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
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