Guests at Coworth Park - the Dorchester Collection's new country property in Berkshire - can enjoy a luxury experience, with a minimal impact upon the environment. Janet Harmer checked out the green credentials of one of the UK's most significant hotel openings of the year
Driving though a meadow of wild flowers, with manicured lawns and gardens coming into sight and vast polo fields in the distance - all surrounded by woodland that borders on Windsor Great Park - arriving at Coworth Park very much feels likes stumbling upon an oasis.
Entering the mansion house, which forms the heart of the newly opened 70-bedroom hotel, simply confirms that you have arrived at a location that is both luxurious and indulgent. There is no visible sign, whether you are staying in one of the magnificent suites here in the house or in converted stables or cottages on the estate, that the property is one of the UK's most environmentally-friendly hotels.
"Most of our guests will probably not be aware of the green technologies involved in the property," says Zoë Jenkins, Coworth Park's general manager. "And that is the way it should be as it shouldn't be intrusive. We have done nothing to compromise the luxury element of a guest's stay here, but we have done everything we possibly can to reduce our energy consumption by taking a radically different approach to heating, lighting and cooling the hotel.
"It is currently more important for corporate clients to be assured of our environmental policy, but I'm sure that it will become an increasingly significant factor in helping leisure guests select hotels in the next five years."
Central to Coworth's green philosophy is the fact that it is the first hotel in the UK to grow its own carbon-neutral fuel supply in the form of willow. Grown on 12 acres of the 240-acre estate, the short-rotation coppice willow is being used to fuel the biomass boiler. The hotel will become totally sustainable in the crop after three years, with arboricultural waste in the form of wood chips from local suppliers being used until then.
To assist in cooling the hotel, a closed-loop horizontal ground source water circulation system of underground pipes has been installed. Known as slinkys, the pipes have been buried under the meadows leading up to the hotel's entrance. Water is passed through a chiller and then constantly circulated via the slinkys and energy-efficient water chillers to provide chilled water for the air-conditioning process, a process which is significantly more efficient than conventional air-cooled or water-cooled chilled water.
Elsewhere, heat loss and gain is being efficiently managed by solar and thermally fitted glazing; all rain and surface water is being recycled by draining into the lake - which in turn is being used to irrigate the polo field and willow plantation; and the spa has been built underground out of timber to be a sustainable building with low-energy requirements.
As a result of these initiatives, the hotel is hoping to reduce total carbon dioxide emissions by at least 50%.
For Jenkins, the single most important factor in the success of Coworth Park is the creation of a team of 210 staff who are passionate and motivated to work on the estate.
"Working here is very different from working within a city-centre hotel, as there is a need for staff to be more flexible to meet the peaks and troughs of the business," she explains. "Hence a waiter is likely to find himself working in room service and banqueting as well as the dining room. And with many of our bedrooms situated in the stables and cottages away from the main house, different staff are frequently involved in driving guests to their rooms in buggies.
"The style of service is particularly important, as it needs to be sympathetic to the setting of the hotel and the reasons that guests are here. We expect most of our guests to be on individual leisure breaks, so a friendly, informal approach is more appropriate than the more formal service of the Dorchester."
Some 2,000 potential staff were initially interviewed by telephone and 900 people attended four recruitment days. Fifty of the staff are accommodated on the estate.
"The key criteria we were looking for was character, passion and local knowledge," Jenkins says. "We have the ability to teach the technical skills, but it is very difficult to teach character and passion."
Jenkins's own background (which includes a five-year period overseeing the refurbishment of the food and beverage operation at the Dorchester in her previous role as the hotel's food and beverage director) has provided her with the experience to take on the launch of Coworth Park. Before her 15-year spell at the Dorchester, she worked in several conference and banqueting management positions in London at the InterContinental Hyde Park, the Hyde Park Hotel and the Park Lane Hotel.
"It has been fantastic to be involved in every aspect of Coworth Park's development," she says. "I have been here now for 18 months - firstly as director of operations and since November 2009 as general manager - and it's now great to be welcoming guests at long last."
THE INTERIOR DESIGN
The Dorchester Collection's vision for Coworth Park was to create the finest country house in the UK with a design that recognised the estate's Georgian origins, but without the predictable country house clichés. To realise the aim, Fox Linton Associates - responsible for creating the look of One Aldwych, London, and the Grove, Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire - were commissioned to create the interior design.
The result is a property that is impressive throughout, but by no means foreboding. Anyone hoping to see the Dorchester replicated in the country will be disappointed. There is none of the grandeur, gilt and richness of the Dorchester's interior, which works so well on London's Park Lane.
Instead, Coworth Park offers supreme comfort and quality, with a design that is simple not fussy, relaxed not formal. The palate is neutral, with dusky hues of aqua and rose in the fabrics, furnishings and carpeting avoiding blandness. Highlights of the Coworth colours of blues and orange provide warmth and character. Contemporary paintings add additional splashes of colour and an informal quality, while copper baths are a statement in all the bathrooms.
