Cherkley Court, now a hotel fit for a press baron

From the Financial Times, 28th September, 2017

beaverbrook hotel

By Henry Mance 

A couple of years ago, if you wanted to stay in a press baron’s house, your options were probably to befriend Evgeny Lebedev or to marry Rupert Murdoch. Now there is an easier way. The country home of Lord Beaverbrook, once owner of what was Britain’s best-selling newspaper, the Daily Express, opened as a hotel last month. 

It is fabulously lavish, and fabulously enjoyable. Located 19 miles from London, it offers views southwards over the Surrey Hills, and backwards towards old-style opulence. It is also an intriguing attempt to build a legacy for Beaverbrook, or Max Aitken as he was originally, a man who meddled in British life for decades without leaving many enduring fingerprints. 

 After making a modest fortune as a Canadian financier, in his thirties he moved to England and into the news business. “He knew a millionaire need never be lonely; he also found that newspapers opened more doors than cement or steel,” wrote the journalist Hugh Cudlipp.

 Beaverbrook bought his country house, then known as Cherkley Court, for £30,000 in 1911 — £2.5m in today’s money, or twice what he paid for the Express a few years later. He built in two swimming pools; the lights for one required so much electricity that staff had to forewarn the authorities to avoid a blackout in nearby Leatherhead. 

Few of the rich and powerful resisted the chance to stay: Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth Taylor, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill, and so on. 

Beaverbrook served as Churchill’s minister of aircraft production, helping to ramp up production during the Battle of Britain. The hotel developers — Joel Cadbury and Ollie Vigors, owners of the Bel & The Dragon restaurant chain — have therefore named the house’s 18 rooms after famous past visitors, and adopted the Spitfire as its emblem. They have accentuated the baron’s love of hospitality and alcohol, and have kept a library with some of his books. 

What is most refreshing, however, is their willingness to forget parts of the past, and overwrite others. This is not a museum. The food is Japanese, from a former Nobu chef; the decor plays to modern tastes. 

Any nostalgia seems to come with comic touches: some staff wear cricket jumpers; the artwork includes paintings of cows, with prize parts ridiculously out of proportion. This makes it easier to gloss over the less wondrous sides of Beaverbrook the man. 

Spitfire emblems aside, he was actually against Britain joining the war. Guests learn the baron died at Cherkley in 1964, not that he was still domiciled in Canada for tax purposes. You can stay in the cosy rooms of the The Garden House — also on the estate — without knowing that it was built so that his wife could live at a tolerable distance. 

beaver cherkley 1940

Lord Beaverbrook in 1940, at the house which was then called Cherkley 
© Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images 

Beaverbrook was a tough man to love. Even regular guests fell out with him — including Churchill (temporarily) and Kipling (permanently). Kipling scripted the insult, said by his cousin, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin, that Beaverbrook and the other press baron, Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail, wanted “power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. “They are both men that I would not have in my house,” Baldwin said on another occasion. 

Beaverbrook was unashamed. “I run my papers purely for propaganda,” he said. He argued it was “the duty of newspapers to advocate a policy of optimism” — optimism, in his mind, being a “frail and tender flower” that needed to be shielded from “the east wind of analysis”. 

So his Express was never much of a guide to reality (“Britain will not be involved in a European war,” it proclaimed in August 1939). But the journalists were at least paid well, and able to entertain — earning a daily circulation of 4m. By contrast, today’s Express, owned by the penny-pinching Richard Desmond, is a wreck. 

Amusingly, the hotel does not include the paper among its newspapers, opting instead for its rival, the Mail. Guests are therefore invited to reflect on Beaverbrook’s power and hospitality, but not the title that made it all possible. 

Beaverbrook the hotel succeeds in giving you the pleasures of power but removing you from its stresses. The food and drink — including the Garden House, an Italian homage to The River Cafe — are superb. The cocktail bar leads out on to the veranda, looking across the downs. There is a stroll around the lawns and crab apple trees, or an hour-long walk across the wooded 400-acre estate. 

A members-only golf course opened last year; a tennis court and spa are under construction. You wonder at the ambition. Beaverbrook already grows its own vegetables — it wants to make its own honey, and crush its own oils. it plans to offer cookery classes, and showings at the baron’s private cinema. The artwork keeps rotating. 

Before buying the Express, Beaverbrook the man sought the advice of Lord Northcliffe, the creator of the Mail. Northcliffe asked how much the Canadian was worth, and then declared, “You will lose it all in Fleet Street.” 

Perhaps those backing the grand revival of Cherkley Court could have used a similar warning: they have so far fought a long planning battle and reportedly invested £90m. But thank goodness. They understand the art of hospitality better than Beaverbrook ever understood the art of journalism. 

Henry Mance was a guest of Beaverbrook. Double rooms cost from £330 per night.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre