A 'groovy grand' refurbishment for Hertfordshire's the Grove hotel

28 March 2024 by

The Grove is seeing the fruits of its three-year refurbishment, which retained its heritage while incorporating a modern, cosmopolitan feel

"Groovy grand – that was the tagline when we opened," says Jay Grierson, director at Martin Hulbert Design. "We wanted to keep that character – classic, contemporary, playful – while bringing things up to date and on trend."

The Grove, tucked into 300 acres of Hertfordshire countryside and famous for its championship golf course and spa, completed a multi-year refurbishment last summer. Hotel manager Joanna Barnett says the goal in renovating the Grove was to keep the hotel's history while embracing a "cosmopolitan" city feel.

"We're not your traditional country house hotel," she explains. "We see ourselves as a kind of London hotel in the countryside. But at the same time, we've kept many of the original features, such as the stables [now a restaurant], and the servant's quarters, where you can still see the old cobbles and original brick. We still have air raid shelters by the football pitch."

The Grove certainly has a storied past. It was built in the 16th century as a country retreat and owned by the Earl of Clarendon in the 18th century. At that time, the house was a favourite haunt for artist George Stubbs, who created many of his famous equine paintings while visiting the property. In the 19th century, it was a go-to for Queen Victoria and British aristocrats, and socialites would come for decadent parties.

The property was then used as a riding school, a boarding school and a health centre, before becoming the secret wartime headquarters for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway in the 1940s under the name ‘Project X'. Underground bunkers were built for the company, some of which still exist today.

The house lay abandoned and dilapidated for several years until restoration begun in 1996 and it opened as the Grove hotel seven years later, complete with 18-hole golf course, spa and dining.

Life is suite

The Grove was extended with a ‘West Wing' building when it opened, but the original, Grade II-listed house – now known as the ‘Mansion' – remains its focal point. Its elaborate, red-brick facade sits behind lush topiary, including a huge giraffe and perfectly-shaped knife and fork, and beside ornate water features and immaculately groomed grass.

The Mansion's 12 suites (comprising six top suites and six junior suites) and 13 rooms are the hotel's most exclusive, and were a key focus for the refurbishment, a seven-month project that was unveiled last May.

"Originally, the Mansion suites had three themes: ‘hot and sexy', ‘fresh and fancy' and ‘cool and contemporary'," says Emma Webster, interior designer at Martin Hulbert. "But we wanted to change the feel and create something more calming. There's such a big connection with nature here, so we wanted to incorporate more of that into the colour schemesand design."

"We kept a lot of the original bespoke artworks and furnishings – including antiques shipped over from France," adds Grierson. "But we moved them around, made the rooms and suites brighter and lighter, and brought in new, floor-length linen curtains, so it feels a bit more crafted."

The Hyde suite – which sprawls across a spacious living area, four-poster bedroom and huge bathroom – is a masterpiece in contemporary living, with a fresh white and cream colour palette, an elegant, warm chandelier and a nature-inspired art piece made from tree bark, along with plenty of original Georgian touches.

There's a marble fireplace (your personal ‘mansion host' can bring logs), a rolltop bathtub, sweeping garden views and several high-tech flourishes, including a flat-screen TV that rises miraculously from the bottom of the bed at the touch of a button. There's also an extensive complimentary minibar, featuring Bollinger champagne, Grey Goose vodka, Hendrick's gin, a bottle of the Grove's own honey and gin sour cocktail and several boxes of chocolates (one of several upgrades made during the refurbishment).

New beginnings

It wasn't just the Mansion rooms and suites that were given a facelift. The West Wing's 189 rooms were redesigned during the pandemic and completed in 2021, with a similarly calming, nature-inspired design.

The Sequoia Spa – home to an edgy black-tiled pool, jacuzzi, sauna, steam room and 18 treatment rooms – underwent a £1.6m rejuvenation in 2022 in partnership with London-based interior design firm Studio Jill.

"We added a new tranquillity lounge, upgraded the Sequoia Kitchen terrace and extended the ladies' area with a new wellness pool," says Anna Darnell, resort director. "It was just bringing everything up to date and again making it lighter and warmer, with an earthy, nature-inspired palette."

The Stables – a gastropub-style restaurant specialising in British classics – was also given a refresh in 2022, including switching from gas to induction appliances to help reduce the hotel's carbon footprint. Fine dining Indian restaurant Madhu's, which opened in 2020, was also refurbished last year and recently launched a new, British-meets-Asian-inspired ‘High Chai'.

Back in 2019, the Glasshouse restaurant and bar underwent a large-scale renovation, enhancing its buffet with various live chef cooking stations – from a theatrical, flaming grill to a live pasta station, tandoor oven, sushi station and more.

"We took our inspiration from Singapore," says Barnett. "There aren't many hotels that do this scale of buffet dining in the UK, so we actually went there to look at the culinary offerings and it really inspired us."

While the Glasshouse, Stables and Madhu's are the focal points for the culinary offering here, they aren't the Grove's only dining options. Health-conscious cuisine is served at Sequoia Spa, fresh sushi is available in the lounges, and various pop-up dining experiences are held in the gardens. Last summer, it hosted ‘Feast on Cloud 9', an immersive culinary experience where afternoon tea and a nine-course tasting menu were served in vintage hot-air balloon baskets in its formal gardens. It will be returning from 25 May to 1 September this year.

