Once you’ve taken in the astonishing grandeur of Cowley Manor Experimental, an Italianate stone house near Cheltenham, you may think that whatever’s within is as prim, proper and palatial. But, you’ll be surprised – to call its look 'contemporary' doesn’t do justice to the funked-up, design-forward aesthetic the trendsetting Experimental group have dreamt up, which uses a kaleidoscopic range of influences: Wes Anderson-inspired colour palettes, ‘po-mo’ furnishings, Alice in Wonderland-esque checkerboard… It’s a world away from your typical country-house hotel. Not that it detracts from the majesty of this one-time royal residence, where you’ll find acres of green-and-pleasant lands, a seasonal French restaurant, sultry cocktail bar and a spa fit for kings and queens.
Double rooms from £251.00, including tax at 20 per cent.
Rates usually include a Continental breakfast.
Lewis Carroll was known to visit Cowley regularly. Some local historians even say it’s where he wrote Alice in Wonderland, with scenes inspired by the manor grounds.
At the hotel
55 acres of land, including a lake and Grade-II-listed gardens; spa and gym; sauna; and free WiFi throughout. In rooms: TV with Chromecast, retro DAB radio, minibar with fridge, tea- and coffee-making kit, and LA Bruket bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The split-level Family Tree room is especially handy if you have children, and need a bit more space, with a sofa-turned-bunk-bed for little ones. If you're travelling à deux, the St Mary Suite has a private terrace (with lake views), and a super-king-size bed you may never want to leave. And, if it’s top-tier soaking you’re after, the Cowley Manor Suite has a plum, freestanding tub big enough for two overlooking the gardens, and a large wraparound balcony.
There are two pools, both located in the spa area. The first is a slate-lined indoor pool with floor-to-ceiling windows framing the forest. The second you’ll find outdoors, flanked by sunloungers with waiter service and its own bar, should you get thirsty. You’ll also be relieved to know that both are heated all-year round.
The C-Side spa uses all-natural organic products for their range of restorative treatments, including massages, facials and exfoliating wraps. Bathed in natural light, the design is inspired by the estate’s lush landscapes, using Cotswold stone throughout, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering woodland views. There’ll be four treatment rooms, a relaxation area, steam room, sauna and two pools; and if you’re feeling sprightly, try a fitness class, or up your heart rate at the fully-equipped gym.
Bring your running kit for scenic cross-country jogs. In June and July, a Panama hat and a few linen shirts will keep you cool; but year-round, pack your waterproofs: the English weather is notoriously unpredictable.
All ages are welcome. Babysitting services and baby-monitoring equipment are available on request.
Cowley is the perfect spot for little Smiths: there's plenty for them to do here, and the staff are extra-welcoming of young ones.
Babies, tots and teens.
Cots can be added to rooms free; there's a £60 supplement for a rollaway bed (per child, per night, including Continental breakfast and a two-course dinner from the children's menu each night). We particularly love the split level rooms with bunk beds.
There are 55 acres of grounds to explore. In July, Cheltenham’s Music and Fringe Festival features music concerts, street entertainment, comedy and fireworks; and there's the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford (01285 713300; www.airtattoo.com).
There are indoor and outdoor pools, and children's swimming times keep all the guests happy. Kids are welcome for splash-abouts at both pools from 8am–11am and 3.30pm–5pm.
Kids can dine any time in the bar, lounge or restaurant, and there's a special menu to cater to younger tastes (from £7.50).
Babysitting is available by arrangement; the hotel can recommend some contacts.
There's a DVD library to choose films from. Ask for hot-water bottles to warm beds with.
Nab a seat next to one of the large, arched windows, especially in summer.
Dress to match the Experimental group's distinctive refit, punching up classic Brit-chic with bold colours and silhouettes.
You’ll find Gloucestershire's finest produce elevating French-inspired fare at Cowley Manor Experimental’s restaurant, where celebrated British chef Jackson Boxer will helm the kitchen. The dining space is an elegant affair, with grand, wood-panelled walls, low-hanging lights and contemporary red-and-white furnishings. After whetting your appetite with some Stinking Bishop gougères or Channel-fresh oysters, try the signature roasted cod with fennel butter and smoked tomatoes, or opt for the cote de boeuf to share.
Venture down the rabbit hole at Cowley Manor’s outpost of the Experimental Cocktail Club, a sultry space decked-out in sleek, royal-blue and burnt-orange furnishings and abstract artwork lining the walls. Here mixologists live up to the bar’s name, shaking and stirring imaginative ‘drink me' potions.
Breakfast runs from 7.30am to 10am (8am to 10.30am on weekends), lunch is served from noon to 2.30pm, afternoon tea from 2.30pm to 4pm, and you can catch dinner anytime between 6.30pm and 9pm.
Cowley Manor Experimental is a one-of-a-kind country house hotel and spa in the Cotswolds, a 15-minute drive from Cheltenham.
