby Jones – being appointed and then moving on, frustrated by the lack of development.
Food writer Tom Parker Bowles was initially brought on board as ‘food curator’, while culinary director Skye Gyngell has been one of the only members of staff to remain with the project.
The appointment of Ben Thompson appears to have kick-started the project, and in January this year Olivia Richli joined Heckfield Palce to oversee its opening as a hotel on 1 September.
The culinary offer
Central to the Heckfield Place philosophy is the culinary experience, fuelled by the estate’s farm and overseen by culinary director Skye Gyngell. The farm is working to biodynamic principals, guided by Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow farm in Herefordshire, and is aiming for full certification in 2020.
A team of 24 gardeners have been working on-site for six years, meaning that the five-acre kitchen garden at Heckfield is already fully operational and will be providing the property with 60% of its produce this year and, it is hoped, 90% next year.
In 2019, an additional five acres, providing the herbs required for the hotel’s bespoke Wildsmith range of bathroom amenities and skincare products, will be launched. Meanwhile, pigs and chickens are raised on the farm and a herd of Guernsey cows will arrive in September, enabling the kitchen team to make its own cheese.
Richli describes Gyngell’s food at Heckfield as “more robust” than at Spring restaurant – also backed by the Chan family – which opened at Somerset House, London, in 2014, to reflect the rural setting.
Marle, the hotel’s main restaurant is open to both residents and outside customers. The à la carte menu offers the likes of carpaccio of River Test trout with pickled tomatillos, corn and smoked crème fraîche (£17); pork belly with celeriac and apple purée, sprout tops and farro (£25); and buttermilk panna cotta with autumn berries (£8.50).
Food prep at Heckfield’s second kitchen, the Hearth, takes places within the room, with a cold kitchen at one end, where starters and desserts are prepared, and a vast open fire opposite. Open to residents only, the restaurant has a set menu served in a family fashion, with all vegetables, fish and meat cooked over the fire, which is fuelled by vine and beech wood.
Private dinners will take place in a number of rooms, from the 30-seat dining room in the main house, where florist Kitten Grayson has created a dramatic floral chandelier, to the Sun House, for up to 20 sit-down guests, located in a green house nestled among one of the extensive walled flower gardens.
While there is a head chef on site overseeing the day-to-day implementation of Gyngell’s culinary concept, Richli will not name names. “Everyone here is important,” she says.