Cowley Manor Experimental, the Cotswolds: Hotel Review
HomeHome > Blog > Cowley Manor Experimental, the Cotswolds: Hotel Review

Cowley Manor Experimental, the Cotswolds: Hotel Review

Jun 17, 2023

Reviewed by Rick Jordan

Why book Cowley Manor Experimental?

Because this is the first UK address outside London from the Experimental Group, the youthful, Paris-based hoteliers who have brought a new dynamic, plenty of pizzazz and some damn fine cocktails to destinations around Europe (Venice, Biarritz, Menora, their home town). While the Cotswolds has been ramped up lately with a flurry of new private members’ clubs, this is far more affordable (and probably far more fun). Cowley Manor was always popular before its new incarnation, though had become something of a family favourite – under the Experimental banner it’s hoping to draw in more of a party crowd.

Set the scene

This isn’t the jam- and chutney-packed Cotswolds of Bourton-on-the-Water or Chipping Campden but a peacefully unspoilt enclave of the Churn Valley, where winding lanes lead to a collonaded, Italianate-style mansion next to a Norman church, flags fluttering in the breeze over the hills, swans afloat on the lake behind… But hang on, this isn’t a fresh discovery: Cowley Manor has been a boutique hotel since 2002, and many readers will know it well; in fact, when it first opened it was one of a new breed of country-house hotel, keen to inject some contemporary design and a sense of fun into what could be a rather tired scene. So this is a new chapter for Cowley, one in which the papier-mâché stags’ heads have been mulched and the interiors pulse with electric-blue rugs, tables and sofas. Inspired by the rumour that Lewis Carroll, a frequent visitor to Cowley Rectory, partly based Alice in Wonderland here, the design riffs on rabbits’ heads, playing cards, chess boards and a discombobulating sense of scale – try standing next to those giant columns in the lobby – along with mushroomy clumps of lights and floor stools. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappear down the rabbit hole entirely, and there are no twee ‘Drink Me’ labels in the bar.

The backstory

We’ve all had some brilliant ideas after a few cocktails, haven’t we? (World domination, becoming a TikTok star, having just one more drink for the road…) but not many have been as successful as those of school friends Romée, Pierre-Charles and Olivier, who bonded over a mutual love of cocktails and shook up the Paris bar scene by opening the Experimental Cocktail Club in 2007. Then they had a few more drinks and tried their hand at restaurants, members’ clubs and hotels, bringing their idiosyncratic brand of joie de vivre to New York, London, Ibiza, Verbier, Venice, Menorca and, most recently, Biarritz. Xavier Padovani joined in 2010, with the launch of ECC Chinatown, but the group’s design flare is down to the very talented Dorothée Meilichzon, who has brought her maximalist, Memphis-influenced vision to most of their hotels, including the Henrietta in London. For Cowley Manor, she took Alice in Wonderland as her muse, along with the house itself, which despite its baronial appearance mostly dates back to the mid-19th century, and was later remodelled by Sir James Horlick of Horlicks fame. Since 2002, Peter Frankopan’s Curious Group of Hotels owned Cowley Manor, only selling it in 2022.

The rooms

Playing-card symbols on the carpets lead to the 15 bedrooms in the main house, with rabbit-head knockers on the doors and little references to Alice here and there (spot the tiny doors above the skirting board). But what’s most noticeable is the greenery, reflecting the lush grounds outside, with real plants and olive-green walls and sofas, lit by upturned lights – almost a conservatory ambience, helped by two wicker chairs. Our room, no 30, had a bathroom as big as the bedroom, where any country-house rusticity is banished by the striking lacquered lava stone basins and baths in bold terracotta. Dorothée has a thing for lacquered lava stone, you see, and two 18-tonne lorries scrunched up the driveway to deliver the stuff. Those who require a four-poster and a private terrace looking over the lake should book the Swan Lake Suite, while family rooms with fold-up bunk beds are set in the former stables. If for some strange reason, you have an aversion to Dorothée’s aesthetic, then book no. 21, which was designed in the 1970s and has been listed for its absinthe-green Deco-style bathroom.

