Connecting the Dots: An Iconic, Luxury Tour of the U.K.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” wrote Jane Austen two centuries ago. And so, a hotel group in possession of five splendid English properties must be in want of a road trip to tie them all together. Iconic Luxury Hotels partnered with Luxury Vacations UK and experts in “tailored journeys” in Britain and Ireland to develop a menu of personalized guided tours that connect their five hotels with the astonishing variety of historical, cultural and natural attractions that surround them.
If the term “guided tours” summons up images of buses, crowds and a guide hoisting a colorful umbrella to summon her flock to the next point of interest, put those preconceptions aside. Because that’s not how Luxury Vacations UK works. They work with clients in advance to ascertain interests, previous visits and the like to craft an entirely personal experience. While they can accommodate an extended family group (perhaps in connection with a wedding, major birthday celebration etc.), they also lead many tours for just a couple or a small family group. And the mode of conveyance is apt to be a Range Rover or an S-class Mercedes.
The tour that Worth was given exclusive access to began with a chauffeured pickup at Heathrow, and a quick and comfortable journey to Cliveden House, which CNN once puckishly described as “the world’s most historic airport hotel”—because you can get there in under 30 minutes from Heathrow (don’t worry, nothing could be further from the atmosphere of an airport).
Even under the best of conditions, the redeye flight from the U.S. to the U.K. is a bit of a trial. But the sight of Cliveden House will refresh the spirits of even the most jetlagged traveler. Cliveden’s story begins in 1666 when the second Duke of Buckingham wanted a spot to hunt and to conduct his amorous intrigues, most notably his affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury. He chose a plot of land with lovely views over the Thames river, and the passing centuries have only confirmed the excellence of his judgment.
Cliveden belongs to the National Trust, which maintains the hundreds of acres of forest, fields and gardens, and leases the house and associated outbuildings to Iconic. Erika Steward, who played a big role in developing the Iconic Road Trip, took Worth on a tour of the house itself, which is the third on the site, the first two having been largely destroyed by fire. The current version was the work of Charles Barry, best known for his work on the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The public spaces manage to be both stately and inviting, made more welcoming by the presence of a few guests’ dogs. Cliveden is so dog-friendly that the National Trust even publishes a lovely “Dog Walker’s Guide” that sets forth where dogs are and are not allowed. Sensibly, the spectacular formal garden of the parterre is off limits to hounds.
After a gourmet feast that evening in the main Cliveden dining room (with the attentive sommelier pouring lovely Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Port), and a satisfying “full English” breakfast the next morning, we were greeted by our guide for the next four days, Andrew Stevens, CEO of Luxury Vacations U.K. It soon became clear that we were in good hands. Stevens fell in love with travel as a young man, and decided to make a career of his passion. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for England’s land and history is both deep and lightly worn: He can tell you about some local marvel with the clarity of an experienced guide and the freshness of someone seeing it for the first time. He is a connoisseur of local accents, and you soon realize that “British accent” is as broad a category as “red wine.”
The next portion of this Iconic Road Trip explored the market towns of the Cotswolds–a region famed for its beautiful towns with main streets lined in buildings sturdily constructed of the honey-colored local stone, many of the houses dating back hundreds of years but lovingly maintained and graced by gardens that testify to their owners’ passion and taste.
In the village of Castle Combe, we entered St. Andrew’s Church, dating from the 13th century, which has one of the oldest working clocks in England. The unspoiled aspect of Castle Combe has made it a favorite location for movies, including the Steven Spielberg film “War Horse.” Soon we were in the larger town of Malmesbury, with shops lining the High Street and the imposing Malmesbury Abbey, a superb example of Norman architecture that was built in the 12th century. A favorite sight in the abbey is the stained glass window commemorating the 11th-century monk Eilmer of Malmesbury, who strapped some wings to his body and attempted to fly by leaping off the tower. He is said to have flown a couple of hundred feet before the landing broke both his legs and ended his aerial career.
We got closer to the earth in a less harmful fashion with a visit to the Daylesford organic farm shop. The local produce heaped for sale at the entrance is picture perfect. Inside is a delightful tea room warmed by a cozy fire and offering a wide array of baked goods and many kinds of tea.
Our headquarters for this part of the journey was the Lygon Arms (the first syllable rhymes with “pig”), a hotel housed in part in a coaching inn whose roots go back 600 years. Having learned of Worth’s correspondent’s interest in history, Stevens invited Chris Rushton, a local historian who also leads tours of the area, to join us at the Lygon Arms. There, after a refreshing local ale in the bar, we repaired to a room upstairs–the very room from which, on September 2, 1651, Oliver Cromwell gave a speech to his troops on the eve of the Battle of Wooster, in which he won his final victory over the royalist forces. Rushton’s enthusiasm for the topic, and the power of being in the room where it happened, made for a memorable evening.
Broadway itself—the village takes its name from the fact that its main street is part of the main road from southern Wales to London–has hosted many visitors, including expatriate Americans such as Henry James and the painter John Singer Sargent. And the Lygon Arms itself is said to be the place where the romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began.
The Lygon Arms is also a great stepping-off point for attractions farther afield. The following morning, we headed to Gloucester and its cathedral, where King Edward II is buried. Its cloister is one of the finest in Europe, and Stevens arranged for a tour of the crypt and the cathedral’s library led by the Cathedral Archivist, Rebecca Phillips. As we admired the astounding regularity of the letters in an illuminated manuscript, she explained that the scribes often used a faint line made in charcoal to help keep everything squared away–and then when the ink dried they erased the charcoal using a piece of bread as the eraser. Her tour was an experience as illuminating as the manuscripts themselves.
