I recently celebrated a significant birthday. Significant in my mind, at any rate. Or, otherwise: a birthday halfway between two other, recognisably significant age milestones. Anyway: it was a difficult birthday and a hellaciously difficult week and I am at a difficult age. Let that stand.
The upshot of my difficult week (or week of being difficult) in February was that I cancelled a planned birthday party and basically went into hiding for a period. I exaggerate a little for comic effect, but not so very much.
What does all of this have to do with Luton? Well, it’s probably worth saying that living in Luton has a somewhat clarifying effect on the bad times. There’s nothing quite like a dank, miserable day in Luton during an over-long winter to draw out and crystallise one’s misery (nothing, that is, except for the effect of a bleak day in really any other medium-sized town in the UK, and from experience I know that it is also perfectly possible to feel terrible in a place like Brighton on a blustry day), and living in Luton undoubtedly keeps you grounded during the good times as well. You can’t really get above yourself, living in Luton (unless you head to the airport…).
But what it really has to do with this post is that my birthday meltdown resulted in a number of my friends expressing a need to fête my ageing process at some point in the future. Chief among these was my very close friend, J—, who stated boldly that there should be such a thing as N—day, on which I would be thoroughly spoiled and generally indulged and taken somewhere nice through the magic of CARS. (I don’t own a car, so my territorial boundaries are very tied to a) places I can walk/run to and b) places I can get to by public transport; it should be said that my psychogeographical landscape is both more extensive than people may expect on this basis, and more detailed, hence: High Town Road, always; London, at the drop of a hat; Offley, you must be out of your mind*).
And Luton Hoo: well, that’s a place I can only dream of (it’s not that far, but there and back by taxi is a bit expensive), reserved for the most special occasions. So my friend and I went to Luton Hoo last week for a late lunch on what was possibly the most beautiful day we have had all year (the pictures that follow were not, you will note, taken last week but in mid-October 2012). It was lovely, and to her I say again: thank you.
The first thing you should know about Luton Hoo is that it’s in Luton: the clue really is in the name. You’d be surprised, though, at the level of effort harnessed by the combined forces of Hertfordshire to reclaim Luton Hoo as one of their own. The Wikipedia entry for Luton Hoo, for instance, carries the erroneous suggestion that ‘Luton Hoo straddles the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire borders between the towns of Harpenden and Luton.’ In fact, it does no such thing, and here’s the Ordnance Survey map of said Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border to prove it. No straddlin’.
But start searching for Luton Hoo online, and you’ll see that the search-engine optimised first hit links to the official website of Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa, which claims to be intriguingly located in ‘Luton, Hertfordshire’.
The text that appears in the browser tab also appears to be marketing a ‘Hertfordshire Hotel’. Well, knock me down sideways with a rubber spatula if that’s not news to me, and roll on the equity windfall which is surely mine if I now live, along with the rest of my 200k fellow Lutonians, in Hertfordshire, home to Harpenden and St Albans and indeed some of the most affluent places outside of London. My house would almost certainly be worth fully twice as much if it claimed to be in Harpenden (Hertfordshire), six miles down the road.
This Hertfordshire hoo-ha over Luton Hoo is not new. I remember (but sadly can’t find an online link to) an article in a local Luton newspaper from around the time that Luton Hoo reopened (in 2007) in its current guise as a five-star Hotel (Golf & Spa), that drew attention to the strange willingness of Hertfordshire to adopt this particular part of Luton that is, admittedly, quite close to the county line. If I remember correctly, the hotel’s defence was around the idea of optimising searches for posh hotels in and around the Hertfordshire area, which of course one more readily connects with a clientèle likely to be in the market for a premium hotel whose rack rates start at £280 and go beyond £1,100 a night.
Since I can live in my 2-bed Luton, Hertfordshire Edwardian terrace for a whole month for a good deal less than one night in their Mansion Principal Suite costs, I am sadly unable to offer a review of the accommodation. What I can afford, though, are occasional drinks on the terrace overlooking the garden and ha-ha and (as on this most recent occasion) lunch in the lounge, all of which are absolutely, emphatically ok and almost worth the amount that one pays for them. We went on a Thursday, and it was blessedly quiet, with the exception of a sinister-sounding ‘Mortgage Strategy Summit’ taking place at the same time. We were well-looked after, left largely in peace and I was graciously given a password to use the hotel wifi.
My experience has been that, as long as one is relatively discreet and don’t go in for indecorous picnicing, they are fairly permissive with respect to local poor types such as myself taking a turn in the grounds, though they take a more proactive and partial approach to both their hospitality and car parking on high days and holidays. I certainly do not begrudge Elite Hotels a cup of posh tea, or two (or even a classic Champagne cocktail) in return for ungrumbling access to the gardens, which are extensive, beautiful and remarkably varied: there are hidden gems worth finding throughout the estate, including a pets’ cemetery and an exquisite water garden.
There is also a distinctive Lutonian view across to the airport and particularly of EasyJet’s headquarters, instantly recognisable from their signature orange. While I’ve still not made it in to either of the two restaurants: the Wernher Restaurant (which, oddly enough, is marketed via the URL as a ‘Luton restaurant’ – they obviously don’t rate their chances against Hertfordshire’s finest) and Adam’s Brasserie, I’ve previously enjoyed lunch in what is effectively the golf clubhouse, the archly-named ‘19th’.
All of these facilities, though, are merest johnny-come-latelies in a far longer and surprisingly convoluted history of the house and estate, which can be traced back as far as the early 1600s; the current house dating from 1767, with significant remodelling and rebuilding over several phases and centuries (and indeed substantially in the early years of the 20th century). With grounds designed by Capability Brown, and numerous royal and VIP visits (including Winston Churchill in 1948), the house has lived through periods both of immense grandeur and sustained neglect. Much of the original house was destroyed in a fire of 1843 and it was not until the turn of the 20th century that the house was substantially taken in hand by diamond geezer, Sir Julius Wernher, who, I learn, rebuilt the house ‘in a lavish ‘Belle Époque’ style’.
Luton Hoo Estate, which no longer comprises the Mansion House which has become the Hotel (Golf & Spa), extends further and more meaningfully toward the Hertfordshire border and remains in the hands of the Wernher family’s descendants. The Luton Hoo Walled Garden, which is not accessible from the Hotel (Golf & Spa…) is a community project aimed at redeveloping the estate’s 5-acre octagonal walled garden originally designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and there are volunteer opportunities, as well as talks, courses and various social events. The house and grounds have appeared in a number of films, including ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (if the latter seems surprising, it may be worth knowing that Stanley Kubrick lived in Childwickbury Manor, which definitely is in Hertfordshire, from 1978 until his death in 1999.
So there you have it: a truly posh place that is absolutely Lutonian, and unquestionably coveted by our pesky Hertfordshire neighbours. To my out-of-town friends, I offer you Luton Hoo as a seductive gateway drug to Luton’s more hardcore realities. If you go halves with me on the taxi fare, I’ll very happily show you around.
*Offley is in fact on a convenient bus route out of town, but I have better things to do. My point is that it is not really all that far from where I live, as the crow flies, but since I’m unlikely to walk there it’s not really on my radar. I hear there may be a good pub in Offley, or Lilley, or possibly both, but I’ve never to it/them.