Food and drink

When the Experimental Group opened the Henrietta Hotel in London, they invited in chef du jour Oliver Dabouse to fire up the menu. For Cowley, they turned to Brunswick House’s Jackson Boxer, who has gathered up local ingredients for a menu that showcases vegetables – starters of summer peas, ox-heart tomato with cow’s curd, a ceviche of sliced courgettes soused in elderflower champagne and dabbed with sunflower miso. There are satisfying crunches of Old Spot croquettes, and plenty of French influences including tarte flambée, beef tartare and madeleines with Chantilly cream. Mains of lobster tagliolini and grilled Tamworth chop were solidly good without being overly exciting – perhaps the menu could be a little more experimental? The dining room itself is a visual feast, wrapped in wood panelling and lit by mushroom-white lamps suspended by rope, with geometric prints and lacquered pedestal tables. As you’d expect from the group’s cocktail heritage, the bar has been ramped up, with drinks including a Horlicks Milk Punch (nodding to the Victorian owner), a very umami Aphrodite (porcini-infused Cognac, sherry and fig liqueur) and Stone Fence, an orchard-fresh mix of plum, cider, allspice and Calvados.

The service

Many of the staff have been here for a few years, such as Hungarian-born bar manager Norah; some longer, so know regular guests well – and many are gathered from the Cotswolds area. The service during our stay was generally switched on but perhaps needs a little smoothing out.

The area

This isn’t peak Cotswolds – and that’s a good thing. After all, who wants to be nose-to-tail with those Lamborghinis and brutish, country-lane-blocking SUVs on their way to Soho Farmhouse? No, Cowley Manor is set in the almost wilfully obscure but wonderfully buttery-sounding Churn Valley, south of Cheltenham, filled with meadows to skip in and woodland and the soothing sound of the River Churn. If you’re taking the train here, Cheltenham’s the nearest stop. The Roman town of Cirencester is to the south, while the Roman villa (the largest found in Britain) at Chedworth is a short chariot ride away. Nearby are the pretty villages of Coberley and Colesbourne, which has a coaching inn pitstop for walkers and Colesbourne Park, known for its huge drifts of snowdrops in season. The views from Crickley Hill are worth the walk.

Who comes here?

Curious regulars who fell in love with Cowley Manor and want to see how it’s been reimagined – general manager Stuart Hodges tells me the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Families are welcome, but there are only four rooms with bunk beds, and extra beds aren’t allowed in the main building: the idea is to bring in a younger crowd along with those escaping their families for a night or two. As the Experimental boys are fond of saying, it’s all “super-cool”, but as the sound of Shit Robot’s ‘Take ‘Em Up’ drifted across the bar, and an Eau de Vie Martini placed in front of me, I did wonder: are the usual Cotswolds crowd cool enough for this place?

What’s the spa like?

The C-Side Spa, tucked into the landscape on the other side of the car park, was one of the first destination hotel spas in this part of the country. It drew in overnighters and day visitors from far and wide, won the occasional Condé Nast Traveller reader award; and it remains pretty much unchanged. Stepping down into the slate-lined indoor pool and swimming towards the trees visible through the picture windows is deeply satisfying – as is flipping laps in the outdoor pool on a sunny morning. There’s a steam room and sauna just off the indoor pool, and four spa rooms with a short menu of treatments using the British-made Monu skincare brand (several facials, wraps and prenatal): the Mindful massage I had was adeptly done and ironed out a fair few knots in stressed backs.

Anything else to mention?

The grounds are extensive – wander around the trees and over the little bridge to the secret stone grotto – and under the new ownership, the gardener has been given a bigger budget to make them bloom. In the August rains, the striped picnic tents on the lawn seemed a little optimistic. Unsurprisingly, Cowley is a popular spot for weddings, so you may find it fully booked on a Friday night, though this is due to the Covid backlog and 2024 will be quieter.

Is it worth it?

Yes – Cowley Manor’s latest reincarnation is a magical, deeply glamorous escape to conjure your own flights of fancy.

All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveller are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Location Map

Why book Cowley Manor Experimental?Set the sceneThe backstoryThe roomsFood and drinkThe serviceThe areaWho comes here?What’s the spa like?Anything else to mention?Is it worth it?