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where to stay in the cotswolds? a new-fashioned pub or a traditional country house hotel?
Lower Slaughter Manor is a beautiful seventeenth century house with a mostly Georgian feel to it. It sits in the very pretty village of Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds and it has a reputation as the ultimate place to stay in these parts. As a classic country house hotel, with great charm and charisma, it offers stately living and elegance by the mile but it tripped up from the moment we arrived. There was no warm welcome at the door (we carried our own bags to reception), no sign of a manager, and dinner, while perfectly all right, lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
There was little to fault with our room, though, with a supremely comfortable bed, luxurious linen and towels but someone had forgotten to leave soap in the bathroom. Room rate for our suite is listed at £470 ($734) to £635 ($992) a night. For that sort of money everything has to run like clockwork, the staff constantly on their toes, alive to guests in every possible way.
Hartwell House in the Vale of Aylesbury is bigger and even more grand. Its most famous resident was Louis XV111 and we were given the exiled king’s massive bedroom complete with a gargantuan four poster from which you could gaze out through any of six, soaring sash windows on to a classic park-land setting.
Once again things went wrong in the restaurant. It started with cold food on cold plates for our first course, which we sent back. A main course of sole was overcooked; errors like that put you entirely in the wrong frame of mind. General Manager Jonathan Thompson was full of apologies (the head chef was away that night) and he insisted that we dine again the following evening. It was much better. But for both of these classic country house hotels a level of depressing complacency seemed to have crept in. The surroundings and the grandeur of the buidings had been left to do the talking instead of the staff and the service.
They had better watch out, for there is a new wave of country pubs that has crept up on them, quietly stealing their thunder. Thanks to some clever and inventive new owners and chefs, little old pubs that were once struggling to survive have become chic and serious places to stay and eat. Millions have been injected into the ancient stone shells; old beams and flagged floors have been brought back to life and pukka, open kitchens create a special ambience which diners seem to have taken to their hearts.
Young, pleasant and smartly dressed waiters bring good and uncomplicated food straight from the stove. Before your very eyes chefs cook meals with seasonal, and wherever they can, local ingredients. Old English pies and plenty of game are on the menu, along with battered fish and steaks from charcoal ovens. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the Cotswolds, and room rates well below the bigger hotels.
The Wild Rabbit at Kingham is a good example. After months of renovation, costing a cool £1.5 million, it opened just over a year ago to great acclaim. The new owner is Carole Bamford, wife of the JCB magnate Anthony Bamford, who also masterminds the mind-blowing Daylesford Organic deli and spa just a few miles away. It has twelve rooms (doubles from £105/$164 B&B) some with four posters. All the rooms are named after native animals. Ours, quite small but cosy, was called Fox and it had a pair of baby, Belfast sinks in the bathroom instead of washbasins, a dry stone wall acting as a panel for the bath and carved hazel hooks to hang your coats on.
With a touch of magic everything clicked into place and kept bringing a smile to your face. There’s an attractive bar area, which you expect, but what about a dining room, where the open kitchen resides, along with a bread oven, glass fireplace and a feeling that you’ve just walked into a giant farmhouse kitchen? Head Chef and Gavroche trained Adam Caisely steers an organic menu offering such delights as potted rabbit £7.50/$11 and main courses such as roast partridge £21/$32, all nicely presented and delicious.
The Old Swan and Minster Mill in Minster Lovell is in the same vein. And once again it has fallen into the hands of a highly talented woman, this time in the form of Lana de Savary, wife of entrepreneur Peter who has a long history in hotels of various kinds, including Skibo Castle in Scotland. It prettily sits in sixty-five acres of beautiful Cotswold countryside with the River Windrush running through it. Grab a fly rod from the lobby and you can have a fat brown trout on the bank before breakfast or enjoy a walk in the wild flower meadows which surround the place.
A small decanter of sloe gin in our room was a real treat. A four poster bed had been squeezed in too and there was room for a sofa and an armchair. All very pleasant and quaint, we thought, as we gingerly made our way down the back stairs, which curved steeply and creaked towards an oak plank door. A click of the latch and a world of ancient beams, stone floors and crackling log fires lies before you.
A small table by a neat pile of logs was our chosen spot for dinner. Christmas turkey with the usual trimmings (no sausages, though) came piled high. It was quite refreshing to see a plate of food served with no frills but the Christmas pudding was disappointing. It looked as though it had been made as a tray bake, flat and dry. And the brandy sauce lacked the expected kick. Paté and roasted butternut squash risotto with sage for my wife was excellent (starters from £6.95/$10.86, main courses from £16/$25).
There are at least a dozen more of these innovative, gastro pubs lurking in the Cotswolds and in many ways it feels like a competition to see which one can be the best. The fact is they all seem to be doing well. New takes on these once down at heel, old fashioned English pubs have brought them back to life. The formula is lively, bright and unstuffy and most of us who experience them would also say they offer remarkable value for money.
WHERE TO STAY
Lower Slaughter Manor, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire, GL54 2HP
Room and breakfast from £185/$289
Hartwell House, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP17 8NR
Room and breakfast from £170/$265
The Wild Rabbit, Church Street, Kingham, Oxfordshire, OX7 6YA
Room and breakfast from £105/$164
www.thewildrabbit.co.uk Tel. 01608658389
The Old Swan and Minster Mill, Minster Lovell, Witney, Oxfordshire, OX29 0RN
Room and breakfast from £165/$257
www.oldswanandminstermill.com Tel. 01993774441
Keith and Lynne Allan are one time BBC Radio journalists who now make audio podcasts for websites and write for a number of British newspapers and magazines on travel and food.
They also run their own concept store called The Old Dairy in Ford. It specialises in antiques, vintage and interiors and at the heart of it is a fabulous coffee shop and small bistro where they are to be found most of the time. They love to cook on an AGA cooker and have recently become AGA Ambassadors, which means they help to sell AGA cookers by organising demonstrations and cookery classes. Their open kitchen and parlour is a magnet for customers.