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Great Fosters
Egham, Surrey

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The central core of this extraordinary house was built in 1550, when it was used as a hunting lodge by Henry VIII, and by his daughter, Elizabeth I, but there was a dwelling here when records began in Saxon times. The U-shaped moat dates from 500 AD, when the water protected livestock from marauders, with a fortified farmhouse making up the fourth side. By the 13th century, the place was known as the manor of Imworth, or, because the area was thickly wooded, 'Great Foresters'. Now a Grade One listed historic monument, the house has become a small luxury hotel.

Great Fosters has changed hands many times since Tudor days - the present owners, the Sutcliffes, bought the estate in 1930 and have now owned the house for longer than any other family in its history - but the building itself has hardly changed since 1604.

The original ceilings are decorated with royal and aristocratic emblems, including the Tudor rose, the fleur de lys, the lion passant, Anne Boleyn's falcon and Queen Elizabeth's crest, dated 1598. In the panelled Jacobean hall, the ornate 17th century plaster ceiling is stained a dusky reddish brown by smoke from four centuries of log fires. The oak staircase dates from 1600, and is the earliest known stairwell without a central newel post. It winds up the Elizabethan Tower, past the dramatic first floor gallery, and its windows are hung with curtains sewn in 1798.

The first-floor Tapestry Room - hung with early 17th century Flemish tapestries - was once the drawing room, and is now the hotel's grandest bedroom. The ceiling, dated 1602, carries emblems of the Percy family, including crown key, scimitar and silver boar, collared and chained. The huge fireplace of carved oak and firestone depicts the story of
Adam and Eve.

Each of the aptly-named historic bedrooms is a gem. The Italian room has carved and gilded 15th century doors and statues from Florence. Other rooms have damask-covered walls or dark oak panelling, carved stone fireplaces, ornate plaster ceilings, and antique four-poster beds.

The three generations of Sutcliffes who run the hotel are reluctant to change anything, and alterations have maintained the character of the house and grounds. In the 1930s, a 14th century tithe barn was moved from its original site in Malden, to become a romantic banqueting hall. The swimming pool, also dating from the 1930s, has wonderfully eccentric bathing boxes, which are now a listed feature. Extra bedrooms have been built in the coach house, and in
new cloisters, across a courtyard. Last year, the Tudor kitchens were altered to form a vaulted dining room, with graceful, pale oak beams.

The 50-acre grounds include the Saxon moat, a formal knot garden and a sunken, circular rose garden - but here, alas, the 21st century impinges. The M25 motorway drones ceaselessly on an embankment just beyond the garden, and the din is only partly muffled by a high 'bund' planted with 25,000 young trees. Overhead, planes fly low as they approach or leave the runways at Terminal 4. The house is no longer an isolated hunting lodge in a Great Forest.

First published by Travel Intelligence Ltd

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