Bartle Hall explores its equestrian past
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 January 2016 | UPDATED: 21:06 18 April 2016
The owners of a newly renovated hotel near Preston are investigating its historic associations with horse racing, writes Eileen Jones
Lancashire has a grand tradition of horse racing but a less familiar venue for the sport of kings was around the grounds and estate of Bartle Hall, now an elegant country house hotel near Preston. Visitors with a modicum of imagination might, as they lie cosy and curtained against the dark, fancy that they can hear horses hooves galloping past their window.
Once upon a time, there were indeed horses galloping around the hall, which lies in the gentle pastoral landscape near the village of Woodplumpton. Every year there was a horse race, quite an occasion in the local social calendar, according to the owner, Andrew Haworth.
‘We get the impression that it was connected to a big fete or local celebration, something akin to the races at Cartmel today,’ he says. ‘It was a circular route and was probably a flat course. But that’s all we’ve been able to find out.’
The only horses now are the hotel’s magnificent framed paintings. These mounts, painted in the style of George Stubbs, go by the names of Roger and Asker. They were bought by Andrew and his wife Nicola to establish a link with the hall’s equestrian past.
Andrew, with his parents Peter and Pat, took over the hotel in 1991 and the intervening 25 years have been a labour of love to turn the former country mansion, set in 16 acres of garden and woodland, into one of the county’s most appealing and idyllic venues.
It’s already a favourite for couples getting married, with two distinctive choices, the Windsor Suite and Garden Room, and the Balmoral Suite. You can also have a wedding ceremony in a garden summerhouse, Parklands.
The latest venture of the Bartle Hall team – headed by general manager Chris Ashby - was to transform and rename the hotel’s restaurant, now called Nest. Its design has added a splash of modern elegance to the country-house theme. It’s decorated in grey and white, with voile drapes, and a dramatic splash of colour comes with the statement-making Villeroy and Boch crockery.
There’s a new executive head chef here, too, Craig Brown, who used to work at Lytham. He’s brought a very distinctive culinary style which owes a great deal to the surrounding Lancashire landscape – especially the cheeses. Craig adds a flamboyant twist to his dishes, so that black pudding comes with a Lancashire cheese crumpet, a crispy duck egg, and watercress. And the slow-braised pork belly is served with popcorn crackling, apple, celeriac, and cider jus.
In all, there’s a team of 42 full and part-time staff who work on wedding arrangements, conferences, food and general hospitality, with the hotel’s 16 bedrooms, some set off an historic courtyard.
Bartle Hall, which lies off Lea Lane, is on the site of premises which are known to have existed as far back as 1600. The earlier building had a small tower and was originally known as Sammy Field House. It was later renamed Leach Hall, part of which forms the core of the present building. The Genealogical and Heraldic history of the area mentions a Richard Parkinson, squire of Leach Hall.
Thomas Cowband, a Liverpool merchant, was living at the Hall in 1714 with his daughters Elizabeth and Rebecca, and his sons Richard and John. It was then in the hands of the Haydock family until it was bought by the Preston bailiff John Troughton who extended Leach Hall during the 1820s and planted more trees. Presumably among these was the now-enormous cedar tree which graces the hotel’s gardens.
In the 1850s the Hall was bought by Charles Birley, whose family fortune was based on mill ownership around the Kirkham area, and he renamed it Bartle Hall. Birley assumed the role of country squire and it was during his time that the social calendar was at its most expansive – including that annual horse racing event around the grounds, in those days more than 370 acres.
In 1963 the estate was drastically reduced by the sale of tenanted farms, Bartle Hall retaining the present 16 acres of woodland and gardens. It was sold again in 1984, still as a country house, until the Haworth family bought the property in 1991.
Since then Bartle Hall has been transformed into an elegant country house hotel, with individually designed bedrooms, and public spaces that pay homage to the past while being comfortable – and functional. Along the way, Andrew and Nicola met some partially-sighted guests who advised them about the best ways to improve access and movement around older buildings. They have taken note and incorporated recommendations, but more than that, they have become enthusiastic supporters of the Guide Dogs charity through their afternoon tea packages.
They also became involved with another charity, the International Aid Trust, almost by accident. During periods of decoration and upgrading, the Haworths – like owners of many similar hotels – were getting rid of old furniture which was still perfectly functional.
‘We discovered that the IAT need furniture, to recycle and redistribute to poor communities throughout the world,” said Nicola. ‘It made such sense to help them.’
Andrew and five members of the team recently took part in a charity sky-dive to raise funds for the IAT. The tally so far is more than £2,500.
He also enjoys horse-racing, and the Lancashire racing tradition has helped in his research about the Bartle event. His discoveries include a bespoke joinery company near Preston, Smithy Joinery, so-called, it seems, because originally their workshop was a blacksmith’s shop that serviced Bartle Hall back in the early 1900s.
‘I would be really interested to hear from anyone who has more information or knows where we can fill in some of the gaps,’ he said. And would he bring horses back to Bartle? ‘It’s a lovely idea but we don’t have the space now. But maybe croquet on the lawn?’