Key throughout is the incorporation into the design of natural elements from outside. Hence, a solid-bronze tree, cast in Scotland, stands majestically in the entrance hall of the mansion house, while copper chandeliers depicting oak leaves dominate the ceiling in the John Campbell restaurant. Trees are also the inspiration behind the framework of four-poster beds, designed by Martin Hubert, who is responsible for most of the bespoke furniture in the hotel.
Meanwhile, bullrushes are scattered around the hotel, appearing as specially commissioned sculptures and table lamps.
The jewel in the crown of Coworth's 16 suites is the detached Dower House. Standing in its own garden with a stream running through it, the 18th-century property has three bedrooms, a lounge, dining room, study and kitchen.
In keeping with its green credentials, the vast majority of the furnishings, furniture and art are British made, often by individual cratftsmen and women. The bathroom products, for instance, are from Mitchell and Peach, a Kent-based family farm, which grow the lavender which forms the basis of their fragrances.
Smoked English oak floors, topped with tweed rugs and natural textiles of wool, cashmere, mohair, and linen are found throughout, while the equestrian connections to the estate are highlighted in the embroidery on the bed linen. All add up to an interior that is, subtle, fresh, elegant and totally in touch with the natural environment.
The environmentally-friendly ethos of Coworth Park is reflected in the food served throughout the hotel's three restaurants - John Campbell at Coworth Park (fine dining), the Barn (relaxed dining) and the Spatisserie (spa dining).
Using locally grown and freshly harvested seasonal produce, the Shire Menu served in the 66-seat John Campbell at Coworth Park restaurant intends to offer the maximum nutritional benefit and freshest flavours as well as benefit the local rural economy. The bulk of the ingredients come from within a 70-mile radius covering Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Wiltshire and London's Billingsgate market.
Dishes in this menu include the likes of partridge, apple, bacon, crispy onion compote and sage, followed by beef blade, tomato, artichoke and horseradish, with English cherries, cherry soup, rose and nasturtium to finish. "The sourcing of ingredients is just one element in which we have ensured that we are behaving in an environmentally responsible manner," explained director of cuisine and food and beverage, John Campbell, who is supported by a team of 48 chefs.
"The design of the kitchen is also fundamental. A double plancha, Hatco grill and extensive use of water baths are all providing efficient energy use."
Alongside the Shire Menu, which starts from £17.50 for two courses and £22.50 for three courses, including coffee, there is a three-course à la carte menu with intermediary courses for £60, and an £80 tasting menu.
In the more rustic setting of the Barn, with its large wooden tables and 72 seats, a sharing element of dining is encouraged. Here homely, traditional foods such as spatchcock chicken with crushed pumpkin, beer-battered fish, chips and crushed peas, and brown sugar tart blackberry jam and blackberry sorbet, are the order of the day. The Barn menu costs £30 for three courses.
For the 32-seat Spatisserie in the spa, Campbell has explored the healing potential in food to create dishes such as buckwheat pasta, chargrilled chicken and tomatoes with basil pesto and braised brown rice and monkfish with toasted almond. Here, the two-course menu is £15. "Customer is king at Coworth Park and we are here to give customers exactly what they want," Campbell says. "So if a customer wants steak and chips in the fine-dining restaurant, then that is what we will very happily serve them. The most important thing we can do is to make everyone feel comfortable and leave here with wonderful memories."
COWORTH PARK FACTFILE
London Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7SETel: 01344 876600www.coworthpark.com
Opened 27 September 2010
Owner Brunei Investment Agency, with management by the Dorchester Collection, which also looks after the Dorchester in London and seven hotels overseas. The group's ninth hotel, 45 Park Lane, London, opens in spring 2011.
History Built in 1776, the manor house at Coworth Park was originally owned by East India merchant, William Shepheard. In the mid-1980s, it was bought by the owner of Selfridges, Galen Weston, who established its first polo ground and stables. Prince Jefri, brother of the Sultan of Brunei acquired the estate in 1995, and it was transferred to the Brunei Investment Agency in 2001.
General manager Zoë Jenkins
Director of cuisine and food and beverage John Campbell
Director of sales Lisa Lernoux-Doux
Pastry chef Simon Jenkins
Room rate opening offer from £235 for a standard room, including breakfast, excluding VAT
Forecast occupancy 70%
Food and beverages three restaurants - John Campbell at Coworth Park (gastronomic), the Barn (informal), the Spatisserie (within the Spa) - plus four function rooms and a marquee for up to 250 guests
The Spa at Coworth Park situated over two floors and underground. Offers eight treatment rooms (including two doubles), a manicure and pedicure suite, relaxation rooms, gym, indoor pool and sun terrace. Products are from the Dr Alkaitis 100% organic skincare range, Carol Joy London, Kerstin Florian and Aromatherapy Associates.
Other facilities the 240-acre estate includes the only polo fields in the UK within a hotel, equestrian centre with 40 stables, croquet lawn, tennis court, teenage den, kids' club, and special access to the nearby Wentworth Club's championship golf courses.
Location close to the A30 with direct access to the M25, Heathrow and Gatwick airports. The drive to central London takes 45 minutes.
By Janet Harmer
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