Mark Hix recounts Britain’s chequered history of boutique stays, from makeshift must-visits to today’s refined, bijou bookings
What was the first hotel to be branded with the word “boutique”? Back in the mid-Seventies I stayed at The Cleveland Tontine run by the McCoy brothers, which was tagged as boutique even then. The experience was like being in some sort of Bohemian theatre run by a rock band, with the swinging hotel sign half-hanging off the wall and the three McCoy brothers taking on different roles at the hotel. Breakfast was served on odd bits and pieces of bone china and there was a sign in my room asking guests to keep the shower curtain inside the tub so water didn’t leak into the bar. I loved it.
However, the movement towards small, casual hotels based on simple luxury, with quirky style and no-fuss food, really got started in the early Nineties, when the late Bob Peyton’s Stapleford Park became the go-to weekend retreat. Peyton had brought deep-dish pizzas to London with the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, followed by the Chicago Rib Shack and Henry J Beans. They were theme restaurants that verged on fast food, but he got them right – and that’s why everyone was so intrigued by Stapleford.
Elsewhere, Ken McCulloch started the Malmaison group in 1994, about the same time that Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset opened Hotel Du Vin. These two small country hotel groups played a big part in remoulding the British out-of-town hotel.
From contemporary rooms to a more relaxed and modern dining experience, these places were more about a simple yet sophisticated lifestyle than fussy luxury.
When Nick Jones opened Babington House in 1996 it became the place to go, not only for Soho House members who wanted to escape London but for anyone who wanted a stylish and relaxed weekend. Today, it’s a great, fun place and the perfect venue at which to marry off your children – or even yourself. The food at Babington is British swaying towards Italian, with some produce grown in its walled gardens. Breakfast is a casual, laid-back affair that often runs into the afternoons depending on how much use you made of the great communal bar the night before.
Olga Polizzi, sister of hotelier Rocco Forte, opened Hotel Tresanton in 1998, and was the first to do a cool seaside boutique that still had a strong sense of tradition throughout. It’s a perfect spot. In the summer you can sit on the terrace over-looking the bay and tuck into local crab and grilled sardines or a delicious lobster linguine. Trust me, it’s hard to get a view like Tresanton’s on this part of the Cornish coast while dining and drinking so well.
LIME WOOD AND THE PIG HOTELS
For me, Robin Hutson has made the most significant dent in casual lifestyle retreats, particularly in the South West, which suits me when I’m in need of an escape from Lyme Regis.
Robin knows exactly how people want to spend a few days away: in a relaxed, unfussy and affordable environment that meets all their needs. Together with his wife, Judy, they have put an individual stamp on the interiors and the feel of Lime Wood, near Lyndhurst in Hampshire, and the Pig hotels (the first in Brockenhurst and now found throughout the West Country). The food at Lime Wood is simple Italian, from pizza to truffle pasta to risotto, and there’s a fantastic wine list, which, along with fishing, is one of Robin’s great passions.
Lime Wood has a cookery school run by Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder alongside guest chefs, so you can gain a bit of culinary knowledge from your weekend, while woodland forages take you in search of seasonal mushrooms and wild plants.
One of my proteges, James Golding, looks after all the Pig kitchens, as well as the curing and smoking of local ingredients, which is an integral part of the menu. At Brockenhurst, mushrooms from the New Forest feature heavily in the autumn months, and all sorts of their dishes reflect the surrounding area.
Hutson’s son Ollie tends the kitchen gardens where he grows all sorts of unusual fruits, vegetables and herbs that you can’t ordinarily buy from your local greengrocer. These gardens have become a synonymous feature of all the Pigs that have followed – The Pig On The Beach in Dorset, The Pig Near Bath, The Pig In The Wall in Southampton and The Pig At Combe in Devon.