London Heathrow is the closest major airport – it's around an hour and 40 minutes from the hotel, following the M4 west to Swindon, Cirencester and eventually Cheltenham.
The nearest train station is Cheltenham Spa, around 15 minutes from the hotel. Direct trains go here from London Paddington and London Euston in just over two hours. Kemble Station is about 25 minutes away, and is served by slightly faster London trains – about an hour and 15 minutes from Paddington.
The nearest big town is Cheltenham – the drive from here should take around 10 minutes, following the A40 towards Oxford before turning right onto the A435 to Cirencester. Driving time from Oxford is just under an hour, using the A436 towards Gloucester before picking up the A435 to Cirencester.
Worth getting out of bed for
On sunny English afternoons, keep the waddling ducks company and ask the hotel to organise a picnic overlooking the lake. Or – if that’s too much effort – seek out a hammock in the grounds to swing and snooze in. Nature-lovers are spoilt for choice here, with an abundance of trees, plant life and animals, like the rare purple dragonflies who have been known to make an appearance. You’ll find plenty of natural pursuits nearby too, with the Cotswolds Wildlife Park a half-hour drive away, home to over 260 species, – great and small – including lions, lemurs, penguins and pandas; while bird-watchers can find over 500 species of winged wonders to gaze on at Birdland Park and Gardens. Cotswold Farm Parkis great for families, who can bottle-feed lambs, learn about animals and agriculture, and let off steam at the indoor and outdoor play areas, which have everything from sandpits and swings to pedal tractors and ziplines. Come half-term, the farm organises special events, too, like sheepdog shows and wool workshops. While you’re in the area, take a stroll around Guiting Power, a picturesque English village that looks like something from a Warbuton’s advert, or explore Sudeley Castle with 10 award-winning gardens in its grounds, as well as well-preserved interiors decked-out with Dutch painted glass, 16th-century paintings and period furniture. Cotswolds Sculpture Park has an ever-changing display of artworks to admire (and purchase, FYI). And while you’re testing out your credit limit, market town Cirencester and Cheltenham’s Montpellier are great spots for boutique shopping. Sporting Smiths can try potting clay-pigeon at the Ian Coley Shooting School, or gee up with Cotswolds Riding, while those after a flutter can try their luck at the Cheltenham races, a 30-minute drive away Of course, in this comely stretch of countryside, there's nothing to match wandering o'er hill and dale, so pull your wellies on and strike out across the fields.
We're big fans of Le Champignon Sauvage on Suffolk Road in Cheltenham, which has fully earned its acclaim with a world-class English and French menu. For something more relaxed, the Daffodilon Suffolk Parade serves seasonal British fare in the art deco building of a former cinema. Tuck into Hereford asparagus with poached duck egg, cress salad and hollandaise, or classic fish and chips, to the soundtrack of a live jazz band.
Botanica Café in Cheltenham is an industrial chic-spot housed in what may first seem like a garage. Once inside, however, the space is pastel-hued and palm-dotted, brewing beans from Girls who Grind, an all-female roastery, and serving a menu of elevated brunch classics like Cacklebean eggs on buttery, sourdough toast or smashed avo on rye.
Head to the Grape Escape on Regent Street for a lively atmosphere and great wine, or the Stumpin Foss Cross for craft beer accompanied by fresh, wood-fired pizzas. The Fossebridge Inn near Northleach is ideal for Sunday tipples (and a hearty roast lunch), but make sure you book ahead, as it's nearly always packed. Or try the Green Dragon in Cowley for a classic country-pub feel, with crackling fires, low-slung beams and flagstone floors.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this grand hotel in Glouctershire’s green belt and unpacked their wheels of local cheese and other farmers’ market finds, a full account of their stylish stately break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Cowley Manor Experimental in the Cotswolds…
Italianate pile Cowley Manor Experimental in the heart of the Cotswolds started its life in 1696 as a royal residence. Since, it’s been a safe haven from German air attacks and a stately home for aristocratic entertainers, not to mention the inspiration for Lewis Caroll’s Alice and Wonderland after the author’s frequent stays here in the early 1860s. Today, under direction from the taste-making Experimental group, you’ll find a country escape for the most discerning design-buffs, with playful contemporary interiors blending modernist and ‘po-mo’ furnishings with pastel colour palettes and a whole load of Alice-inspired checkerboard thrown in for good measure. You’ll have to wait for a little while to trip down this particular rabbit-hole, which is opening later in 2023 with a French-British restaurant, where chef Jackson Boxer will be showcasing the best of Gloucestershire's produce, and an expansive holistic spa, where restorative treatments use all-organic products and guests can hop from the sauna and steam room, to one of two heated pools. All things to get excited about, but, like all great masterpieces, the full extent of the Manor’s splendour will remain closely guarded until the moment of its unveiling…