The English country house hotel isn’t what the English country house hotel used to be. Not in the case of Lime Wood at any rate. Well, it is part of the Pig family of hotels, and as hotel families go you ain’t gonna get more delicious than that. (Wonder if they adopt?)
Set in the New Forest – and yes, that does mean that your taxi takes you past wild ponies munching on heathland – just ten minutes from Brockenhurst station, Lime Wood may go all the way back to the 13th century but the loveliness is very now.
Set over a range of buildings, from the beautiful Georgian main house dappled with wisteria through what looks like an Art Deco second building to the Crescent Rooms, which come off like bungalows from New England with their clapboard facades and cottagey little doors, Lime Wood is a place to be discovered. You’re always coming across little arbours and paths lined with overhanging flowers and huge artworks and wellies lolling around just so and tables set up for afternoon tea or cocktails and hanging copper swing-chairs. All this with a backdrop of forest trees.
But that’s just the outside. You wait till you step in and see how unfusty and un-English-country-house this place is. Dotted with art – the owners are big collectors and there’s some pretty special stuff here, even Cocteau drawings – you move through reception, past the grand staircase lined with paintings and into an atrium with a glass ceiling dousing the place with sunlight. It’s up at the bar in the corner that magically good cocktails are served while you can have tea – or cocktails! – at the tables and chairs dotted about.
We’re leaving the actual food until last because if this place is famous for anything in particular, other than just general gorgeousness, it’s the quality of the dining – well, there is that Pig connection and that’s what they’re famous for. So let’s take you to our room, one of those new Crescent Rooms. Not that you’d think it was new as it all feels very Jane Austen with a sweet little sitting room just past the front door, umbrellas propped against the pastel wall, a sweet little open fire crackling just there. Follow around and you have your bedroom looking out onto trees and, further round, a bathroom with an antique free-standing bath and walls clad in rough timber. The overall effect is comfy/cosy/cool.
With the variety of buildings that make up Lime Wood, rooms obviously come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles, though they all have the comfy/cosy/cool ethos of the Crescent Rooms. The art might be funkier, the upholstery busier, the fire less open, but there’s no room you’d be disappointed by. Not here.
Now for the food. Oh, the food! Overseen by Michelin-starry Angela Hartnett – yes, her off the telly – and Luke Holder of OXO Tower fame, Lime Wood is putting a lot of welly into its food offering, which might be why, with the locals clamouring for special nights out, you have to make sure they have space for you.
At the heart of it all is Hartnett Holder & Co, an Italian restaurant of some great imagination and quite a lot of English influences with lots of locally sourced ingredients making up menus that feature a weird array of kohlrabis, pressed ham hocks and fennel salami risottos. Go for lunch and you can get two courses for just £30. The desserts are to-die-for classics and can we express a personal note of thanks for the vegan meringue with strawberries and raspberries, because if we have to eat one more sorbet someone’s getting a sorbet spoon in the neck.
Imagine all this in a suite of beautiful rooms looking out over lawns towards the water and the forest after a couple of cocktails (who’s counting?) up at that atrium bar. And then you get to come back the next morning for a British, rustic buffet breakfast – à la carte if you’re that way inclined.
We know that the English food and hotel scenes have transformed themselves over the last couple of decades – from terminally out of date to somewhere people schlepp miles to enjoy – but Lime Wood, with its huge spa and indoor pool to boot, has taken things a mighty step beyond. No wonder all those ponies are sniffing around outside.
[photos Jake Eastham and Amy Murrell]