It continues to be surprising that some of the most eclectic and irreverent hotel designs can be found in towns and villages all over England. London, by comparison, is a quirk desert. So are most major cities, for that matter, where hotels have too many rooms and too much on the line. As evidenced by the selection below, it’s the country house hotels and old coaching inns where playfulness and eccentricity are allowed to shine. Individually conceived rooms, ironic decor, intensely personal flourishes — it’s risky, it’s dramatic, and it can all go horribly awry in the wrong hands. These hotels are not in the wrong hands.
Not a country house hotel, but a country retreat; the former implies some aristocratic formality, while the latter, at least in the case of Titchwell Manor, simply means a luxurious yet unpretentious escape by the Norfolk coast, in a Victorian farmhouse and its renovated outbuildings, all updated in a playful and eclectic style, mixing period details with vintage and modern furniture.
Among the chief attractions of the Suffolk seaside town of Southwold is the Adnams brewery and distillery, and the Swan is the Adnams extension into the world of hospitality. This is a very thorough renovation of a classic hotel, leaving its Georgian façade in its original form and updating the interiors in a vibrant, playful style reminiscent of some of England’s finer country-house hotels.
For a sequel to the funky, bohemian Artist Residence Brighton, the natural choice is the colorful town of Penzance, on England’s South West coast. Artist Residence Cornwall is tucked away in the heart of town, in a beautiful Georgian house, within walking distance of just about everything in town. Each of the artist-designed rooms is completely different in style.
Right between Oxford and the Cotswolds, in the village of South Leigh, stands a 16th-century farmhouse that’s slowly evolved into a classic country pub. Under the Artist Residence banner, it’s a one-of-a-kind boutique inn that combines high-end comforts and a visual style that incorporates antique architecture and objects and modern furniture and contemporary art.
England’s venerable coaching inns are the ancestors of today’s pubs, and the Wheatsheaf Inn, in the Cotswolds town of Northleach, is as true as can be to the classic, slightly utopian ideal of a public house as a welcoming place for a drink, a delicious bite to eat, and an attractive, comfortable room for the night. And if that’s a description the modern pub typically fails by some distance to live up to, well, so much the better for the Wheatsheaf.
A Victorian-era coaching inn where Charles Dickens went to write part of The Pickwick Papers, the White Horse recently spent £4 million on a refurbishment to bring it up to the standard demanded by guests who’ve grown accustomed to the boutique hotels of London and the surrounding countryside. To that end, they’ve decorated the rooms in a style that’s colorful, eclectic, and luxe, in a homespun sort of way.
The Norfolk market town of Swaffham is home to Strattons Hotel, an unusual Palladian/Victorian hybrid of a house that’s been transformed into the region’s only proper luxury boutique hotel. This means 14 unique rooms and suites, each one full of eclectic character as well as upscale comforts. Rooms in the old house are naturally more historical in style than the more contemporary outbuildings, but neither is objectively superior.
The West Dorset market town of Bridport has become something of an unlikely hipster haven, and boasts an improbable number of the region’s best restaurants. In the Bull Hotel it’s also got a very fine boutique hotel, occupying an old coaching inn that can trace its roots to 1535. The look is historically inspired but quite contemporary, with eclectic influences and a collection of one-of-a-kind furnishings.
Compared to most hotels on this list, the Una might be considered restrained in style, but there’s plenty of personality to go around, and plenty of rooms showcasing a variety of configurations. It’s owned and operated by a married couple, an architect and an interior designer, so perhaps a keen and sober decorating eye is to be expected. And while the rooms tend toward the smallish, their simplicity helps them feel uncluttered and airy.
Kingston upon Thames, England
Hampton Court, residence of Henry VIII, is one of England’s best-preserved palaces, and the adjacent Mitre Hotel was originally built by Charles II to handle surplus guests at his court. The current structure, rebuilt in the 18th century, makes much of cheerful, maximalist interiors by Nicola Harding. Each of its 36 rooms differs in layout and in design, though all are faultlessly comfortable.
Because you haven’t always got time to nip off to the Lake District, or Scotland, or Spain, it’s good to know you’ve got options just outside the M25. The Crown, in Amersham, is probably best known for its cameo in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but a combination of convenience, fine hospitality and thoughtful cuisine has kept it relevant even as the early-period Hugh Grant films have become film history.
The seaside resort town of Hastings sees enough traffic to support some biggish hotels, but none are as stylish as the Old Rectory, an eight-room bed and breakfast owned by a fashion designer whose fine taste is evident in every detail. Thanks to its small size (and its 10-and-up policy) it’s refreshingly quiet, and while every room is different they’re connected by a unified aesthetic that combines period atmosphere and contemporary visual impact.
Brighton and Hove, England
England’s Artist Residence hotels present an alternative view of what a boutique hotel can be: unpretentious, fun, and not a bit more luxurious than they need to be. Artist Residence Brighton was the first, its rooms decorated by local artists in exchange for lodging, a scheme that lends them an individuality no designer could possibly have planned.
A 17th-century coaching inn in the North Yorkshire market town of Malton — a destination particularly well known for its culinary scene — is now a classic-meets-modern, boutique-inspired 26-room hotel. The Talbot doesn’t stray too far from its historical roots, but has updated its interiors with bold, bright colors and one-off vintage pieces.