Mr Frederic Billet is a very busy man. Deputy Hotel Manager for the majestic Luton Hoo Hotel, he has VIP guests to meet, grounds to keep, barrel aged wines to select and perhaps most importantly – clocks to wind. “They need winding each week, or else time can stop”, he says in a rolling French accent, worriedly thumbing his way through a collection of bronze keys. “Today I have six clocks to wind, but then others will fall behind and we’ll start again. We are always chasing time”. Glancing around the towering entrance hall of the five-star Luton Hoo Hotel, vast Edwardian mirrors hanging from its walls, I wonder why Mr Billet tries so valiantly to keep his clocks in check. Luton Hoo is a place where time has already stopped.
Originally built in the eighteenth-century, the Luton Hoo mansion remains a vestige of a more opulent past. A past when prime ministers built mansions, landscape designers moved mountains and diamond magnates decorated rooms only in marble. Redesigned in 1903 by glittering diamond dealer, Sir Julius Wernher, the mansion was transformed into a dazzling showcase of expense: a Ritz Hotel inspired stairway taking centre stage. It is here that Queen Elizabeth II honeymooned, Sir Winston Churchill gave a rousing post-war speech, and where Russian oligarchs dined on afternoon tea. Luton Hoo, a glittering spectacle of Edwardian wealth, was reserved only for the nation’s most noted and decorated individuals.
Until 2008, that is.
“The hotel opened in 2008, having been bought by Elite Hotels”, Frederic explained as we walked through the mansion’s entrance. “But rather than modernise, it was thought best to restore the décor to what it would have been a hundred years ago – the fireplaces, the artwork, the style of the beds – all the same as when the family would have lived here ”. With portraits of the former family members filling the hallways and delicate antique silverware lining its tables, Luton Hoo felt less a modern-day hotel and more an immersive historical experience. A place providing lucky guests with the rare opportunity to spend the night as moneyed Edwardians. Walking past the eye-wateringly beautiful Wernher Restaurant, I half wished I’d packed my ball gown.
As we walked the length of the Luton Hall Hotel – a vast warren of a mansion – Frederic had a story for every room, every garden – every corner. Heading towards the east side of the mansion, we arrived first at the hotel’s former Orthodox Russian Chapel, an echoing space filled with marble and glittering chandeliers. Now a popular wedding spot, it’s here that Sir Julius’ son, Harold, and his Russian wife, Lady Zia, would attend mass. Just as we left the chapel, Frederic opened a handsome wood-panelled door, declaring: “I love this door. It’s 120 years old and still immaculate. The stories it could tell, eh?”
After climbing one of the mansion’s many staircases, we arrived in front of a room: the Queen Elizabeth suite. It was in this room that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip spent their first married night, before heading to the wilds of Africa. It’s said they returned here each year to celebrate their anniversary. Inside, the room was an enormous light-filled space, with views out over the rolling lawns of Luton Hoo. Complete with a modest, but beautifully appointed living room, small bedroom and marbled bathroom, it seemed a little surreal to stare at a toilet that was once graced by royalty. I briefly imagined the Queen flossing at the sink, a gaggle of corgis around her feet.
Along the mirror-filled corridor lay a host of other suites, including the Lady Zia suite, the Duke of Edinburgh suite and my own bolt hole for the night – The Lady Butter room. Named after one of Sir Harold and Lady Zia’s daughter, the room was enormous, with traditional Edwardian windows, living area, four-poster bed and large bathroom.
Earlier, I had begun to think my room might be the only corner of the house without a story, before Frederic thankfully interrupted. “Have you ever seen the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’?” he asked. “Remember the wedding night scene, when Hugh’s character has to hide in the vanity cupboard? Well, it was all filmed in this room!” Sure enough, in the corner was a small sink and mirror: the very place where Hugh Grant once crouched in a wedding suit. I was impressed: the Queen, Winston Churchill, Hugh Grant. What glittering A-lister hadn’t stayed here?
