Green & Spring captures the allure of Cowley Manor and the essence of the Cotswolds
The founders of A Curious Group of Hotels – which includes Cowley Manor & C-Side Spa in the Cotswolds and the lauded L’Hotel in Paris – might be accused of having the Midas touch. But scratch the surface and it’s clear that Jessica and Peter Frankopan are possessed of something far more down to earth than that: a gut instinct for what people actually want.
Cowley Manor is the case in point. It is the result of a personal quest by the couple to unearth the ideal country escape – which encountered one major problem: it didn’t exist. “During the mid-1990s Peter and I always went away at the weekend, hoping each time to find the perfect place to stay. But we never quite found it. When we came across Cowley, we knew it could be the place we had been looking for and envisaged turning it into our dream hotel.” At the time of purchase Cowley was a dilapidated and unloved former old people’s home. Two years on and the Frankopans had completely renovated the 19th century Italianate villa – setting it in 55 acres of sprawling parkland, wood and meadow.One might assume such grandeur would be served up with more than a smidgen of snootiness, but, refreshingly, Cowley owes its success to its unique brand of homely British charm. Imagine the rollicking country seat of a slightly batty best friend, all roaring fires and sink-into-me sofas, an eccentric up-tempo soundtrack that gets everyone toe-tapping before dinner and a hearty menu that encompasses locally sourced fish and meat. So, no nouvelle cuisine or classical music, no talking in whispers or self-conscious silences. And therein the reason why no-one ever seems to want to leave – including the Frankopans: “We often find ourselves at Cowley, and not just for business. Many family celebrations and lazy summer afternoons are spent there. We’re drawn back to Room 26 – it has a view onto the lake and we stayed in this room for a week when Cowley first opened. It felt like home.”
For guests who do make it out of the hotel (with a pool room, library, bar and restaurant, one could not be blamed for staying indoors) they’ll find the award-winning C.Side Spa, where the quirky, cosseting atmosphere continues. The greenhouse-style lobby is sun-flooded and simple; one pauses for a cup of herbal tea while curling up with a book, or dives straight for the heated pools – one inside, the other out. The latter captures one of life’s simplest pleasures, which our climate so rarely affords to the English. Floating peacefully beneath a canopy of sky, the rain begins to drum down onto the water’s surface and everything electrifies. The swimmers rejoice – it’s so powerful to feel the unguarded spirit of the outdoors without the urge to cower away or run for cover. “By nature of the design, C.Side has always been a rather unique offering. The experience is about how you interact with the space, the treatment, and the therapists,” explains Caroline. Back inside, and with only four treatment rooms, the encounter feels resolutely personal – on my visit, I shared the complex with just three other women. The decor and set-up is also refreshingly no-frills. The changing rooms are low-key and facilities are minimal: aside from a steam room and sauna there is nothing else to do but float away in the pool or fall asleep on a lounger. Such unfussy focus feels just right for Cowley, though, and once again the home-away-from-home spirit inhabits the ethos.
Rather than focusing on new-fangled therapies, the modest spa menu gets to the crux of what is important: great massage; flawless facials; indulgent wraps. The importance of alternative therapies is emphasised too, with specialist Reiki and reflexology practitioners working on-site. Therapists are impeccably well-trained, relaxed and friendly – among the best I’ve encountered during my many years of undercover assignments, and they are all passionate about the Green & Spring range which makes up the core of the new treatment menu. Also partial to the new products is Jessica Frankopan. “The Relaxing range is a favourite as we are always on the go and the Indulging Exfoliating Body Balm, £28, just melts into the skin and smells absolutely gorgeous. I also love the Skincare range – I am looking and feeling a lot younger since using it.”
The luxury line, developed by legendary aromatherapist Michelle Roques-O’Neil, seeks to bottle the best that rural Britain has to offer, distilling the tried-and-tested traditions of the apothecary into high-grade and 100% natural formulations. The line also prides itself on sustainability – it is handmade and bottled in the English Countryside and “by choosing indigenous materials we conserve our carbon footprint.” All herb, flower and base extracts are UK-sourced (as is the packaging), and when essential oils have been imported from other countries they have all been done so ethically. “We also utilise local resources such as our spring water,” O’Neil continues, which comes direct from Cowley’s unique Victorian cascades – a beautiful spot just a short walk away from the house, which the Frankopans urge each and every guest to see.
The ideological process itself was also a rare challenge for O’Neil, who wanted to capture the ‘spirit of Cowley’ in the new beauty brand. “Cowley encapsulates elegant simplicity. It has a laidback style that is effortless. When you look out across the grounds you get a unique sense of its connection to the British countryside and how intrinsic the land is to the whole experience. So from this perspective I began to look at the indigenous British oils, herbs and extracts. There has been a long tradition of the English using these immensely effective but all-natural ingredients (such as lavender, chamomile, rosemary, rosehip, red clover, elderflower, thyme and geranium) and this was the launch pad for me.”
And once direction was established, how long did the process take? “Well, there were quite a few products and I had to look at the function and benefit required. They also had to hang like a family with the aromas all supporting one other. As it was very much a collaborative process, it took a few months to formulate and fine-tune.” And how did O’Neil ensure that the aromatherapy line is as beneficial to the skin as it is to the senses? “Well, I am very familiar with working with oils such as Evening Primrose as I use them in my own formulations. We then worked with a fantastic herbalist whose additional knowledge enabled us to come up with products that were multi-functional and extremely efficacious.”
Just six months after launching into Space.NK the line has already won plaudits: Harpers Bazaar labelling it ‘Best Natural Bath & Body Range.’ But it is the stars of the skincare line-up that Michelle Roques-O'Neil keeps returning to: “I have two favourites – The Light Cleanser, £28, because I love the clean fresh aroma and the way it refreshes and tones my skin, and The Restoring Face Serum, £38, which is a miracle worker. I call it rejuvenation therapy in a bottle!”
As for the Curious Frankopans, what’s next on the agenda? “Canal House will open in Amsterdam in summer 2010 with 20 bedrooms, a large garden and plenty of spaces to eat, drink and unwind. We’re very excited about the design and to be opening so soon.”
The Cotswolds, Paris, and now Amsterdam…
Given that all of this began with a series of disappointing weekends away back in the 1990s, perhaps the Frankopans are now at liberty to retire their quest for the perfect hotel? They’ve made it.