For at least a thousand years, the British landed gentry -- from aristocrats to country squires with small holdings -- left their undivided estates to their first born, usually male, heir. The practice, known as primogeniture, may not seem fair to modern sensibilities but it has left the United Kingdom with hundreds of historic country estates ranging from virtual palaces surrounded by thousands of acres to rustic but substantial Tudor farms. Maintaining them usually means opening them to the public, often as country hotels, and examples of all sorts of such hotels are within 50 miles of London.
The Grand Country Manor
Some of England's greatest noble houses were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their designers employed the finest artisans of the day to create elaborate plaster cornices, painted ceilings, tapestry-covered walls and fabulous Italianate or landscape gardens. Such houses were built to impress, often with special wings to house the monarch and his entourage -- just in case they came to visit. Although many of these grandest of English houses is open to the public -- Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Knole -- Cliveden is the only one operated as a hotel. About 40 miles from London in Buckinghamshire, Cliveden was built in 1666 for the Duke of Buckinghamshire and was once owned by Waldorf and Nancy Astor. Today it is England's grandest country house hotel.
The Victorian Vanity Estate
Victorian Britain was an industrial and colonial powerhouse. Mid-19th century fortunes were made in all sorts of manufacturing and trade. Socially ambitious Victorian industrialists built themselves huge country mansions, often in hopes of capturing a titled spouse for a son or daughter. Before becoming a hotel in the 1990s, Ashdown Park, built in 1867 for a Victorian millionaire, was a hospital and convalescent home for WWI soldiers, a convent and an international university. The hotel, on 186 acres in Ashdown Forest south of London, has an 18-hole, par-3 golf course, a converted chapel for dining and a spa with an indoor pool.
The Rustic Manor
Substantial stone farmhouses and manors, many dating back to the 14th century, are in use as guest houses, bed and breakfasts, and small luxury hotels all over Britain. The best, like Ockendon Manor in West Sussex, retain their original stonework, oaken beams and inglenook hearths. Ockendon, a Tudor manor house, has been owned by only two families since 1520. It has 22 rooms and suites that incorporate original character features of the house -- a private staircase in one, oak-paneled walls and a stone fireplace in another. The house is within easy reach of the South Downs Way, one of England's oldest long-distance walking trails.
The English Eccentric
Follies, private hunting lodges, romantic loch-side lodges, make-believe farmhouses where rich royals could play at being rustics in times gone by; some of the United Kingdom's most interesting country hotels were created to satisfy someone's eccentric tastes. Take The Five Arrows in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. An extraordinary mock-Tudor confection of elaborate brickwork, heavy oak beams and colorful tiling, it was actually built to house the workmen and artisans constructing a weekend hideaway, Waddesdon Manor, for a Rothschild. Now standing near the gates of Waddesdon, The Five Arrows (named for the Rothschild family emblem) is an 11-room, moderately priced country hotel. It's also the most unusual building for miles around, even, some would say, outshining the mock French chateau that Lord Rothschild had built for himself next door.