Cultural Retreat

At first glance The Cloudesley is an ordinary, if imposing, bed and breakfast establishment, with nothing much to hint that something more exotic lies within. We walk up the path past a whispering curtain of bamboo, over the inauspicious threshold and through some obligatory fire doors and find ourselves transported into a cultural oasis. Shahriar Mazandi, our charismatic host (photographer, garden designer, holistic therapist, bamboo specialist and artist) is anxious to make us feel completely at home in his unique and distinctive guest house and I'm sure his welcoming approach goes down well with the travel (and possibly world) weary guests that battle down from - well, sometimes just up the road, but also other more distant places, for some sea air and a few nights of peace. And there is certainly a sense of serenity and utter quiet here. If you want to watch television, you can think again, or bring your laptop, although Shahriar does mention that he's building an eclectic DVD collection, which so far includes several Hammer House of Horror films and some Ealing comedies. Perhaps to make up for the lack of screen offerings there are books - and not just the usual floppy copies of Georgette Heyer or Raymond Chandler; fabulous hardback books on Fine Art and Culture, Photography, Design and Travel are available for the guests to peruse and they're to be found everywhere in the house.

The Cloudesley gets its name from its location in the St Leonard's area of Hastings, which is named after a certain Admiral Cloudesley Shovell. Sir Cloudesley had a distinguished career until his last campaign fighting against the Spanish, when he caused his fleet to be shipwrecked off the coast of Devon. Cloudesley survived, but while lying on the beach recovering from his ordeal, he was discovered by a woman who, instead of rescuing him, and spotting that he was wearing a costly jewel around his neck, strangled him there and then and stole the jewel, only confessing to the crime on her deathbed. Shahriar smiles at the end of this story and adds, "It's a good job he had such an unusual first name, or the house could have been called the Shovell." In the front reception room there's an eye-catching patterned sofa and matching armchair in striking brown and fuschia pink. "These were such a bargain," chuckles Shahriar, "but difficult to fit into a colour scheme, so I have designed the room to fit them." And indeed harmony has been achieved between pink and brown using accent colours for cushions and other details, so the garish pink becomes opulent and tasteful, and now gives the room an exotic, but cultured air. Shahriar has designed the side lamps in this room and he has also devised the paint finish on all the walls throughout the house. He has used an organic eco lime wash, which gives depth to the colour and a soft, and rather apt 'cloud-like' appearance.

The five double bedrooms are named after Persian poets. They have all been designed by Shahriar, and are all slightly different, but whether they reflect the poets' tastes remains to be discovered. Each of the rooms has a distinct feel and décor and each has a story - or three - to tell. Shahriar leads me on a tour of the guest rooms (his own private quarters are at the top of the house). As we climb the stairs we come across a huge photograph of flames, manipulated using Photoshop into a giant fire design. It is one of a striking series of fire pictures made by Shahriar at considerable cost - to his face. "I got fed up with having to keep ordering expensive skips during the renovation of the house," he explains, "So whenever I could, I had a bonfire to get rid of some of the rubbish. Unfortunately one of the builders left an aerosol can or something among the things put out to burn and during the last bonfire, just after I'd taken the photographs, it exploded in my face - removing most of the epidermis of my skin." Shahriar seems fairly blasé about this. "Apparently women pay a lot of money for a similar effect when they have a facial peel." He has called the series of pictures 'Playing with Fire'. The first room we enter is called Hafez. It's a light and airy room on the first floor, with a four poster bed, boasting paintings by George Stubbs - "but not the George Stubbs," laughs Shahriar "however, they are of the Stubbs school". The room has a tranquil, airy feel and despite the fairly dark coloured walls is flooded by light from the huge bay window. Next is the Khayam. This room is painted a serene mauve/grey colour which sets off some framed photographs of vintage American cars - a small part of Shahriar's photographic collection of California's car culture. These are of historic 'Gatsby' style classics, but elsewhere in the house there are photos of lowriders, drag racers and hot rods. Most of the photographs that hang on the walls have been taken by Shahriar on his travels and during his time on the west coast of America. Apart from the iconic cars there are some amazing black and white photographs of gangland characters in puffed up poses, all beaming benignly for Shahriar's camera.

The theme becomes more tribal in the Saadi bedroom; African buffalo masks and a tribal figure stand tall above the fireplace. The colours are earthier, but very contemporary and the fresh white bedlinen and pale marble fireplace make a crisp contrast. We move into the Ferdosi room for a bit of gothic revival; the wall colours in here are lighter to make room for the rich, dark colours of the soft furnishings and Victorian furniture. Right at the top of the house is a room called Rumi and here the eco limewash on the walls really does become cloud-like. The simple contemporary furniture has a mirrored finish which enhances this. Seated serenely in a corner, as if to remind us that we're up near the heavens, is a stone Buddha. "I got some funny looks when I brought that one home in the car," laughs Shahriar. "He had to sit next to me in the passenger seat with his seatbelt on for the journey." The Cloudesley also boasts two treatment rooms where a range of holistic therapies and treatments are on offer from a small team of therapists. Shahriar is trained in massage, Reiki and Reflexology. He says that the dedicated therapy rooms are a great place for tired souls to renew their energies. "The majority of people want to sleep, enjoy a treatment and quietly relax." I'll vouch for that.

Back downstairs, we pass into the dining room, where Shahriar serves a unique range of breakfasts. He is happy to offer the standard English style morning meal, but along with this and some very healthy sounding fruit platters and porridges, has some more unusual and interesting offerings in the form of exotic (and often alcoholic) omelettes. I'm intrigued by the thought of a fig, bacon, prune and Cognac omelette, sausage, sage and courgette, or nettle, leek and goat's cheese, many flavoured with herbs from the garden. Wherever possible everything is organic and highly nutritious and he will only use Himalayan rock salt - apparently the purest form of salt - as a seasoning. The rear reception room has been painted a deep, warm red (I'm sure I read somewhere that reds and pinks stimulate the appetite - this room is right next to the kitchen, too) and is lit by a wonderful Italian chandelier. Wall lighting subtly illuminates the amazing tribal masks around the room that stare down (some rather menacingly) from on high. Shahriar has recycled some expensive remnants of the gold medal winning Lalique garden that he designed for the Chelsea Flower show - the fine Otta Phyllite paving stones have been cleverly used behind the woodburner in the fireplace.

Relaxation is on offer for the body and soul here, but there's also masses of stimulation for the mind - and not just provided by the books; Shahriar has a lot to say on a range of subjects, some quite startling. In fact he's a goldmine (studded with lapis lazuli) of information, and it's evident that he keeps his guests thoroughly entertained with stories of his travels and treasures. I came away impressed by the breadth of knowledge one could gain from spending a night or two here. So if you're looking for a civilised retreat away from it all, but on the doorstep, then The Cloudeseley might be just the place.

Address Book:

For more information on The Cloudesley, visit www.thecloudesley.co.uk or call 07507 000148. To see Shahriar's photographic work, see www.mazandi.com

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming