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How nine years of restoration work transformed derelict Luton Hoo into a luxury hotel venue

PUBLISHED: 10:00 19 December 2018 | UPDATED: 20:04 23 December 2018

Luton Hoo.

Luton Hoo.

Archant

Milestone anniversaries for prestigious mansion house just north of Harpenden highlight the massive restoration project behind its transformation.

Luton Hoo.Luton Hoo.

It’s 10 years since Luton Hoo Hotel & Spa first opened its doors to the public, but the story of how this 18th century Grade I listed mansion house became one of the region’s leading luxury venues dates back much further than that.

Struggling with the weight of debts left in the wake of her husband’s suicide, Lucy Phillips, the estate’s last private owner, had made the unenviable decision of putting the Luton Hoo estate up for sale in 1997.

The £25m deal included the dilapidated stately home, 1,550 acres of parkland designed by the renowned Capability Brown, a 50-acre lake and more than 46 other houses and cottages.

But it wasn’t until January 1999 that the house was finally sold to the Elite Hotels Group, who immediately faced the arduous task of renovating and restoring their new acquisition, which had suffered decline throughout the 20th century.

A closet found in the Lady Butter Suite used in Four Weddings and a Funeral.A closet found in the Lady Butter Suite used in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The mansion was suffering from blown stonework and extensive dry rot, ornaments in the gardens had been damaged or stolen, and many of the beech, oak, chestnut, cedar and lime trees which were found in the parkland were in decline.

The finesse of the listed interior also meant they were only able to accommodate 38 bedroom suites out of the mansion’s 400 rooms, and the landscaping of the grounds restricted any additional building work.

Over the next nine years, and with close scrutiny from English Heritage, work took place to not only transform the estate into a profitable venue – including a five-star hotel, leisure centre, golf course and conference facilities – but also preserve its original features.

Not only was it necessary to understand the value of the Luton Hoo’s heritage, but more importantly to preserve that character at all costs.

The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.

It was a phenomenal project which required 175,000 metres of cabling, one million new bricks and 50 tonnes of lead on the roof, but also saw the resurfacing of 15,000 sq m of roads and driveways and the restoration of 27 chimney stacks.

It also required the owners to obtain numerous planning permissions for the changes they envisioned, and consultation with the likes of the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group, the Garden Historical Society and the Environment Agency along the way.

Architect Andrew Clague, who led the restoration, described it as a once in a lifetime opportunity: “One has feelings of enthusiasm, a sense of awe at the scale of the task which seems ever expanding as you think about it, and a sense of pride that one is playing a crucial part in the continuing history of this famous place.”

The 144 bedroom hotel was officially opened on April 11 2008 following a £66m restoration which included the planting and coordination of 30,000 trees, the transformation of the former stable block into a country club, and the construction of the self-contained conference and banqueting suite at Warren Weir.

The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.

Today the heritage and legacy of Luton Hoo is evident throughout the estate.You are walking in the footsteps of such luminaries as the Queen and Prince Phillip, Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary and Margaret Thatcher, through halls and rooms that each tell their own story, from the former Romanov chapel through to the staircase based on one found at the Ritz Hotel.

It was in the grounds of the estate that tanks were tested during the Second World War, and outside the house that Churchill addressed 110,000 people at a Conservative Party fete in June 1948.

Many of these milestones have recently been recorded in new commemorative plaques around the grounds as part of the anniversary celebrations.

But no look back on the legacy of Luton Hoo can be complete without a mention of the estate’s place in cinematic history, with appearances in the likes of Eyes Wide Shut, War Horse, Enigma, The World Is Not Enough, Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.

But it was Four Weddings and a Funeral which is perhaps the most well-known film featuring the house, with the cast seen in the ballroom, Pillared Hall, Pink Bedroom and terrace, and Hugh Grant hiding from amorous newly-weds in a closet found in the Lady Butter Suite.

From the award-winning Wernher Restaurant through to the grandeur of the Great Hall, from the exquisite suites to the Italianate Drawing Room, the sensitive restoration of this prestigious building is evident throughout, a testament to the care and attention bestowed upon it over the past two decades.

So the next time you visit Luton Hoo, whether for a spa day, a round of golf or afternoon tea, take a moment to consider the weight of history all around you, and the years of painstaking work it took to bring this jewel in the region’s crown back to its former glory.

The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.The Lady Butter Suite at Luton Hoo.

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