Through the Looking Glass
“‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’” “What is the use of a hotel,” thought Timothy Oulton, “without whimsy and curiosities?” With Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his inspiration, the designer set out to transform the interiors of the Glazebrook House Hotel into a sophisticated backdrop with hints of surrealism tucked into its warren of rooms that takes visitors right through the looking glass with Lewis Carroll’s explorer.
Given that January is the month Lewis Carroll was born and died, it’s an excellent time to go through the looking glass with Oulton as he channels the author, don’t you think?
And what better guide could we have for our journey than the mischievous Alice, who is lounging in the inviting main room of the hotel when she spots a white rabbit pulling a watch from its waistcoat? She shoots to her feet when she hears it say, “Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I shall be too late!”
“Burning with curiosity,” Alice runs across the beautifully aged carpet, rounding the corner just in time to see the White Rabbit disappear through the door to the bar. At the snap of a finger, in goes Alice, “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
Alice in Wonderland Has a Drink in Devon
She takes a seat by the roaring fire, keeping the White Rabbit in sight as it sips a glass of champagne perched atop one of the roomy stools. So many out-of-the-way things have happened lately, she thinks to herself as her martini is delivered, but very few things indeed are really impossible, especially not a fantastical hotel set within the bucolic Devon countryside! Lucky for us, readers, Alice is a dreamer.
Startled when she hears, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” wafting from the lobby, she notices how the White Rabbit is equally unsettled, his surprised expression growing cross as he turns in her direction.
“Did you see my fan and white kid gloves?” he asks.
“No,” she answers, telling a small white lie. “I’ve been too busy mulling over my conversation with the Rose and the Tiger Lily to pay any attention to you.” Seeing the tightening of his mouth at her rebuke, she gently adds, “They are in the Garden of Live Flowers; have you seen it?”
“No,” he answers.
“Follow me and I’ll show you a place where molds mimicking floral mouths whisper words from the wall.”
Leading him into the restaurant, she says hello to the rich red roses that rise from the big brass urn. In turn, they reply, “It isn’t manners for us to begin, you know…and I really was wondering when you’d speak!” The White Rabbit fingers his watch-fob, taking his leave once Alice becomes distracted by their little shrill voices that begin to fill the air.
When she turns to find the White Rabbit gone, she realizes the excitement of the day has made her weary—tiredness only a tub filled with scented water can ease. Rushing upstairs, she steps over the threshold of her sumptuous bathroom and feels a shiver of relief. Standing in the chic space, she looks in all directions and declares, “It’s marked out just like a large chessboard!” Tiptoeing across the tiles in geometric on slant, she opens the tap to fill the tub with deliciously warm liquid.
Luxuriating below the water’s surface, she wants to linger and linger and linger but she’s dining with Tweedledum and Tweedledee so she eases out of the bath and chooses one of her finest frocks for the evening. Her friends are lively as ever and as they recite their latest ditty, she makes a mental note to buy them the slim volume of sonnets she saw in the local bookshop. She’s enjoying their laugher when suddenly a silence falls upon the room and she sees the regret in the eyes of her dining companions.
The trio of confidants have enjoyed every last oyster and, though each knows that certain sacrifices are necessary—such as the ones made by the mollusks—they also feel the need to honor them. By the time the bottle of Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill champagne is finished, they are back to their old selves.
Alice waves goodbye as they verse their way out the door, eager to enjoy her last luxurious night at the hotel. Her dreams that night are filled with walruses and carpenters, rhymed and metered language rolling through the stories her psyche insists on telling. As she prepares to depart the next morning, she realizes this has been one visit she wishes wouldn’t come to an end but home and a darling cat beckon.
“By the way, Kitty, if only you’d been really with me in my dream, there was one thing you would have enjoyed,” she tells her pet as it contentedly climbs into her lap. “The sofas were roomy, the carpets were soft; the hotelier was friendly and my visitors divine!”
