Oakley Court: gothic grandeur on Thames


Oakley Court: gothic grandeur on Thames

Columnist Eva Wiseman heads up river to the crowd-pulling country house spruced with city slickness by Alex Eagle

Eva Wiseman

BY Eva Wiseman26 August 2022

This Victorian gothic mansion house, studded with ivy and gargoyles, was once used in the Rocky Horror Picture Show as Frank-n-Furter’s home. That film of course is a seminal text – and was one of the many reasons I was excited to visit Oakley Court. Since that starring role in the Seventies the building plodded along for many years as a slightly drab conference hotel, before recently being revamped by creative director Alex Eagle and designer Sophie Hodges, who added a welcome London-ish pomp and sparkle.

Plants in the conservatory at Oakley Court hotel | Mr & Mrs Smith

Inside, plants creep gorgeously around the wrought-iron dome of the conservatory, contemporary art studs the walls, and a record player waits for someone to choose an album to soundtrack their evening. Magazines and books are stacked by armchairs for moments of reflection, but most guests are happy to gaze out across the 35 acres of land, or chat over a pretty afternoon tea.

There are tennis courts, and a little heated pool, and a little gym (soon to host an outpost of the Alex Eagle Sporting Club), and a walled garden beyond. Across the grand field-like lawns, Soho House has installed a bar and restaurant with DJs and cocktails, rattan loungers facing the river, and a satisfyingly expensive pizza menu. They promise an ice-rink every winter, and a Jeremy Deller-designed bouncy castle the size and shape of Stonehenge in the summer. I hope to come back for that.

Bedroom and view at Oakley Court hotel | Mr & Mrs Smith

The mansion house has the swishiest rooms, large and grand with mid-century furniture, but I stayed in the Boathouse, a wing built in the 1970s to the left of the main house. Its office-like architecture does spoil the decadence a little, but ivy has been allowed to grow over the exterior walls, so if you squint it’s all lovely enough. And despite the airless corridors, inside the rooms are elegant, green and spacious, the bathrooms stacked with Cowshed products (including, nice touch, a sheet mask), and a hamper of very welcome complimentary snacks. We had a riverside room so, in the window, rowers passed and swing-seats rocked prettily in the breeze.

The day I visited, a sweltering weekend in July, the hotel was buzzing with young families escaping London for this outpost of Soho House by the water (there are entertainers at weekends), and a buoyant young wedding party (book early for ‘a contemporary take on a country house wedding’), who lay happily hungover after breakfast in the shade of ancient trees, and local couples curious to see the ways in which Windsor was changing, especially with Kate and William moving their Royal family into a local cottage nearby.

Riverside dining at Oakley Court hotel | Mr & Mrs Smith

If you are too slow – or too lacking in opportunity for celebration – to book into one of the local Michelin restaurants like Hand & Flowers from Tom Kerridge, or Heston’s Fat Duck, there’s the choice at the hotel of the River House, out in a heated tent by the water, the Terrace (posh salads and pasta), or a menu from a guest chef (currently Shimizu Akira). When I called up to book for Akira, I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. If I had known, perhaps I would have changed out of my work clothes.

Entering the mansion house we were welcomed onto the chef’s table, where 12 strangers sat side by side, Akira at the head preparing a £125 tasting menu featuring sashimi and caviar, with wine and sake pairing for £45. Next to me two people were having a similarly awkward experience to us – we had expected an affordable sushi menu, having had no indication otherwise (note to hotel: a heads up would’ve been nice).

‘I thought we’d get a katsu curry for £15,’ one hissed to his wife, turning the tasting menu over again and again, as if hoping to find Itsu on the back. It was too late to pull out. But I was glad I’d stayed: it was sublime. Paper-thin slices of wagyu beef, and exquisite sashimi, and delicate caviar, and good conversation. Breakfast was elegant too: a concise, glamorous little buffet of yoghurts and eggs, revisited by children who piled their plates with pastries then ran out to decimate them in the shade.

There were bikes to borrow, and boats to hire, and walks along the river, and a short cycle to Bray Lake where guests can enjoy open-water swimming. And a 10 minute drive down the road there’s Windsor to explore, with the possibility of bumping into the queen in M&S, and the castle of course, and close by there’s even Legoland, if we had really wanted to test ourselves.

Gardens of Oakley Court hotel | Mr & Mrs Smith

But the heat, and the breakfast, and our personalities now adjusted to luxury hotel time, meant that by the time we looked up from our books on the river swing-seats it was almost evening.

For more escape-the-city inspiration, here are all our hotels within three hours of London

All photography by Hannah Dace and Michaela Watkinson

Eva Wiseman is commissioning editor and columnist for The Observer Magazine, and has contributed to everything from Vogue to The Gentlewoman to the NME. Her travel writing has taken her all over the place, most memorably on a pilgrimage to Texas for authentic barbecue, and to Portland to discover the best vintage shopping in the world.