Cover Story

Having it all at Keswick Hall
By Rosemary Dietrick, Contributing Writer

Living like a lord at a country-house hotel near Charlottesville.

The golf course at Keswick Hall was designed by Arnold Palmer.

At first sight, the perfect English country house should take your breath away. Keswick Hall doesn’t disappoint.

A procession of Palladian arches punctuates the buttery-yellow facade of the Tuscan-style villa that commands views of formal gardens, a golf course, and rolling hills. Between two wings, an entrance courtyard leads into the Great Hall. Let the house party begin.

Thanks to the film “Gosford Park” and television’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” Americans have vicariously spent many a luxurious weekend in any one of Great Britain’s stately manor houses. In 1993 Sir Bernard Ashley, widower of designer Laura Ashley, turned fantasy into reality in the United States with his creation of Keswick Hall near Charlottesville. Today Orient-Express Hotels expands his vision of a romantic haven, tucked into Blue Ridge country.

General Manager Michael Pownall and Director of Sales and Marketing Douglas Camp confer at a breakfast meeting.

The Great Hall, its vast space replete with oil paintings, statuary, and deep-cushioned chairs and sofas, welcomes with a blazing fire in a massive fireplace. With salmon-colored brocade draperies glowing in the lamplight, the ambiance resembles a stage set. You half expect a cordial greeting from Maggie Smith or Judi Dench.

Your arrival has been anticipated. You check in at an antique table with a concierge who offers to schedule a spa indulgence or dinner reservations. Expectations soar.

As you’re escorted to your room, you notice telling details that reflect Sir Bernard’s sense of fun. At the end of a sun-filled, long gallery you’re teased by a trompe l’oiel “wooden paneled door” that slides open to reveal an elevator; inside you’re surrounded by Italianate frescoes.

The stone flooring for the Great Hall  was transported from French chateaux.

Upstairs, in wide hallways, plants and topiaries flourish under skylights. On the walls, sconces, with silver, fringed shades illuminate botanical prints and maps of various English shires. If you guess that the faux painted corner cupboard discreetly hides linens, you’d be right.

Cheryl Wolfington, rooms division manager, who worked with the Ashley family in the early days of Keswick Hall’s renovation, says, “It was exciting to watch the interior design plan emerge. Armoires in all the guest rooms were shipped from London and reassembled here; the stones – 4 inches thick – for the flooring in the Great Hall came from several French chateaux. Even the bathroom faucets came from London.”

The grand staircase in original Villa Crawford.

Each room’s décor is different, but all reflect an English sensibility from floral wallpapers and chintz to sophisticated stripes and brocade. You’ll find canopied king-size, four-poster beds, sitting areas with overstuffed ottomans, and carpets with Aubusson designs. In spacious, brilliantly lit, white-tile bathrooms are glass-enclosed showers, oversized or claw-footed tubs, heated towel racks, and baskets of English Molton and Brown toiletries.

Soon it’s time for tea in the north wing, originally the Villa Crawford, built in 1912. Marketing Director Douglas Camp, points out heart-pine floors, ornate ceiling moldings, and a grand staircase. The residence was built by Robert Crawford, an alumnus of the University of Virginia.

“In its later life, the mansion became a country club,” Camp says, “and after Sir Bernard purchased it in 1990, he tripled the size, making it into a 48-room hotel. Since acquiring the property in 1999, Orient-Express has continued his legacy of hospitality.”

Fabrics and wallpapers are from Laura Ashley archives.

For a spot to sip your Earl Grey tea, there are no fewer than four choices: the drawing room, the morning room, the library, or the snooker room (where games of billiards are played). Draperies and upholstery show off unique examples of the Laura Ashley private collection. Antiques, fresh flowers, and artwork soothe the spirit as does the perfect English tea — in your own silver teapot — complete with scones, clotted cream, finger sandwiches, and a dollop of lemon curd for assorted berries.

Settle into a sofa beside a red lacquered screen that sports a whimsical collage of fox and hound memorabilia: members of the Farmington Hunt Club (circa 1949); an aged program from the Orange Horseman’s Association Show; an advertisement for horse country homes “In Old Virginia.”

Guest rooms feature sitting areas and spacious bathrooms.

The library fits the manor house mold with floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases, holding books weighty in heft and content. General Manager Michael Pownall says, “Because of local writers like John Grisham and Rita Mae Brown, we plan to make this a reading room featuring Virginia writers, particularly in view of the annual Festival of the Book, held in Charlottesville.”

Because Orient-Express specializes in finding exceptional buildings in areas known for specific cultural and historical appeal, managers are encouraged in developing individuality and character of place. Pownall, who hails from Yorkshire, England, recently managed the company’s Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa. At Keswick Hall, he thinks that “the combination of unique facilities on spacious grounds will afford guests the opportunity to achieve complete relaxation by day’s end.”

