Ben Dowell takes a short drive up the M1 to sample Luton Hoo, the gorgeous country pile where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh honeymooned and Edward VIII proposed to the woman who cost him his throne....
A honeymoon location fit for a Queen (or rather THE Queen); the place where one monarch proposed to a woman who stopped him being King; and the location for the scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral – when Hugh Grant has to hide in a closet while his friend Bernard gets it on with his wife…
Yes, Luton Hoo has this and much else besides.
Situated in Bedfordshire, the grand, five-star hotel has extensive Capability Brown-designed grounds, which include formal gardens, a 50-acre lake, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course and a spa housed in the former stables. Inside, the bedrooms are beautifully furnished, as are the impressive state suites.
As well as that, it is not far from London – barely 30 minutes when you are on the M1. But let’s deal with the accommodation first.
Every room has a fireplace, even if only two in the building are now active (for health and safety reasons). Still, the smell of woodsmoke that greets you when you enter the beautiful atrium (we visited on a chilly day in March) really makes you feel at home. Welcome to the country.
But we’re talking posh country here. It has a dining room modelled on the Ritz. And, among the state rooms, there is a suite that was occupied by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh shortly after their 1947 wedding. It was a second honeymoon, alongside their Kenyan sojourn, but they used these rooms whenever they stayed at what was then the house of their friend (and the Queen’s cousin) Lady Zia Wehrner (she also happened to be the granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas II no less).
Now, thanks to aristocratic mixed fortunes, the hotel is owned by an international concern. In fact, some of the land that was sold is now Luton Airport though we are assured that planes never fly over the house.
Lady Zia’s personality permeates every nook and cranny of this house, with numerous pictures of her and the maintenance of her old billiard cue cupboards.
Her pet cemetery is also in one piece – a good job too, as it is has very particular historical significance as the place where Edward VIII Proposed to Wallis Simpson in a move that cost him the throne in 1936. But there is also space for more modern royalty.
Recently, John Travolta stayed in the room used by the Queen. The stat was staying on LA time, so the hotel installed brushes under the door for him, so the room was completely blacked out. Travolta was probably also attracted by the proximity to Luton Airport – enabling him to land and park his 747 there.
Johnny Depp stayed in the Queen Mary room while filming in the area a few years ago as well. Oh yes, and if you have seen Red 2, you may recognise some scenes that were shot in this house.
Part of its obvious appeal is the luxury. But it pulls it off without losing its homeliness; indeed, one of the notable things about it is the way many local people can be seen wandering around enjoying tea or playing golf.
Eating and drinking:
The high tea, which must be booked in advance, is delicious and copious, with a wide arrange of teas, cakes and sandwiches available. In the colder months, this is will be accompanied by the beautiful odour of wood smoke which emanates from the main fire.
The restaurant offered a sumptuous dinner, where we were treated to mouth-watering a la carte meal.
Starters ranged from a zesty lemon and crayfish ravioli with wilted baby spinach, roast shellfish cream and chervil foam and pan-fried scallops with roast langoustine, fennel soubise, caramelised apple and warm lemon thyme. Carnivores can tuck into a delicious roast venison and partridge terrine with mulled baby beetroot, Guinness puree and toasted pumpkin seed bread.
The pick of main courses included a whole grilled Dover sole with sautéed lyonnaise potatoes, creamed leeks, and seasonal vegetables, finished with dill and lemon butter. Especially delicious was the assiette of English lamb with petit ratatouille, crushed white beans and Madeira café au lait.
Wines were also supplied by hotel manager Frederic Billet from his family winery OEdoria. So when he tells you about them, he really knows what he is talking about. He served a well-structured and aromatic sparkling wine Cremant de Bourgogne by OEdoria Non Vintage. His red, the Château Gaillard Morgon 2011, is rich, elegant and possesses a fine finish.
Hotel address: The Mansion House, Luton, Bedfordshire LU1 3TQ
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years. After a two year stint on local newspapers in the mid 1990s, he spent more than 5 years as the broadcast reporter at the Stage newspaper. Following that he enjoyed staff reporting positions at the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times breaking stories and writing features before settling as a full time freelance writing for an array of newspapers and magazines - but mainly for the Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.