1 June 2007 by Duncan Mills
An Englishman’s home might be his castle, but for one notable Englishwoman at least, a French chateau was very much home. Dating back to the thirteenth century, and after numerous improvements by its various owners - most of them powerful local lords - the historic Chateau de Bagnols near Lyon fell into dereliction after World War II. It sat, as imposing as it had been for almost eight centuries, a solid hillside fortress surrounded by a dry moat, with its honey-coloured pierre doree stonework standing out against the green hills of the Beaujolais. Yet it badly needed a makeover. In the early 1980s came its salvation, when the fading Chateau was acquired by an Englishwoman, the fashion designer Lady Helen Hamlyn, and her husband, the publisher Paul Hamlyn. Lady Hamlyn set about transforming the Chateau, and over the course of four years created the five-star deluxe Chateau hotel that we see today -a place regarded by some as the finest vineyard hotel in the world. And you can see why it has earned that reputation.
Recently added to the Von Essen hotels group, guests are welcomed wholeheartedly by the friendly staff, and receive the same kind of regal treatment that Charles VIII might have enjoyed when he visited the Chateau way back in 1490. In the Salles des Gardes, the hotel’s Michelin-starred main dining room, a coat of arms marks his stay. As they were then, meals are still eaten in view of a magnificent Gothic fireplace - said to be the largest of its kind in Europe, and resplendent with effigies of chivalrous knights and winged beasts. It’s a grand hall, yet manages to retain its intimacy as you tuck into a menu of wholesome regional flavours and crisp Beaujolais wines. The veal mignon was tender and sublime, cooked in front of me, carved and presented theatrically. A fine choice of regional cheeses followed, ranging from veiny blues to delectably ripe brie, and then a delicately crafted desert topped by flaky caramel and gold-dipped chocolate.
Breakfast the next morning, a king’s ransom at 30 Euros for a boiled egg (I ordered scrambled) was my only real quibble, but soon forgotten by a spell on the sun terrace with a book, followed by a stroll through the cherry orchard in the gardens, the smell of fresh cut grass hanging in the air. The views from the grounds are stunning, and in the summer the hotel can arrange late afternoon balloon flights through the valley. The garden was designed by Lady Hamlyn and her deft touch and eye for detail stands out in every aspect of the Chateau - such as the porcelain, glass and linen which she commissioned following designs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the assorted tapestries, antiques and other fine furnishings around the hotel - many of which were taken from her personal collection.
Additionally, a number of fine Renaissance frescoes were revealed, some of them quite unexpectedly, during the hotel’s renovation. The public spaces are certainly grand, but the hotel’s bedrooms are distinct and personal. I stayed in La Tour Des Rondes, a snug round tower at the top of the hotel where knights or archers would, long ago, no doubt have been positioned to defend the Chateau in the event of an attack. The original narrow windows set into thick outer walls remain, while a carved wooden angel dating from the eighteenth century, suspended in an alcove in the ceiling, ensured that I got a sound night’s sleep. Another one of those lovely, homely Hamlyn details.