Published on April 28th, 2018 | by Tony Mallett0
To the manor born as our man travels to Kent
Which English town is closest to Brussels? asks Martin Banks…
The answer is Ashford which is (by train) less than two hours from the Belgian capital. In fact, it can be quicker getting to this Kentish town than the south of Belgium.
With no less than three public holidays looming in May (and the long summer vacation just around the corner), you might be looking for inspiration for a destination in which to enjoy a refreshing short break.
If so, you’d do well to consider this part of the UK, just a hop, skip and jump away from Belgium.
Kent is known as the Garden of England, and it has a bit of everything, rolling countryside, traditional seaside resorts and, in Canterbury, a great cathedral city.
Shopping to suit all budgets is also plentiful, notably at the ever-popular discount retail outlet in Ashford which attracts scores of shoppers both from the UK and this side of the English Channel.
A fantastic base for a stay in this lovely area is Eastwell Manor, a splendid country house (located on the outskirts of Ashford) which is currently undergoing a multi-million-euro major refurbishment.
It’s located very close to Ashford International and just 40 minutes from London. Eurotunnel’s UK terminal, with ultra-fast links to mainland Europe, is just down the road. For those looking for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of modern life, it’s just the job.
Even the entry, via a scenic, long tree-lined drive, is impressive. It leads to the historic neo-Elizabethan manor house which is surrounded by outstanding natural beauty. An idyllic, typically English setting. The place oozes old-world charm, and has spanned centuries, some 450 years in fact.
The name “East Well” came from a nearby spring to the East where Saxon shepherds watered their flocks. Much of Eastwell Manor, the building which now serves as a hotel, was built in the neo-Elizabethan style from 1793-1799.
Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor (there are photographs of her skating on the lake) as well as Prince Alfred’s older brother, the future Edward VII. In 1875, Prince Alfred’s daughter Princess Marie – who later became Queen of Romania – was born at the house.
After WWI, the Eastwell estate faced the same economic problems that affected many other English stately homes. In the 1920s, the main house was severely damaged by a fire and then rebuilt on the same site in 1926-1928.
In 1995, the property was bought by a locally-born man, Turrloo Parrett, and remained in his ownership until being acquired by the Purdew family in 2002 (Turloo, who owns several high-class fish restaurants and is now in his 80s, still lives during the week in one of the on-site cottages).
Mother and son Dorothy and Stephen Purdew steered Eastwell Manor to even greater heights and the success story has continued under the relatively new ownership of Champneys, the UK’s leading health spa.
Champneys – which takes its name from Ralph de Champneys, a former estate owner – took over the reins in late 2016 and itself has a rich, near century-old history. It has established itself as the “go-to” spa in the UK with four health spa resorts (Forest Mere, Hampshire; Tring, Herts; Springs, Leicestershire and Henlow, Beds) and six city spas (Chichester, Enfield, Guildford, Milton Keynes, St Albans and Tunbridge Wells).
The Tring-based company has made significant investment in Eastwell Manor, transforming the old Pavilion into a Champneys Spa, revamping the gym, pool, treatment rooms and spa restaurant (open weekends only) which, in line with Champneys’ health ethos, merges healthy eating with healthy living.
The aim of its chefs and nutritionists is clear: to create healthy eating habits.
Each of the hotel rooms is named after (often) famous people who have either stayed at or visited the manor and these include the Earl of Northumberland room, ideal for people travelling with children, be they babies or teens. This very spacious room (complete with retro record deck and wireless!) includes bunk beds and boasts brilliant views of the delightful garden and rolling countryside.
The venue’s two restaurants both cater for kids, and children are also allowed in the spa and outdoor pool (during the summer).
The property, during its colourful history, has undergone several major changes and is currently once again re-inventing itself with a second phase of refurbishment.
This will see enhancements made to the manor house, with its range of rooms, and the neighbouring self-contained, en-suite Mews-style cottages, some with private terraces and converted from original Victorian stables.
