Welcome to some quintessentially English places for reunions or retreats, for decadent parties or dastardly family gatherings. Weddings? Dance the night away in a moated medieval hall house. Midlife crisis? A soulful seaside retreat will put life into perspective. Family reunion? Instead of coming to blows, re-enact an Agatha Christie murder mystery in a Sussex manor. Landmark birthday? Sip Champagne and ponder least favourite relatives falling off a marine fort into the ocean. If you’re not a traditionalist, contemporary manors offer everything from life-coaching to SAS survival skills.
The success of these big houses often lies in small touches – the surprise hamper or crystal decanters of brandy, the grand piano to make the party go with a swing, the croquet lawn that entertains the extended family. Best of all is meeting the local toff, whose family has been ensconced there since Tudor times, much like the charming Richard Streatfeild in Chiddingstone, Kent.
The Tudor-style manor is set in the High Weald on the Kent-Sussex borders, a patch inextricably linked to the Streatfeilds. Richard Streatfeild, a retired army officer, was raised at Hoath House: “People tell me it has a lovely atmosphere; I just think of it as home. That’s probably the secret, giving people a really homely place in stunning surroundings. It gave me solace just thinking about it when away in Kosovo and Afghanistan.” From medieval hall house to true Tudor manor, the Streatfeilds moved in when they gave up Chiddingstone Castle, the dynastic seat, in 1938. Guests can traipse bridleways to the castle, explore Penshurst Place and Hever Castle, forever associated with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.
The house’s blend of history and character captivates guests, helped by the friendliness of the family owners and the scenery. As Richard says, “When I admire the view that stretches towards the Ashdown forest, I have to pinch myself. One can get too used to living in a place of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” You might struggle to leave the blazing fires, Art Deco master bathroom, the tennis court and grand piano.
Hoath House: sleeps 26 (43 with the Tudor Wing); a week from £1785 – £4359. Winter break (3 days) £1659. Tudor Wing (sleeps 17): weeks £1343 – £2819. Book: Sykes Cottages, sykescottages.co.uk
Set in a secluded spot outside Guildford, this moated manor and royalist stronghold lays claim to being Britain’s oldest, continually inhabited house. Great Tangley is even mentioned as a royal hunting lodge in the Doomsday Book in 1086. Once owned by King John, Tangley has also welcomed King George V and Queen Mary, who signed the dining room window with her diamond ring, as one does. Not to be outdone, George VI signed dressing-room windows.
Timbers from the Armada fleet adorn the dining-room, a mood complemented by the octagonal drawing room and Jacobean oak-panelled library. History-lovers will appreciate leaded windows, chandeliers and atmospheric church candles. The antique-studded manor has been modernised but retains its spirit, despite indoor pool.
The grounds boast bridges over a moat, walled gardens and tennis court. William Morris helped with landscaping and gardens. Enjoy Champagne-tasting history tours with the discreet owners. Great for visiting Brighton and London, as well as cosy pubs in the Surrey Hills.
Great Tangley Manor: sleeps 12, from £2380 for 2 nights, a week from £4805. Book: The Big Domain, thebigdomain.com
Great Bidlake Manor,
Nr Oakhampton, Devon
Unusually, this West Country manor tells a tale of returning to the family fold. The Elizabethan house is surrounded by rolling farmland near Dartmoor. A tree-lined drive leads to a handsome stone manor with mullioned windows, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and obligatory heraldic coat of arms over the fireplace. Recently renovated in partnership with English Heritage, it is set within 13 acres.
The manor has just been reunited with its ancestral owners. “It was sold as so many big houses were after the Second World War,” says Gordon Bidlake. “My cousin Elizabeth Bidlake was the last member of the family to live there, so it was in the family for seven centuries. She did a ‘To the Manor Born’ and moved to Bidlake Mill nearby.” But now the family (and you) can play Cavaliers and Roundheads. The Bidlake clan are planning a reunion in 2018 to mark the 750th anniversary of their ownership but any time else, you can feel at home here, too.
Great Bidlake Manor: sleeps 13, from £1402 a week.
Book: Helpful Holidays, helpfulholidays.com; T 01647 434063