Take tea — in your own silver teapot — in the drawing room, library or snooker room.

That he’s succeeding is evidenced in the hotel’s receiving AAA’s Four-Diamond rating as well as a place on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2002 Gold List of the World’s Best Places to Stay.

Guests at Keswick Hall feel they’ve been invited by a thoughtful host who has anticipated their every whim. Tennis, anyone? There are five floodlit courts. Golf? An 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed signature golf course lies just at the doorstep. Access to the adjacent Keswick Club’s swimming pool and fitness facilities includes massage and spa treatments. A spectacular new addition is a horizon-edge pool, just completed in May.

Curl up in the library with a book by Charlottesville’s noted author, John Grisham.

Such energetic recreation enables you to enjoy, guilt-free, Chef Bruce Macleod’s creative cuisine. In the dining room, the setting equals the eclectic menu: crystal chandeliers and candlelight show off murals of Tuscan scenes; in tiles surrounding the fireplace, whimsical figures of golfers in plus fours take practice swings.

Chef Macleod’s seasonal selections challenge with imaginative choices that often depend on Virginia ingredients. A starter features Powhatan’s Manakintowne specialty greens with sheep’s-milk cheese and cherries, while an entrée highlights Culpeper’s Summerfield Farms rack of lamb with smoked mozzarella grits, and fresh ratatouille. A tropical sorbet tower of pineapple, coconut, and passion fruit is a cool summertime treat. Local wineries stand out on the wine list.

Fanciful Italianate frescoes of Tuscan scenes decorate the dining room.

After dinner, peek into the boardroom down the hall. One wall dominates with a powerful mural depicting a huffing and puffing steam engine and two vintage sleeping cars — a tribute to the grand Orient Express known as the “train of kings.” Agatha Christie maximized its fame with her classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express.

 In 1977, American entrepreneur, James B. Sherwood, founder of Orient-Express Hotels, Inc., purchased two of the original Orient-Express sleeping cars from a Sotheby auction in Monte Carlo. He later located and restored additional railcars of the period.

A boardroom mural of a vintage train and sleeping cars recalls luxurious travel on the Orient Express.

In 1982, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express made its inaugural trip from London’s Victoria Station to Venice. Today the company operates luxury trains in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the United Kingdom, as well as hotels in 11 countries. The Orient-Express portfolio also includes ‘21’ Club, the landmark restaurant in New York City.

Celebrity sightings at Keswick Hall include England’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; American actors, Paul Newman and Michael J. Fox; British actor, Anthony Hopkins; and the Queen of Qatar.

A stay at Keswick Hall recalls the words of Henry James: “Of all the great things that the English have invented … the most perfect … is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house.”

70l Keswick Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22947

Rates range from $275 to $650 (double occupancy) and include afternoon tea and breakfast. In high season, a Golf and Spa package is $245 per person per day. A one-night Fireside Escape package for two is $390 and includes dinner for two and tea. Rates vary according to season; other packages are offered. Open to the public: Dinner a la carte three-course menu, $45; Sunday brunch buffet including champagne mimosas, $35. Call (434) 979-3440 or (800) 274-5391. Fax: (434) 977-4171; and .

Trip Tips

The Rotunda of the University of Virginia exemplifies Thomas Jefferson’s love of classical architecture.

Albemarle County in the scenic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is known as “Mr. Jefferson’s Country.”

His mountaintop retreat, Monticello, offers insight into Thomas Jefferson, architect, statesman, inventor, and gardener. (Annual outdoor naturalization ceremony for new citizens — July 4). Explore the grounds of the University of Virginia, the “academical village” he founded and designed. Visit Ashlawn-Highland, the home of his friend, the fifth president, James Monroe. (Enjoy “Music at Twilight” performances in the Boxwood Garden Wednesday evenings through July 26th).

Stop at Michie Tavern, an 18th-century ordinary where Colonial travelers found food and lodging; at midday, sample hearty fare of the period. Court Square in downtown Charlottesville recalls early days of town’s development when the county seat was moved here from Scottsville.

On the James River at Scottsville, rafts, canoes or inner tubes refresh with cool rides. Ferry aficionados head for the hand-poled Hatton Ferry that began operation in 1870s. Tour and taste at local wineries: Barboursville Vineyards; Burnley Vineyard; Horton Cellars; Jefferson Vineyards; Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery; and White Hall Vineyards. For an aerial view, float above it all in a balloon. For information, call Bonaire Charters at (434) 589-5717 or visit

To reach the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, call (434) 293-6789 or toll-free (877) 386-1103. Visit their Web site at:


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