Rural retreats within easy reach of an urban hub are often as tricky to find as they are to pronounce. Not so at The Retreat at Elcot Park.
This handsome 18th-century, Grade-II listed house sits conveniently between the historic town of Hungerford and Newbury in the bucolic Berkshire countryside and is a welcome addition for travellers in search of that ‘something extra’ along the well-worn M4 corridor.
In charge of refurbishment duties at Elcot Park is The Signet Collection – a new boutique hotel group launched in 2020 by accomplished hotelier and restauranteur, Hector Ross and Ronnie Kimbugwe respectively. With extensive experience in the hospitality sector – including stints at The Ritz, Claridge’s, Beaverbrook, and the Bel & Dragon pubs – The Signet formula is a familiar one; they call it ‘the defibrillator treatment’ – injecting new life into tired old properties with a short, sharp shock of informal modernisation which has already seen a successful recent update of The Mitre – Signet’s inaugural hotel launch situated on the banks of the Thames opposite Hampton Court Palace. As such, The Retreat is Signet’s difficult second album but in the words of charming hotel manager Vinnie Freulon, “If the Mitre is the naughty little sister, then The Retreat is the sophisticated older sibling”. On arrival up the winding gravel driveway, the welcoming reception staff, seemingly undeterred by unforeseen building delays caused by Storms Dudley and Eunice, greet guests by name (a lovely detail) with a chilled glass of bubbles and a chance to register their arrival in the comfort of a grand entrance lobby. This space certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. Impressive Georgian proportions, a grand staircase, a roaring fire, all overseen by the watchful eye of famous Romantic Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who’s portrait hangs above the mantelpiece. Indeed, the house was once owned by Shelley’s mother, Lady Elizabeth, and excerpts from Shelley’s poem Love’s Philosophy now adorn the walls to commemorate the connection with its lofty past.
Established by Harriette Cayzer and Anneke Gilles in 2017, London-based interiors practice, Taylor and Turner, were the young design experts Hector Ross turned to when considering how to ‘reimagine’ the space at Elcot. And his brief? “He wanted the interior to feel more like a house than a hotel”, Cayzer explains. “So he asked us to ‘imagine we’re designing the space for our best friend or the parents of our best friend’”. The rooms – all 55 of them – are a riot of playfulness and colour in keeping with the informal, relaxed environment that is fast becoming a Signet signature. “Hector loves that very English tongue-in-cheek humour – so lots of print, maps in the entrances, fun, buzzy loos, tongue and groove, kooky corners – the aim was to make each room feel quite individual.” With the listed Georgian frontage, design decisions were more muted and sensitive to the era – antique furniture was sourced from local suppliers – but a modern extension at the back gave the designers carte blanche to experiment. “We painted those corridors in an oxblood lacquer with a blush pink accent to inject a bit of 90s fun – something we just couldn’t do at the front of the house.” Their design ethos is also a rumination on the power of juxtaposition. So the classic chinoiserie of de Gournay wallpaper in a dining area is offset by dynamic cushion covers or unusual wallpapers by young female-led design labels like Cathy Nordstrom. The three huge signature suites all have super kingsize beds, free-standing roll top baths, and uninterrupted views over the Wessex countryside. The Classic, Heritage, Wessex, and Culture rooms are cosier, colourful, and a little more affordable – aimed squarely at the family market. “It’s a democratic hotel filled with unexpected contrasts” says Cayzer. “There’s nothing like it in the area.”
A key spot is the on-site Signet Spa – a pre-requisite for any stay at a hotel with ‘Retreat’ in the title. Inside, a heated vitality pool, aroma steam room and sauna sit alongside a state of the art gym and salt flotation tanks. Outside, the heated infinity pool takes centre stage with loungers, cabanas, views of cattle gently ruminating in the neighbouring field and the all-important ‘Whispering Angel’ bar if green shakes aren’t your thing. Back in the meditative treatment rooms, I opted for a signature ‘Made For You’ body massage by an experienced therapist called Bliss. She introduced me to my marma points – an Ayurvedic massage technique that helps sustain energy flow throughout the body. I fell asleep. It was bliss though.
The Little Extras
Dotted around the corridors of the hotel are little pantries which contain cold beers, chilled wine, soft drinks, and snacks. Raiding rights are free. So what’s the catch? Catch them when you can because once they’re gone, they’re gone. Also, the side courtyard – a charming outside spot for lunch – is bordered by a bakery and wine shop, a nail bar and a blow-dry salon. It’s the on-site equivalent of a bijou Saturday market for guests and take-away visitors too.
The Food + Drink
Seasoned restaurateur Ronnie Kimbugwe spent years honing his skills at the Gordon Ramsay group at Claridge’s and created the menus at the very successful gastropub group of Bel & Dragon Inns. His remit as Culinary Director at The Retreat is simple: relaxed, modern, comfort food. “My aim is to create relatable menus – served in a fun manner – but always with a twist,” he explains. He oversees two restaurants: 1772 Brasserie & Bar – named after the date of the original house – is the relaxed, all-day dining option with an emphasis on seasonal produce, catches of the day, and roast lunches. It’s all banquette seating, bay windows, and views over the North Wessex Downs – especially if you’re lucky enough to bag a seat in the Orangery. Yet over at Yu, the pan-Asian restaurant with a big nod to the flavours of Japan, Kimbugwe really gets his creative juices flowing. We opted for the restaurant’s key dish – part of the optional tasting menus – miso spatchcock chicken, a tender baby chicken dish marinated overnight in miso, ginger, garlic, and lime, served with mushroom rice alongside a generous portion of yellowtail sashimi in a dry-ice bowl. Pure theatre and worth every penny of the £75 per head fine-dining experience.
The To-Do List
The Retreat’s proximity to the market towns of Hungerford, Newbury, and Marlborough make it a magnet for antique hunters. The award-winning Hungerford Antiques Centre alone has over 115 dealers. But if you prefer to stay on-site, the hotel provides free Wellington boot hire from the cheerful, Instagram friendly ‘Wellie Wall’. There are also imminent plans for croquet on the lawns, hot-air ballooning in the grounds, and a dedicated babysitting service for parents.