Then it was on into Wales, with a stop on the way to visit the ruins of Tintern Abbey, a spot immortalized in a Wordsworth poem. Our Welsh destination was Chepstow Castle, begun by the Normans as a way of exercising control over the unruly Welsh who did not welcome their conquerors. Stevens brought to life the figure of William Marshal, whose life as a knight errant and counselor to kings is too eventful to summarize quickly–suffice to say he played a key role in the negotiation and enactment of the Magna Carta. Chepstow Castle preserves a wonderfully constructed set of doors that were built of oak in the late 12th century using mortise-and-tenon joints and originally covered in iron. They are believed to be the oldest surviving castle doors in Europe.
The next morning it was on to London, with a swing through the lovely Cotswold village of Chipping Campden and then to the outskirts of London and the architecturally spectacular and historically important Hampton Court Palace, before arriving at our next Iconic hotel, The Mayfair Townhouse. If Cliveden represents an ideal country estate, and the Lygon Arms a beautiful example of a historic coaching inn, the Mayfair Townhouse is described by its head of marketing, Hubert Losguardi, as the “naughty brother” of the other properties. The Townhouse, which has only opened recently (its launch complicated by delays dictated by COVID-19) is just off Green Park on Half Moon Street, formerly a haunt of Oscar Wilde and today a hub for London’s LGBTQ community. More than 500 works of art adorn the halls, rooms and public spaces, and the effect is more jolly than naughty, although always with a sly wink.
After a tasty supper in the bar and a restful night in a room that included a glassed-in terrace (surely a rare item in the midst of London), Andrew Stevens appeared and led us via subway (a car would have taken longer–although visitors who wish to be driven for their London sightseeing can be accommodated) to the great complex of naval museums and rooms at Greenwich. First on the schedule–and first in sheer jaw-dropping magnificence–was the Painted Hall, a celebration of British royal personages and naval power that was painted in the early 18th century by Sir James Thornhill. It took him 19 years, and Stevens took care to point out the self-portrait Thornhill included in one section of the work, hand extended in quest of further payment. The naval museum nearby will delight children as well as adults: It includes the clothes worn by Lord Nelson at his death at the great British triumph at Trafalgar—more than two centuries later, his status as a secular saint of the nation seems secure.
Our tour concluded with visits to some sites of Roman Britain, including a recently restored temple of Mithras–a religion that was practiced widely in the Roman Empire during the early centuries of the rise of Christianity. This remarkable survival from two millennia ago has been given a splendid home in the new Bloomberg European headquarters, with atmospheric lighting and with helpful but non-intrusive contextualization. It made for a fitting end to a spectacular tour.
The final hotel on the tour was 11 Cadogan Gardens in the heart of Chelsea. If the Mayfair Townhouse is the naughty brother, 11 Cadogan Gardens is the somewhat dotty auntie, still living in the family mansion adorned with portraits of ancestors. Situated between Sloane Square and Knightsbridge, it is a perfect HQ for shopping London’s high-end retailers. The neighborhood streets are lined with residents’ cars, and Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, McLarens and Ferraris are as common here as Subarus in a New England college town.
Our schedule did not allow a visit to the fifth of the Iconic hotels, Chewton Glen, near the Jurassic Coast. Set on 130 acres and near the borders of the New Forest, Chewton Glen offers both traditional rooms in a lovely country estate and more modern treehouse suites that are suspended 35 feet above the surrounding forest floor and include balconies fitted with hot tubs–a new twist on the trendy experience of forest bathing.
Throughout the trip, Stevens was charmingly persistent in correcting inaccurate and outdated stereotypes about Britain. The most obviously outdated is the one about British food. And while it is true that a half century ago overcooked vegetables and pedestrian offerings were common, today the country is awash in fine dining, locavore ingredients and extensive borrowings from cuisines around the world—one of the more positive legacies of British imperialism. Certainly, the food on this tour was uniformly excellent, from the haute cuisine of the main dining room at Cliveden to the pleasantly ambitious gastropubs that dot both countryside and London neighborhoods.
Misconceptions about British weather abound. While rain is not uncommon, one is surprised to learn that New York City has 50 percent more rain annually than London (when it rains in the Big Apple it really buckets down, while London is more apt to experience misty showers, not downpours). But the misconception that really bugs Stevens is that England is London, London is England, and that’s it. He loves to introduce visitors to such lesser-known spots as the Scilly Isles, or the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, or sailing on the Solent (the stretch of sea that separates the main island from the Isle of Wight). His enthusiasm for lesser-known sights is infectious, and having such a guide transforms a tour from one of occasional happy accidents to a series of well-prepared revelations.
The sample Iconic Road Trip set forth by the hotel group is a 10-night tour that can include all five of the group’s properties, and takes the lucky travelers through Windsor and London, the growing wine region around Sussex, to the Jurassic Coast, Stonehenge, the Cotswolds, Gloucester, bits of Wales and to Oxford and Blenheim Palace. With a recovery day at Cliveden House at the end.
Because these tours are so highly personalized, it is hard to make generalizations about price, which depends on season and availability, among other things. A five-day version of the trip for two people starts at £4,500, which covers the transport and private guide. Accommodations, food, drinks and airfare are additional. The return on this investment will be a much deeper understanding of, and love for, the land and its people.
Information about the Iconic hotels and the road trip can be found at iconicluxuryhotels.com/, and at the sites for the individual hotels. Information about the tour guides is at luxuryvacationsuk.com.
Evan Cornog writes about luxury travel and automobiles for Worth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.