The same upgrade is made to the surrounding grounds and collection of outdoor activities, which include a nine-hole golf course, football pitch, badminton court and a falconry centre with regular displays of birds of prey. There are also a couple of function rooms for private events.
People can visit the extensive and superbly-equipped spa for the day, on an overnight stay package or just pop in for a treatment or two.
Other “must-do” things here are the famous Eastwell Manor afternoon tea, an indulgent but delightful (and well-priced) treat, plus a visit to its fine Manor Restaurant, now under the tutelage of its new, South African-born head chef James Pressly.
The very-friendly James has a very impressive CV, having worked for nearly 30 years in top dining establishments all over the world (including the Savoy in London).
This wonderfully intimate restaurant has always attracted a good mix of local residents and hotel guests but James says he’s determined to “stamp his own mark” on both the cuisine (with, for example, more game and fish options) and ethos.
He promises “exciting times ahead” on the culinary (and wine) front, but one thing diners can still rely on are mouth-watering seasonal traditional English dishes tempered with a twist of modern European.
For guests who want to explore the surrounding area (and there’s plenty to see and do) another nice spot to eat in the region is Bill’s, which has a huge network of chic restaurants across the South East of England – one of which is pctured above – which are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and delicious afternoon cream teas.
You’ll find a great range of very tasty seasonal and fresh dishes here, ranging from old classics to its take on modern cuisine.
Several of the dishes, like the Bill’s Burger and Bill’s fish pie, are named after Bill Collinson, the founder and owner who has turned the business into a huge success.You can choose from a set menu or a la carte and veggies (and even vegans) are very well catered for here, not least to meet growing demand for this type of eating.
Bill started out as a relatively humble greengrocer and, after being inspired by his father’s invitation to “make more of my life”, opened his first restaurant back in 2001, little realising how popular the business would become (it was voted Best UK Newcomer for 2006).
He has certainly known adversity – serious floods in 2000 were near-catastrophic – but he managed to keep trading and steadily grow the business.
Nowadays, you can also purchase some of Bill’s own label products at each of his restaurants which spread across London, the south east, south west and Midlands.The underlying ethos is to “really celebrate food” and that is exactly what Bill’s does.
Back at Eastwell Manor and anyone staying here is in good company as previous guests include Naomi Campbell, Kylie Minogue, Dames Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, and two of Hollywood’s leading men Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt. It was also a favourite of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Like many others they were possibly particularly attracted by the delightful little touches such as the pianist who serenades guests and visitors.
The emphasis is very much on customer satisfaction and, commendably, the new owners are also socially aware with the Champneys Foundation supporting Demelza, a children’s hospice charity in the South East of the UK. Wellness therapies for cancer patients are also available at the hotel spa.
Eastwell Manor is easily located just off the M20 or by train to Ashford International station (less than four miles from the hotel and accessible via a 12 minute car journey).The station links all major London destinations and the high speed Eurotunnel.
Travelling with Eurotunnel (“le shuttle”) from Calais to Folkestone takes just 35 minutes and, with up to four shuttles per hour, is the most convenient and cost-effective way to transport passengers between the UK and continental Europe, including from Brussels and Belgium. There’s a whole range of tickets and fares and recently the first direct high-speed passenger rail services between London and Amsterdam, via the Channel Tunnel, were launched.
Champneys is not a company to stand on its laurels and, looking to the immediate future, Eastwell Manor will also be offering luxury Shepherd’s Huts for guest accommodation from this summer in addition to the hotel and self-contained cottages (full details are available on the website).
The brand new huts, located in the grounds of the manor overlooking the North Downs, afford a cosy yet comfortable stay and include a bathroom, small kitchen, wood-burning stove and TV – all ideal for a relaxing escape to the Kent countryside.
With the big refurbishment programme due for completion by the end of this year, it all signals the latest, and perhaps most exciting, chapter in the Eastwell Manor story.