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Independent Minds: Andrew Grahame, Farncombe Estate

Turning the concept of the luxury country escape completely on its head, Andrew Grahame is the father figure to three sister hotels set within 400 acres of postcard-worthy Cotswolds countryside. The Farncombe family doesn’t follow any rules of formality, but instead indulges the inner child of every guest and will spoil you rotten in the way your favourite relative would, with an ‘access-all-areas anytime’ approach to hosting at these characterful homes-from-home.

Andrew Grahame

When developing The Fish, Andrew Grahame (pictured above) was heavily advised against rope bridges leading to the Treehouses as they weren’t deemed practical when carrying suitcases. Undeterred, he now thoroughly enjoys seeing grown adults collapsing in laughter trying to navigate the rope bridges with luggage which captures the very essence of Farncombe.

What was the inspiration behind Dormy House, Foxhill Manor, and The Fish?

The inspiration for Farncombe was the mediocrity I saw in other luxury hotels, hotels that forget to put the guest at the heart of what they do, instead doing what is easier and convenient for the team while forgetting who’s there for whose benefit.

I wanted to create unique, fun, guest-centric hotels that re-kindle childhood feelings for people to stay in to explore this stunning, unspoilt Cotswolds estate. Above all, I looked to create hotels and restaurants that emotionally connected with guests. Remember that feeling when visiting a much-loved aunt and she would say, “I’ve made your favourite” – well it is exactly that feeling I looked to re-create. When guests arrive, we use phrases like, “We’ve been expecting you” not, “Checking in?”

Dormy House came first, and was a modern interpretation of an old classic. We added the spa to make it unique and with the future in mind as we considered the Farncombe Estate in a more destination resort way. Dormy House was different in that it was once a working farmhouse and we re-created this feel, coining the phrase “Farmhouse Chic” as opposed to “Country House” which says stuffy and formal, both of which I hate and are out of step with the modern traveller.

Dormy House

Foxhill Manor was conceived after a rather awful experience at a luxury hotel at which I couldn’t walk on the grass, couldn’t read the books in the library, couldn’t sit in the antique chairs, and needed a jacket to have a drink in the bar. The bedroom, although large, was less well-appointed than my house so despite being booked in for four nights I left after one. On my way home I imagined a hotel that’s “like home but better” with no rules, a stay wholly on the guests’ terms and that was the inspiration behind the UK’s first private house hotel.

Foxhill Manor

The Fish was created as a back-to-nature bolthole for adults featuring huts, lodges and treehouses all set in a picturesque rural location. In creating The Fish we had to be careful not to self-compete and had to create something complementary to the other two hotels. When developing The Fish, I was heavily advised against rope bridges leading to our Treehouses as they “aren’t practical” when carrying suitcases. They were right but it did not stop me, and seeing grown adults collapsing in laughter trying to navigate the rope bridges with luggage captures the very essence of Farncombe. Within every adult is a child who wants to be noticed, cared for and entertained.

The Fish

Inspiration comes from listening to our customers and delivering hotels that really entertain, if we think about what we do as just selling bedrooms and meals we will immediately cease to be relevant. Primarily we must view ourselves as entertainers.

How do you think Farncombe stands apart from other boutique hotels?

Hotels are all about how they make you feel. No one remembers chandeliers and marble floors when they get home, they remember the team and how they felt. We recruit incredibly carefully with “will, not skill” in mind.

We have spent a lot of time on the look of the hotels, they are very design led – each area must have identity and a feature, be it a fire or a statement piece of furniture. With Danish owners we look to create a sense of hygge in our hotels, cosy corners to make our guests feel good and escape the challenging world that surrounds us all.

The Fish

Most importantly our hotels are 100% guest-centric. Guests are not told what they can and can’t do, instead they are asked what they would like to do and when, and our team facilitate delivering the stay they want. To support this vision, we have built a compelling sense of family on the estate, nurturing a “rush to help” mentality that is obvious to guests and spreads well beyond the estate. We may be a country estate with three small luxury hotels, but I want Farncombe to be a force for good, a movement. Our Hill is our cause.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for each of the Farncombe hotels, what would you recommend a guest must do?

To get a taste of all three hotels I would wake up in our Studio Suite at Dormy House, the largest of our suites at Dormy. It has its very own lounge, en-suite bathroom and curated vinyl collection with turntable and state-of-the-art sound system and headphones, perfect for kicking back, relaxing and immersing in soulful sound. Characterised by the clean lines, soft curves and natural materials that are the hallmarks of modern Scandi design, it is most definitely a room that makes you feel like a rock star.

