Outside, the sign is so discreet, you almost miss it. Instead you are faced with an imposing, glossy black door, which is perfectly fitting for Upper Berkeley Street, a road that sits between Marble Arch and Marylebone. It’s not until you spot the unmistakeable blue plaque, that you know you are in the right place.
The recently-opened Henry’s Townhouse may have one foot in the past, as an historic, Grade II-listed Georgian property, but it also has one eye on the future when it comes to how people want to live when away from their homes. Not quite a hotel and much more than a home rental, this is an ‘exclusive-stay’ house, with seven suites, a drawing room, terrace and dining-room-pantry.
Given our surreal almost-post-Covid times, it turns out that Henry’s is also bang-on-trend for right now, offering privacy, seclusion, luxury and flexibility. Throw in the fact that the house once belonged to Henry Austen, brother of Jane, and it’s ticking every possible box for the well-heeled traveller.
Owner Steven Collins, renowned in the property world and director of Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, knew he was onto something special when he heard that the freehold lease was up for sale – a rarity in this part of London. It took two years to renovate the run-down B&B and to return it to its former glory – a job that Steven did with his wife Jane Collins – well known for her expertise in the antique field – and in collaboration with noted design studio Russell Sage Studio (The Fife Arms and The Zetter Townhouse are just two of their past projects).
“When we bought it, the house was monstrous,” laughs Steven. “All the period details were covered up, so we had to strip it back and start again. You could never have imagined it could look like this. But I could always see the potential. I also immediately realised it was the perfect size for a private, exclusive-hire home.”
Step inside the hall and you are instantly transported back to the Regency era – there are thick, inky-black velvet drapes around the door, globe lights, a grandfather clock, and grandiose portraits in gilt frames, one of which is a rather severe depiction of Henry himself.
“I’ve created a theatre,” says Steven. “At first you think, you have stepped back in time, but, after all, this is London – so we’ve added the requisite sprinkling of glamour.”
The glamour comes in the form of the many fine details guests will discover: rooms are air-conditioned and there are Dyson hairdryers in each. There are full-size, organic L:A Bruket bathroom products, uber-luxury linens and plush towels. It feels five-star and more. All rooms also have luxury en-suite bathrooms – with standalone tubs, power showers and pretty geometric-tiled floors. Chefs are on tap for those who wish it, shopping can be delivered and events organised.
The basement dining room, dominated by an Aga cooker set inside the original fireplace, has a scrubbed oak table, to seat at least 14 guests and is perfect for celebratory dinner parties. The panelled walls unfold to reveal a TV and a hidden-away working kitchen so it’s equally usable if you want to hunker down and cook for yourself (there’s also a professional chef’s kitchen behind the scenes).
The house also features an outside terrace and a tiny snug, which is fashioned like a vintage railway carriage, with tasselled velvet furniture – the closest thing to having your own private cocktail bar. Check out the first edition Jane Austen novels.
“The real selling point of Henry’s is its flexibility,” says Steven. “It can be hired for all different reasons, which is why I think it is what people really want now – from sensational house parties to long-term stays, corporate events to weddings groups. It’s also perfect for friends and families to reconnect. We make every stay bespoke – so whatever you want, we can make it happen.”
Like little treasures to discover, there are nods to the house’s history throughout the house which seem to reveal themselves the longer you stay. As well as having a varied career as clergyman and as captain with the Oxfordshire Militia, Henry Austen also tried his hand at writing. He was editor of bi-monthly journal, The Loiterer and Steven has playfully revived it with Henry’s own version. Placed in the rooms, the new The Loiterer newsletter for guests will detail events and things to do and see in the area.
Meanwhile, the rooms – all with their own unique designs – reference a variety of Austen’s relatives, bringing the history of the property to life. Cassandra – named after a cousin – is perhaps the most classically Regency-styled bedroom, with its china-blue colour scheme, twinkling antique lights and oil portraits. On the ground floor, the smallest bedroom – Henry’s – has an almost ecclesiastical feel, dominated by a mahogany, four-poster bed covered in a smart, burgundy pinstripe fabric, and brightened with crimson velvet cushions. Walls are rose-pink, making the room cosy and snug.
The most lavish room of all is perhaps Eliza, found two floors up, and named after Henry’s wife. A French-style gold upholstered four-poster is trimmed with antique lace – sourced by Jane – which also delicately runs around the lampshades and is, in turn, reflected in a framed lace-fan. Due to planning confines, which meant the en-suite bathroom had to be adapted so as not to touch the ceiling, the team resourcefully ensconced it instead in a jaunty stripped fabric ‘tent’.
Downstairs is the drawing room – Jane’s Reading Room – the sort of space where you can imagine you’d once have entertained guests of an afternoon and dispatched your daily correspondence. These days, it’s just the space to enjoy afternoon tea, created by an in-house chef, or to kick-start your evening with a glass of bubbles. Windows are dressed in elaborate lilac curtains to contrast with the sage green walls, while the sofa has a pretty apple-green canopy over it. Fanciful violet velvet stools sit on a Persian rug and a huge chandelier dominates the room.
“Colour is Jane’s domain,” says Steven. “She just has an eye for it. Just look in Phylly’s bedroom with its terracotta walls, lilac sofa and a mustard bed! It shouldn’t work but it does. She is also wonderful with fabrics and sourced many we used throughout the house in vintage markets. While we wanted to celebrate the house’s history, we didn’t want it to look dowdy and the colour schemes are warm and cheerful.”
“Meanwhile, Russell Sage’s expertise lies in historic properties,” he continues. “In fact, they bought the Austen connection to my attention – I didn’t know about it when I bought the house! They set about researching the house’s history and discovered who once owned it.”
As art collectors, and also owners of sister property Temple Guiting Manor, Barns & Pantry in Gloucestershire, the couple have ‘borrowed’ from their own art collection to adorn the walls with a rich tapestry of art – from 15th century oil paintings to turn-of-the-century portraiture. Antique furniture – such as a yellow chinoiserie dressing table found in Eliza’s room and chests used to house bathroom sinks – have been thoughtfully placed.
Meanwhile, resident housekeeper Ann Grimes is on speed-dial if you should need her – nothing is too much trouble. You can use a vintage phone to call down to her basement flat, or she’ll give you her mobile number, just in case you should think of something on a sudden whim – very fitting for the old-meets new vibe.
“Ultimately, we have drawn from the strength of what we have here,” says Steven. “We are not competing with hotels – we are totally unique and we offer something different. Something more intimate and charming. The beauty of Henry’s is that you can truly feel like you have accessed something belonging to a bygone Britain. We’ve tried to recapture that elusive essence of the past with the atmosphere and aesthetic. Yet, at the same time, this is somewhere where you will feel remarkably at home.”