There’s a warm glow which comes when reading a newspaper article called ‘Cosiest pubs to stay in this winter’ and realising you are heading off to stay in one of those featured that very day. This happened to me recently when about to head off to The Bell Inn in the New Forest; reading The Times over my morning coffee I found that it had been singled out as the perfect place from which to enjoy bracing country walks (and to return to for post-walk drinks by its log fire).
Expectations were high therefore as I took to the road and thankfully I wasn’t disappointed – The Bell Inn is a charming place and I was fortunate enough to stay for two extremely cosy nights.
Having previously spent a considerable amount of time driving through the New Forest itself to get to various hotels I was surprised at how handy The Bell Inn is to get to – it was literally just a few minutes off the M27 so you don’t waste a moment snarled up in Lyndhurst traffic before getting stuck into some serious relaxing.
The Bell Inn has been in the Crosthwaite Eyre family for hundreds of years (since 1782 to be precise). Much of the food served in the restaurant has either been grown or raised on the family’s New Forest estate – some also comes from the family’s estate in Scotland – so the pub is very much a local enterprise and during my stay was preparing to host a dozen local suppliers in its annual Christmas fair.
I hadn’t meant to embark on an impromptu Champagne cocktail-tasting session just after breakfast, but in keeping with the overall spirit of relaxation and pampering at The Greenway hotel and spa Cheltenham it seemed the right thing to do.
It was my first time at the luxury Cotswolds hotel and indeed my first time at any hotel owned by The Eden Hotel Collection (there are eight in total) and I hadn’t a clue what to expect. It was only once I was there that I actually told anyone I was going, and instantly a friend posted on Facebook: ‘Lucky you! I think it’s the best spa in Cheltenham’, which was a promising indication I was in the right place.
The signs had been good from the very start. There was an imposing gate and lengthy driveway – the hallmarks of a country house hotel – and the instant we parked two people came out to greet us and help with our bags. The concierge, Chris, checked us in and showed us to our room with the minimum of time and fuss, which meant that, much to my surprise, I was bang on time for my spa appointment. Handily the Elan Spa at Greenway is located inside the hotel, so it’s incredibly convenient, unlike others where a spa visit is a trek to another building (in fact our bedroom was just above the spa).
Exactly 600 years ago, the Bel and The Dragon coaching inn was built in the pretty Berkshire town of Cookham and six centuries later, I took a friend with me to stay at the pub and see what it was actually like. Well, you don’t want to rush these things…
While it is officially 600 years old – there’s even an sign outside showing the date it was built, making it one of the oldest pubs in Britain – the Cookham Bel and The Dragon is now part of a thoroughly modern seven-strong Bel and The Dragon chain, part-owned by entrepreneur Joel Cadbury. It might have a long history but since the late 1980s it had been sadly neglected and was barely trading when bought out of administration. Now Cadbury and his business partner Ollie Vigors have spent several years (and no small amount of money) restoring the pub to its former glory, much to the delight of local residents.
In fact, my expectations of Bel and The Dragon had been pretty high before I had even set foot in Cookham, which isn’t always a good thing: just a few days before at a press party in London I had mentioned I was staying there at the weekend and a whole group of people – who turned out to be from nearby Bray – had excitedly talked over each other to tell me just how fabulous it was and how its head chef, Ronnie Kimbugwe, was just the very best. After such a write-up, it seemed that Bel and The Dragon could only suffer in reality. Continue reading Fine dining and summer cocktails at the 600-year old coaching inn Bel and The Dragon, Cookham→
Being named The Sunday Times’ Hotel of the Year, which The Painswick was just a few weeks ago, can be a double-edged sword. On the upside, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the news came out, bookings are through the roof and for a seven-month-old hotel, it is an incredible achievement.
The downside to that, is that some guests expect the hotel, tucked into a corner of the charming Cotswolds village of Painswick, to be well, rather grander. The Painswick doesn’t have a multi-million pound spa, acres of stunning gardens or a Michelin-starred restaurant, a private cinema (unlike its sister hotel and near neighbour Barnsley House) or an outdoor swimming pool (like its other Cotswolds relative, Calcot Manor.)
People in search of the ultimate bells-and-whistles hotel experience – dress code for dinner, a turn-down service – might want to search elsewhere. But for those looking for a friendly, cosy break where you feel instantly at home, where staff will offer to pick you up from the local pubs after a country walk and where you can fall asleep on the lounge sofa in front of the fire, The Painswick is perfect. Continue reading Cosy Cotswolds charm at The Painswick, Sunday Times Hotel of the Year→
Last week, at home, I had some of the best bread I’d ever eaten. It was a soft, brown loaf and tasted marvellous. Was it the ingredients, I wondered – organic wholemeal stoneground flour. Or was it the fact that I’d made the whole thing myself, under the expert guidance of the River Cottage cookery school? Either way, it taught me two things: one, that there is something really special about eating something which you’ve created from scratch, and two, there’s no way I’m ever buying a shop-made loaf again.
My one-day cookery course at the River Cottage was full of revelations. I like cooking, but I’m not a fan of lengthy, complicated recipes: more than five ingredients makes me think it’s not worth the hassle. However the dishes we made at the River Cottage were straightforward and easy to remember; as well as the bread we made Chinese fish parcels, faggots with onion gravy and fruit galettes, while feasting on extra nibbles such as beetroot and walnut hummus and crunchy salted caramel chunks.
However this wasn’t just a cooking-by-numbers exercise but cooking completely from scratch, so we learned how to descale and fillet freshly-caught pollock, we lovingly stirred and kneaded and rolled our bread while being taught all about yeast and sourdough, and we even formed an orderly queue to mince our plates of pig’s heart, liver and lungs to shape into the perfect faggots. All the time our good-natured chef Andy was fielding questions from our class of 20, some of whom were passionate foodies, others who were first-time chefs or, like me, keen to branch away from the same old recipes. Continue reading It’s a day of tasty foodie firsts at the River Cottage cookery school→