A Whimsical Country Escape: Cowley Manor, Cheltenham – Hotel Review

By Daisy Finer

7 months ago

Historical, whimsical and romantic – what more could you ask for?

A real Cotswold icon, Cowley Manor has reopened after a recent takeover and a modern-day renovation. Daisy Finer checks in to check it out.

Hotel Review: Cowley Manor, Cheltenham


Grey four-poster bed with dark green sofa

© Mr. Tripper

Few hotels have such an interesting history. In the 11th Century, Edward the Confessor gave the lands of Cowley to William the Conqueror in return for the land on which he built Westminster Abbey. Then, in 1855, George Somers Clark designed the original Italianate manor and by the 1890s, Lewis Carol was visiting the property, which is said to be the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. The house was leased to Cheltenham Ladies College during WWII and also had its time as a nursing home before being bought in 1999 by Jessica Sainsbury, who restored the grade II listed building into a modern hotel. 2022 then marked the beginning of a whole new story, with the hotel being bought by ‘The Experimental Group’ – famous from Paris to Venice for their cocktail bars – as their first property outside of London

Taking inspiration from each past chapter, the 36 bedrooms, dining room and spa have now been reimagined by designer Dorothée Meilichzon. Weaving together the classic with the contemporary, touches of rattan mix with bold colours and glossy lacquer. Special nods to the Alice in Wonderland theme include a small hidden door here, a touch of checkerboard there. The bedrooms, however, are the star of the show: safe havens of perfectly blended colours, glorious bathrooms and fun suites large enough for families. Overall, the look is perhaps not for traditionalists or those seeking pretty period chintzes; instead expect graphic fabrics and carpets, and to eat on modern sofas in the wood-panelled dining room. Surprise is part of the game, and a playful, fun vibe runs throughout. There’s a games room, a library, and a rather cool cocktail bar with adjacent sitting room for pre-dinner drinks and night caps. 


© Mr. Tripper

To do, or not to do, that is the question. Rambling walks through meadows, pastures and gardens are a given. The grounds are planted with gingko biloba, Atlas Blue cedar and beautiful cypresses. (Head gardener David Masters is a well-known character and can lead mini wildlife discoveries.) These natural wonders sit beside man-made ones: the spa is a touch of Miami in the Cotwolds, a postmodern building seemingly carved into the land, and there’s a super cool 14-metre outdoor pool, as well as a green tiled indoor one, a steam sauna, and a perfectly formed gym. The spa treatments themselves are a step up from the norm. For example, the ‘Blissful Back Treatment’ is a facial for your back, involving an aromatherapy mask and essential oils but leaving your whole body relaxed and surrendered. Or try the ‘Reset and Recharge’, which incorporates lymphatic drainage with a super glow facial using products from MonuSkin, a vegan brand from nearby Cheltenham that is 100% natural. You can eat an informal health filled lunch, or burn some cash in the shop – anything goes is the C-side spa vibe. Of course, staff can direct you to all sorts of local villages and haunts if you can bear to leave the premises. 


Wood-panelled dining room with red banquette seating

© Mr. Tripper

The main restaurant at Cowley Manor has always been a hub, and now celebrated British chef Jackson Boxer has waved his magic over the menu as a consultant, really revving things up. Boxer is the man behind London’s Brunswick House and Orasay; his grandmother, Arabella Boxer, is famous for her food writing, so we’re talking a serious injection of pedigree. Expect a seamless blend of hearty, local ingredients morphed into classics with an extra luxurious spin. For lunch the likes of grilled Slad Valley mushrooms with a fried egg or raw beef with fried shallots and foie gras (just something light). Or think tarte flambée with spelt flatbread, Rollright cheese and black truffle. Then for dinner? Perhaps Hereford Sirloin with smoked bone marrow and pearl onions, or Cotswold lamb shoulder with white beans and purple sprouting broccoli. If you can take any more, Afternoon Tea on the Terrace at Cowley has long been an institution, and you can indulge while looking out over the Italianate Gardens, lawns, lake and greenness. (What a dream.) During the summer, you can breakfast outside. All the usuals are on offer – eggs Benedict, pancakes, and more. Don’t miss the crunchy sweet granola and fruit compote; it’s as sweet as the whole get-up.  


A grand country hotel with a quirky design sense, glorious gardens and cute spa. Cowley Manor is as family-friendly as it is romantic. 


From £250 per night. cowleymanorexperimental.com