“Oh, we have all the VIPs and film crews here”, Frederic said as we glided back through the hotel’s pillared hall and drawing room, passing smartly dressed families enjoying afternoon tea. “Bond has been filmed here, Ariana Grande has stayed here, Jonny Depp used that private door when he stayed here, and parts of Spielberg’s War Horse were shot here”. For such a film star of a location, Luton Hoo certainly seemed to have kept itself under wraps: discretely hidden away within its peaceful 1,065 acres.
Walking down the hotel’s front steps, a car pulled seamlessly up in front of us as Frederic gestured for me to climb in. Beginning our drive around the rolling estate, he explained that only guests can walk the hotel’s many grounds, ensuring privacy and discretion at all times. “Well, aside from the pheasants. They are always breaking in”. Laughing, he pointed to the crowds of fiery red birds hidden in the grass. They had escaped the shooting grounds next door – Luton Hoo’s very own asylum seekers.
Alongside the regal mansion, we passed the other many parts that make up the Luton Hoo Hotel. Comprising of an immaculate golf course, luxury spa complete with infinity pool, a laid-back brasserie and Warren Weir – a five star meeting and conference facility – the hotel seemed more a small village than a single hotel. Furthermore, with a flash of orange on the horizon representing Luton Airport, and Luton Parkway railway station nestled on the perimeter of the estate, the hotel is incredibly well-linked. Alternatively, if public planes and trains don’t appeal, then guests are also welcome to land by helicopter on the hotel’s very own helipad – a fact I initially laughed at, before realising the reality of the situation.
Having driven the length of the estate (Frederic stopping briefly to shake his head sadly at a small pile of litter that he immediately reported), I was dropped back at the grand entrance of the mansion – cocktails and dinner soon to be served. Helped out of the car by a smiling porter and led up the stairs to the pillared hall, I felt a VIP of my very own.
An hour later, and having sashayed back down the mansion’s grand staircase, I headed outside to explore Luton Hoo Hotel’s painstakingly landscaped grounds. Designed by everyone’s favourite landscape designer – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – Luton Hoo has a secret. Now the proud owner of three rolling hills, the grounds used to be entirely flat; something Mr Brown couldn’t stomach. A man capable of (apparently) moving mountains, he and his team spent the next fifteen years creating the rolling valleys that now mark the picturesque estate. With guests able to take guided walks to the hotel’s two lakes, its Italian inspired gardens and its surprisingly beautiful pet cemetery, there’s very little reason to leave the hotel’s grounds during a stay.
After cocktails in the mansion’s elegant drawing room, we opted for dinner at the hotel’s Adam’s Brasserie – a slightly more relaxed affair than dinner at the hotel’s 2 AA Rosette Wernher Restaurant (which requires male guests to wear either a jacket or tie). Although only a five minute walk from the mansion, we opted to take one of the hotel’s famous green taxis; finding ourselves swept graciously off the hotel’s front steps within minutes.
We found the Brasserie hidden snugly inside the hotel’s Country Club (the estate’s former stables) – a room of glowing lights and black and white photographs. Over a meal of smoked salmon, succulent ham hock and melting chocolate desserts, we were regularly attended to by the restaurant’s impeccable staff. Dinner even featured a reappearance of Mr Frederic Billet himself, this time under the auspices of his very own red wine, made at his Burgundy home. It was a fantastic end to a glittering day of opulence and relaxation.
The next morning, I woke up just as the morning sun had begun to pour its way through the thick, velvet curtains of our room. Drawing them back, I saw that although it was only 6.30am, Capability Brown’s rolling hills were already illuminated in yellows and golds. Stretching as I watched as a flock of geese make their way across the lake, I wondered how many others had stood at this ledge and watched the same scene unfold? How many Dukes and Duchesses, Kings and Queens, actors and actresses, had drawn back their curtains and breathed in the very same silence, the same beauty and the same quiet of the Luton Hoo Hotel? You see, despite Frederic’s very best time-keeping skills, this beautiful estate will – and will always be – uniquely timeless.
The Luton Hoo Hotel is part of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ collection. Mansion deluxe bedrooms begin at £380 per night, with Master Bedrooms beginning at £640. Afternoon tea is also available throughout the week, beginning at £32 pp.