Wivenhoe House Hotel, Wivenhoe
The last time I checked into student digs was an ill-fated trip to see a friend at university in Liverpool (I someone how got the wrong train to the wrong station meaning I ended up sleeping overnight in a dark and empty carriage at Manchester Piccadilly). So booking into Wivenhoe House Hotel next door to the University of Essex seemed a far safer bet. We did miss the turning, which gave us a brief tour of the famous campus, before eventually finding the right road (take the first turning on the right once you are on Boundary Road). Wivenhoe House is a lovely looking old Jacobean mansion set in a large park of the same name with a rich and varied history, and makes a fascinating contrast to the stark Brutalist style of the 1960s tower blocks that characterise the original University buildings.
Built in 1759 by Major-General Rebow, who reportedly returned from the Peninsular Wars with two cork oak cuttings in his boots (if I ever find out this fact is untrue, I will ignore it), John Constable was commissioned to paint the house in 1816. Unfortunately it isn’t onsite or even in a local gallery - the original Wivenhoe Park now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington – but it is used in hotel stationary such as notes to guests from Housekeeping. Passed on from father to Liberal MP son, and then his grandson in turn (during which time the house survived one of the country’s worst earthquakes in 1884), during both major wars of the 20th Century it was used by the War Department and also served as headquarters of the SAS. In a total about face in the early 60s the entire estate was sold to the University of Essex, under whose ownership it remains today.
A slick, modern extension was added, connected via a string of conference rooms, which couldn’t be further from the original Grade II-listed redbrick house, but it works. I actually love it. Square set with fashionable wooden cladding, metal and white trim, it houses 24 more hotel rooms. The hotel is unique in that it is home to the Edge Hotel School, which runs a two-year BA (Hons) degree course in Hotel Management, making it the only hotel-based hotel school in the country (and possibly the only on-campus hotel). Students certainly don’t have to go far for work experience.
Of the 40 rooms, six are sponsored including the Milsoms Suite, the Hilton Honours Suite, and ours – the Portico Suite. It’s large and square with what appear to be the original windows and frames giving views across the grounds where mature oak, sweet chestnut, beech and lime trees grow that date back to the 19th Century. The comfortable feel is helped by using ‘real’ furniture, meaning it may well be reproduction but seems more homely with wooden(ish) pieces including a good-sized wardrobe and large bed. Plum velvet chairs and a sofa add texture and colour and Apple TV the requisite tech (top marks for providing water as many hotels charge for this). Guests of the hotel get to use the University’s leisure facilities, which include a gym, climbing wall, squash and tennis courts. Sporting facilities aside, Essex is the only UK university to have a theatre on each of their campuses, the other sites in Loughton and Southend.
Dinner on a Friday night in the Brasserie is an informal and friendly affair. With glass all along one wall revealing the terrace and grounds with one of General Rebow’s cork oak cuttings now a centuries old gnarly tree sprawling across the horizon, it’s a relaxed space to sit in. Similarly, the menu is easy to choose from, using local produce (bar MacDonald's, find me a restaurant that doesn’t) featuring fittingly French style dishes such as bouillabaisse and Toulouse sausage, bacon and bean cassoulet. Bucking the trend I opt for 36-hour smoked Scottish salmon with shallots and capers. It’s beautifully arranged, scattered with crunchy caperberries and segments of peeled lemon. All in all a good, fresh start to the meal.
My partner goes for pan-seared fillet of red mullet - pleasingly pink on a bed of courgette tagliatelle and a deep smear of salsa verde. He follows it up with a blokey burger and chips (better listed on the menu as a hand-pressed rump steak burger, brioche bun, cheese, fries, homemade sauce). I’m no burger lover but it tastes pure and meaty (with no gristle). I’m more pleased with my bowl of oven-baked poussin with mushroom risotto and a mustard cream sauce. The meat has colour but is tender and the creamy sauce and plump, sticky rice are perfect together. We’re happy. We share a plate of English cheese and biscuits out of greed rather than hunger (all good, served with crunchy celery sticks and sweet chutneys).
On the way up we nose in the grand but cosy drawing room with a glowing fire before lying on the large bed channel hopping (its important to test the system...). Come morning I admire the view once again before a hot shower in the pristine, but perhaps a little boring bathroom before it’s back to the Brasserie for well-cooked kippers with well scrambled egg and creamy oatmeal topped with raspberries from the menu. We help ourselves to buttery, flaky pastries and vitamin-infused raspberry juice. The only complaint was that my toast was a little overdone but the staff recovery was smiley and pleasant. Maybe the school next door is on to something…
* Doubles from £89 B&B, wivenhoehouse.co.uk