The Back Garden

In the morning I would head down to The Back Garden restaurant for a full Dormy breakfast before drifting into the House Spa for a full massage. All our therapists are personally trained and coached by Beata Aleksandrowicz (the ‘go-to’ massage expert in London) who is an international expert on massage and the creator of the Pure Massage Spa Training Method® which provides spas worldwide with advanced training in a modern concept of massage.

From here I would be chauffeured down to The Fish Hotel, in one of our Thunderbirds. We recently bought three hybrid cars, one for each hotel, to help transport our guests around the estate – very practical for what we need but I thought they were a little bit boring. As a huge fan of Thunderbirds as a kid I decided to get them wrapped. Thunderbird 2 arrived first, with Thunderbird 4 due anytime and of course there will be FAB I at Foxhill Manor (where else?!) . I would then explore the Hilly Huts, Hideaway Huts (all named with the traditional Farncombe humour) and our Treehouses which are set amongst established trees in a commanding elevated position – they feel quite remote but are only a few minutes’ walk to Hook, an outstanding restaurant and bar. This is where I would settle for lunch, either in the restaurant or have sliders by the fire. After chatting to the team (they do love to chat) I would be planning my next birthday on the Feasting Deck. I would also make sure to sample one of Harvey’s infamous cocktails.

Then I would head to the boot room, don some wellies from The Muck Boot Co. and grab a map, then head off to the picture-postcard village of Broadway, ideal for those who love picturesque landscapes, excellent cuisine, a rich cultural heritage, and unique shops that you won’t see on every high street.

Oak Suite, Foxhill Manor

Time to call the wonderful Foxhill Manor Hosts to come and collect me. I would stay in our Oak Suite at Foxhill, with amazing views and double bathtubs – this suite has been a firm favourite with our celebrity clientele who just want peace and indulgence for a few days. I would swan into the kitchen like lord of the manor and discuss what I would want for dinner with our Head Chef Richard, and I would opt for the tasting menu and drink a 2019 La Tour de l’Évêque rosé made by Regine Sumiere, once of Provence’s most prolific wine makes (and a great cook). I would have to finish the dinner with a request for the Tart Tatin and Calvados Ice Cream inspired by our Culinary Director, a two Michelin Star Chef, Martin Burge. Lastly, but by no means least, I would raid the pantry and finish my evening with a good film and a night cap in the media room.

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

I want to feel expected. I want some dialogue before I arrive at a hotel in order to know that my stay is important to them. I don’t want to be asked 100 questions on check in, I want a drink in my hand and to be promptly taken to my room. We have no formal receptions within our hotels, they’re a barrier and they suggest formality and process rather than informality and a warm welcome.

Farncombe Estate

It frustrates me that some hotels do not put the guest at the centre of what they do and some hotels that do not invest in their people and product and then wonder why they are becoming irrelevant. Prescriptive hotels, those hotels that tell you what you can and cannot do, everyone must fit into their box of rules, are the opposite of my perfect luxury experience – we have to be flexible, more so now, than ever.

I think its important to remember that we must keep reminding our leadership teams, especially our General Managers, that they need to be the voice of the guest and not the voice of the owners – if we forget this, we lose sight of our purpose.

Do you have a vision for the future of the estate?

The sustainability plan is an integral, interwoven part of the long-range plan. We consider sustainability in the broadest sense, covering all aspects of the estate’s environmental and community footprint as well as our role as a significant employer. We are committed to being responsible owners and stewards of a portfolio of assets which are aligned with the values and support the purpose of the assets which must all “contribute to a Better Future” and have a positive impact.

We want to keep a very high level of integrity about this and we will not fall into any green washing traps and ignore the sustainability of the Farncombe family. We look to make sustainability core to the customer offering, and have developed an interesting “Farncombe-style” approach to the way sustainability is presented to potential guests during their visit.

Currently the estate is predominantly the three hotels, but we have started to diversify our business and react to the changing demands of a post-Covid world by creating luxury self-catered houses; all part of our new Hillside Hangouts brand.

Farncombe Estate

Farncome Estate

Farncombe Estate

Some of the Farncombe family’s friendly faces (from top left to right) – Josh Jones, Deputy Head Housekeeper at Dormy House; Liam Fry, Demi Chef de Partie at The Fish; Ruby Goodman, Senior Waiter at Dormy House; Natasha Steane, Chef de Partie at The Fish; Trestan Wilson, Senior Chef de Partie at Foxhill Manor; Hannah Roberts, Operations Manager at Foxhill Manor.