Take a break from the “new-normal” and discover a right royal retreat near Windsor.
You know you’re in for a treat when you turn into the gravel drive and approach the distinctive façade of Great Fosters, once a hunting lodge used by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I and now a four-star pile of romance and loveliness. With many of its features listed for preservation, it is cited as one of the five most important historic buildings in the UK.
It’s not far from Windsor and sits in 50 acres of delightful gardens and grounds. For a building this old, the house has seen remarkably few changes in ownership. Although enhanced over the years, I defy you to identify where one era ends and another begins.
Walk through the grand front door and travel back four hundred years. Despite the Covid-precautions, ensuring guests feel safe at all times, the receptionists’ eyes are smiling a welcome above the masks and, as he carries your bags, the concierge happily conducts a guided tour of the hotel.
In the Main House you’ll find six fantastic “Historic Suites”. Panel II seems a strange name for a bedroom until the door is opened to reveal an original Grade 1 listed Tudor panelled room. The furniture complements the room with a fabulous four-poster bed, complete with luxurious drapes, taking centre stage. There’s an impressive medieval-style oak table and a stone fireplace promises cosy warmth on chilly nights. The bathroom, thankfully, is not Tudor (monsoon showers; robes; good linen and luxury soaps) but the historic style is maintained in the fittings and furnishings.
If you prefer something more ostentatious you could check into the Italian Suite. This lavish room, rocking rococo, was created in the early 1900s. Jaw-droppingly splendid, it includes fabulous quattrocento doors, imported from Italy in 1912, which feature colourful murals on the front and intricate plasterwork on the back.
There are no ghosts at Great Fosters, so the nearest you’ll get to past residents is perhaps in the Tapestry Suite, what the Great Foster’s team refer to as their Signature Suite. Once the drawing room of the original house it was Anne Boleyn’s personal lounge during her courtship and marriage to Henry VIII. The room still bears witness to that troubled relationship: the ceiling plasterwork features the family motif of Anne Boleyn’s usurped suitor, Henry Percy. The room takes its name from the priceless 17th century Flemish tapestries adorning the walls.
As you’d expect in a building with this heritage, the rooms are individual in size and style. The 42 rooms spread across the Estate, including the Coach House, a stand-alone residence accommodating up to 22 family and friends, are carefully described on the Great Fosters website.
The public areas are historic and charming but this is no time-capsule: furnishings are contemporary and stylish and the overall ambiance is luxurious, relaxing and extremely comfortable.
Afternoon tea is served outside or in the lovely Anne Boleyn drawing room. I watched enviously as contented people emerged carrying take-home boxes of sweet treats. For lunch and dinner there’s a choice of two restaurants. Tony Parkin heads up the eponymous, Michelin-starred, Tony Parkin at The Tudor Room, offering a very special intimate experience whilst ensuring that current social distancing requirements are observed.
The 2-AA rosette awarded, Estate Grill, offers a more relaxed dining option. Seasonal menus are served in a welcoming room reminiscent of a Great Hall. Underneath a spectacular beamed roof, we enjoyed the three-course fixed price menu, (great ingredients and beautifully presented), and a delicious bottle of wine as recommended by friendly sommelier, Valentino.
Great Fosters does in fact have a genuine 14th century Tithe Barn on site which was taken from a Surrey village and reassembled to provide a magnificent venue for special events and conferences. The Estate is full of such surprises and truly caters for every occasion.
The terrace looks out onto a perfect Tudor-style parterre which, it is said, inspired Walt Disney’s designs for the chess-match in his Alice In Wonderland (he and his family has stopped off for lunch). Topiary mazes, garden rooms leading to a lake, a Japanese bridge leading to a rose garden, a meadow leading to small landscaped amphitheatre, modern sculptures laid out like an artistic treasure hunt: these extensive, delightful grounds offer ample opportunity to stroll and unwind.
Having first opened for business in 1927 Great Fosters has a legacy of offering country-house hospitality which continues to deliver to modern expectations. It’s a great base for a relaxing short break exploring the nearby towns, villages and historic sites. Try Windsor for more royal connections; Runnymede for politics and valour or Cookham for art and visit the tiny Stanley Spencer Gallery. Due to its location, less than an hour from central London and close to Heathrow, Great Fosters has a long history of glamorous guests including Hollywood greats Orson Wells and Charlie Chaplin. Before you leave make sure you relive that golden era with a plunge into the fabulous art-deco heated outdoor pool complete with original 1920s changing huts.
Jenny was a guest of Great Fosters Historic Hotel & Gardens located at Stroude Road, Egham, Surrey, TW20 9UR
For more information, availability and bookings visit alexanderhotels.co.uk/great-fosters or call 01784 433822