Heckfield PlaceA Wild Manor
“Just as Wildsmith left these woods for us to enjoy, we want to leave something for the future,” he says. “The work we do here is not for ourselves, for my daughter, or for her children, but for those who will inherit it in hundreds of years’ time.”
I arrive at Heckfield Place along a road fringed by dark green woodland and dense bracken. The soft red brick of the former stately home gleams for a moment as the clouds break overhead, a hint of wood smoke drifting from its chimneys. Tomorrow, I will have the chance to explore this expansive woodland, which occupies a significant part of the estate’s 400 acres. Originally planted by horticulturalist William Wildsmith, today it feels fabulously uncultivated. Hong Kong-born businessman Gerald Chan bought the house and estate almost 20 years ago. Under his direction, work is underway to rebalance the woodland and free it from invasive rhododendrons, while the Georgian home has been renovated into an intimate, luxury property.
Passing a small fleet of blue grey Land Rover Defenders, I step inside the main building. With a homemade cordial clinking in my hand, I walk through the carefully restored halls and staircases. Blackened fire places crackle and glow, the coat of arms of the Shaw-Lefevre family – the house’s original 18th century occupants – still clearly emblazoned on the dark panels behind the logs. Soft grey light floods in through tall windows as I walk upstairs. My room is furnished with sofas and armchairs in muted greens, and the airy, bright bathroom is stocked with Heckfield’s products. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is placed on a low table – a copy can be found in each room of the hotel – and paintings from Chan’s private collection hang on the walls. Carefully chosen books, in fact, are found throughout the hotel, across shelves, at bedsides, and on coffee tables. I feel like a guest in a spectacular family home. Through the windows, the grounds’ 19th century lakes and woodland draw my gaze, a fountain projecting its waters high into the slanting sunlight between Scots and Chilean pines.
Downstairs, jute carpeted corridors adjoining the main house lead to the Little Bothy Spa. Wrapped in a white towel, and after sipping a tonic of balsamic vinegar, honey and ginger, my skin is lavished with treatments from the hotel’s Wildsmith range, made from botanical ingredients found in the estate’s woodland. The spa is undergoing a major expansion, and a new suite will include a swimming pool raised to the level of the tree canopy. Elsewhere on the estate, a new dairy farm is nearing completion; a painstaking renovation of an 18th century barn is underway, and there are plans to plant a new arboretum. Having just opened after a six year delay, it seems Heckfield Place has no intention to stop evolving.
The next morning, Heckfield’s arborist Sam Crosse and I drive out to the woodland. Birches and oaks intermingle with Japanese pines and Lebanese cedars; tracks respectfully circumvent centuries-old trees, and deadwood is left in piles to attract birdlife. Stepping out into the cool air, we stand beside the Defender, crane our necks, and gaze up from the base of a staggeringly tall pine, its branches splitting the early light into beams, the top obscured from view. Green bracken covers the ground before us, its broad fronds, slick with dew, hanging over a carpet of brown needles. In the near distance, two monkey puzzle trees, a male and female, stand side by side, their crowns floating atop tall, bare trunks, the lower branches outgrown and jettisoned years before. I admire a copper beech to my left, its broad boughs twisting in unpredictable movements from years of seeking sunlight, its bark a ghostly, luminescent grey. As my eyes linger, Sam explains that his work as an arborist is undeniably an act of legacy: “Just as Wildsmith left these woods for us to enjoy, we want to leave something for the future,” he says. “The work we do here is not for ourselves, for my daughter, or for her children, but for those who will inherit it in hundreds of years’ time.” I consider the slow years of growth, ring by ring, of these trees. Unhurried, purposeful, enduring. Their importance for Heckfield Place is also symbolic; they embody its mission perfectly.