Many of the ingredients used across the hotel are sourced from the hotel's organic kitchen garden, which Barnett describes as its pride and joy: "We grow a huge amount of herbs and vegetables here – from pumpkin and squash in autumn to fruit and salad in summer," she says. "As well as being used in the restaurants, we also use many of our freshly grown herbs in our cocktails."

The property also grows its own botanicals to use in the Grove Gin, and produces its own hops for the hotel's beer. The kitchen garden is part of the hotel's iconic Walled Garden, a hidden enclave home to a heated outdoor pool, two tennis courts, a croquet lawn and potting shed – alongside its very own sandy ‘beach'. Open from late March through to early September, this is the "jewel in the crown" in summer, according to Barnett.

"The Walled Garden is truly a special place, and it's my favourite thing about the Grove," she says. "It's one of the largest walled gardens in the UK and in summer we host lots of events here, including outdoor film screenings in partnership with Everyman Cinema. The original, restored potting shed is also a beautiful spot where we host regular dining experiences. It's another piece of history we're proud to have kept."

Sporting prowess

It's not just the gardens that give the landscape of the Grove its clout, of course. Its award-winning, 18-hole championship golf course is one of its biggest draws (there's no membership, so anyone can pay to play), and it's certainly had its fair share of exposure. Less than three years after the Grove opened, the course was chosen as the host of the 2006 World Golf Championships – the first time the event had been held in the UK.

"We had the top 64 players in the world come here, including Tiger Woods, who won the tournament, so it really put us on the map from a golf perspective," says Darnell.

"Our proximity to London really helped, as well as being a new facility."

In 2016, the course held the British Masters, the same year, Barack Obama came on a presidential visit and played a round of golf with then prime minister David Cameron.

The hotel is also home to a practice football pitch used by several professional teams, and the England team are apparently regular guests and stayed here for the final of the UEFA Euros in 2020. It's also a popular spot for NFL teams when they come to play in London.

"We also host regular Football Escapes in summer, bringing ex-legend players such as Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen to coach kids," says Darnell. "We launched this during the pandemic and it was so popular, we carried it on."

In 2019 the Grove was chosen as the host of the NATO conference, thanks to its vast estate, proximity to London and reputation for events (meetings and events make up a big part of the hotel's mid-week business). Its proximity to Warner Bros Studios Leavesden also makes it something of a hotspot for A-listers: the Harry Potter cast stayed here when the Warner Bros Studio Tour opened in 2012, counting among a string of other actors to have graced its grounds while filming round the corner.

But that illustrious guestlist is perhaps only natural for a property that begun life as a retreat for socialites, aristocrats and artists. And with its extensive grounds, impressive sports offering and glittering spa – alongside a handful of secluded, private cottages – it's not hard to see what draws the crowd.

"It sounds really cheesy, but when I drive into the Grove, park the car and walk into work, I just realise how special this place is," says Darnell. "Strolling through the grounds, when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping, it's just amazing. I feel very lucky to be here."

Country pursuits

Resort director Anna Darnell says the Grove is catering to trends in the market with its activity offering: "We've noticed that guests want more experiences now – they want value for their money and families want to do activities together. Catering to this demand, we now offer archery, tree climbing, laser pigeon clay shooting and cycling and last year we created the Grid – a marquee home to an escape room, games area, axe-throwing, table tennis and more, which is open for the winter season.

"Last summer, we partnered with Discovery Land Rover to offer sponsored hot-air balloon flights alongside ramp rides and a junior off-riding programme. We'll be running the hot-air balloon rides again this summer, including a luxury private experience where guests can have the balloon to themselves, with Champagne and canapés.

"We've also created more woodland pathways as post-Covid, we've definitely noticed more interest in getting out into nature. Guests want to feel they've been somewhere and done something new that they can tell their friends about – it's not just about going to a hotel for dinner, but about having a whole experience."

Maarten Geschwindt, executive chef at the Grove

When did you join the Grove and what was your background before?

I joined the team in March 2021, after working for the Savoy, the Wolseley, the Landmark London, Odette's in Primrose Hill and the Ritz-Carlton group.

How do you make the F&B offering at the Grove stand out?

We always like to offer something to surprise and delight our guests. Madhu's High Chai [serving Asian-meets-British-inspired treats, such as lamb burgers, samosas and scones] has been really successful at the brand's London restaurants, and so far our guests are really enjoying it. We continue to hold lots of exciting restaurant pop-ups – in recent years we've had renowned chef Jimmy Garcia take over part of the Walled Garden. We've also had Cinder, Feast Over Flame, Verde Kitchen and Feast on Cloud 9, which is returning in May this year.

Where do you source your ingredients?

We grow lots in our kitchen garden – from lettuces and herbs to tomatoes and fennel – and we even have micro-climates set up, which mean we can grow fruits and vegetables from further afield. We also work closely with a selection of UK-based suppliers, 80% of which are local.

What culinary trends are you seeing among guests and visitors at the Grove?

We're seeing that guests are looking for more immersive, experimental experiences with a bit of story behind the offering, veering away from traditional fine dining. Guests have higher expectations now and are constantly seeking more from the dishes they choose to eat. There's also a higher demand for vegan and gluten-free options, and we've noticed people are moving away from red meat.

What is your favourite dish at the hotel?

That's a tough one – at the Glasshouse you'll find me sampling meats and breads cooked in our tandoor oven, while at the Stables, I'd have to pick the three-day, slow-cooked beef cheek.

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