The counties of Surrey and Berkshire may not seem the destinations of first choice for a winter break but bear with me and I promise you an antidote to winter, lots of attractions nearby and a comfortable, even inspiring hotel to provide a touring base.
Beaumont Estate is situated in Windsor Great Park, the River Thames a short stroll down the drive. It is difficult to conceive of a hotel better situated for exploration of the area around Windsor than this 400 bed hotel set on a large estate. It makes use of and also provides a refuge from the M25 just a few minutes away and is handy for the airport – I have never been so near to Heathrow without actually flying.
I will focus on the hotel itself in the first part of the article, covering some possible places to visit in the second.
In the twentieth century many stately homes passed their sell by date, too expensive to be maintained, too large for modern tastes. Some were converted to apartments, others razed to the ground to expand suburbia, and in some cases they have turned into large hotels. This is the case with the Beaumont Estate. Originally a private estate, it became a Jesuit training college in 1854, converting seven years later to St. Stanislaus College, Beaumont, a Jesuit boarding school for boys. In the 1960s, with only 280 boys and a shortage of priests, it finally succumbed to financial pressures, closing in 1967. For a time it became the HQ of the computer company ICL (remember them?) before being purchased in 2003 by what is now Principal Hayley, the Harrogate based hotel company. Of course, all this will sweep over the heads of many who check in at the modern reception area, to make their way to overnight rooms, perhaps in one of the far out blocks that have been added to the original complex.
Beaumont Estate is a huge hotel and a leading conference venue, and if your taste is for the small and intimate, it may not suit you. But personally I value space and customer service and one constant throughout our three night break was the excellence of the staff. Pass one on the corridor, and they would smile and greet you, pause, and they offer help. All parts of this hotel are accessible by corridor but if mobility is an issue request a central room in the Old Schoolhouse. Alternatively if you value peace and quiet, you may seek out one of the outlying rooms, some of which are very spacious I believe.
Our stylish room was in the upmarket White House, a grand restored mansion, with terrific views across the grounds to the rear. The bathroom was smart and rather modern. I judge this by the length of time it takes me to work out how to use the taps. There was a central lounge area beneath the sweeping staircase (I can see a wedding picture coming on!) and broadsheet newspapers. The White House is worth the extra cost I feel.
We ate in the restaurant on each evening of our three night stay choosing from the a la carte menu. Jan is a vegetarian and her choice changed each night. My own preference is for fish, more for waistline than philosophy. The food was superb in both cases. Most diners choose the buffet option, serving themselves from the bulbous stainless steel dishes. Our fellow diners formed a mixed group ranging from silver travellers such as ourselves to those preparing for a Heathrow flight or those families visiting the nearby Legoland® Windsor. The atmosphere was distinctly unstuffy, the service first class. Fruit salad was not on the menu. Could I have that? No hesitation. “Of course, sir.” Our waitress recognised us the second night and was genuinely pleased to us see for the third. I suspect most guests stay for one night only.
Breakfast was available early to late, a serve yourself affair with a broad choice. The restaurant passed my standards test – hot milk for porridge and coffee, lightly poached eggs. I enjoyed the health drink: cucumber, apple and spinach. It looked revolting and tasted, well, of cucumber actually. On Sunday morning we were invited to a “Private Breakfast” for White House guests. It turned out to be in a rather grand dining room. Italian waiter. We were the first to appear and ate in grand silence. We both preferred the normal dining room to be honest.
The buildings inside and out are distinctive. Think Catholic college, boarding school, cottage hospital even. Of all public rooms however it is the remarkable Chapel that takes the eye. The barrel vaulted ceiling and glorious rose window are genuinely inspiring, never more so than when the subtly changing lighting enhances the experience. The cost of restoring the Chapel and the White House was over £8m in 2008.
Beaumont Estate is a busy place. On arrival on Friday afternoon, the hotel was full of conference goers. I never discovered their employers, but they paid tax on their purchases so that rules out quite a few companies. Saturday night was a particular hive of activity, every one of the many large rooms humming with a different group. The staff were on top of things. Queues of waiters appeared in corridors laden with food, chefs hovered, carving knives in hand, smart staff transported last minute tables and chairs. From one suite I heard the voice of a magician. Varied and vibrant really. Just the thing to stimulate the traveller when Storm Imogen howled outside.
Sunday evening was quiet. We had the Chapel to ourselves. On the wall is a memorial to the old boys who died in the South African campaigns in the early twentieth century. It was here that my favourite author, Evelyn Waugh, was inspired to write my favourite novel, “Brideshead Revisited”. Without this very Chapel I would not have written my university dissertation all those years ago.
Finally,a word about the grounds. We were glad to see the hotel has not stinted on ground maintenance for this is so much part of the hotel and few rooms are denied some view. Most notable was the huge memorial to the war dead, ninety-one names of alumni killed in the First World War, more than one hundred in the WW2. One of those killed had my surname. Elsewhere, there is a nature trail, rather muddy at the moment, and various sports facilities including a squash court. I popped inside to the gym only to take the photograph and leave. Outside, shrieking parakeets teased a hovering hawk.
In addition to providing a luxury break in its own right, Beaumont Estate also serves as a very convenient base from which to explore this well favoured area.
Visit www.beaumont-estate-windsor.co.uk for more information.