Thinking of all the happy stays of all the lucky travelers who will find their way to the hotel in the future, she strokes the cat and softly sings:
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
“Did you hear that, cat?” she asks as it arches its back toward her caress; “Tweedledum and Tweedledee have given me an earworm with their silly poetry!” She lifts the feline’s face to hers and says with gravity, “Now Kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all.” As it nuzzles her face, she holds up a photograph and adds, “This is a serious question, my dear, as my visit to the country on the other side began through that door. Beyond that stone archway, lit by a dazzling display of light, was the beginning of my magical days and dreamy nights!”
Design Details of the Glazebrook House Hotel
Though it was Oulton who dreamed the design experience, it was actually Fran and Peiter Hammans who started it all. The couple bought the property in 2013 and knew they wanted to create something special so they asked Oulton’s team to gut the place and set about a ground-up renovation. They talk about their inspirations and their desire to collaborate with Oulton in the video below.
Simon Laws, Oulton’s project designer, carried out the identified thesis, which was creating an atmosphere befitting a 19th-century collector’s house and a fantasy setting where people can escape to a unique experience.
A friendly fire-warmed bar exudes the old-world charm of a gentlemen’s lounge with cozy tufted leather walls and a red marble bar. On one deep purple wall in the hotel, a display of magnifying glasses reveals the pages of Alice’s adventures. Hanging in the restaurant, an elaborate Florentine mirror, hand-carved from reclaimed wood, complements silver platters with varying states of patina and white vintage china—the effect, whimsical with an edge.
Nearly 900 curiosities offer notes of surprise—rows of vintage hats celebrate the Mad Hatter, retro musical instruments and antique English street signs harken back to Carroll’s bygone time, and the animal kingdom is well represented to bring Alice’s story to life—a statuesque flamingo accompanies a lofty ostrich on the main floor, and life-like owls lurk upstairs. Besides the restaurant and bar, the hotel holds a whisky- and wine-tasting room, a library (might a Carroll book or two be on the shelves?) and a fully equipped conference room.
There are nine guest rooms named after characters in two of Carroll’s books, the first, Through the Looking Glass, and the latter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865 at about the same time as the original farmhouse on the property was converted into a grander manor. Oversized 19th-century playing cards are hanging in their frames above the sheepskin bed in the White Rabbit guest room. In the Mad Hatter’s room, dollhouses are theatrically mounted above the curved leather headboard.
Other rooms are dedicated to the Jabberwocky, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Bread and Butterflies, the Gryphon, the Cheshire Cat, and the Caterpillar. The mesmerizing marble floors in the luxury black and white bathrooms like the one that fascinated Alice are set with ancient motifs that create three-dimensional illusions. And all of the furniture in the hotel is handmade—shipped to the UK from Timothy Oulton’s artisanal workshops.
Channeling Lewis Carroll as a Design Thesis
About the spirit of imagination and light-heartedness with which Oulton and his team imbued the entire hotel, he says, “It brings a smile and it’s not at all serious, though, as always, we’ve filled the rooms with sophistication and taste—just a more playful take on them.”
In Lewis’s tale, the Cheshire Cat would have you believe it doesn’t matter where you walk, but if you are fortunate enough to visit Glazebrook House Hotel, Chris Moss advises differently. In his review of the property published in The Guardian, he suggests a stroll from Peek Moor Gate to Ugborough Beacon because you’ll see buildings and monuments dating from the Stone Age to the early 20th century in half a day’s time. If you’ve taken the trek and you have shots of these historical gems, send me a twit pic or call me out on Instagram, would you? And if you happen to bump into Alice playing croquet with a flamingo, tell her I said hello!
*Footnote: some quoted material is from Lewis Carroll’s books and some is dialogue I’ve created to heighten the immediacy of my storytelling. I in no way intend to take credit for the author’s material.
The Modern Salonière and this entry, Through the Looking Glass into Devon, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.