Review by Fiona Duncan, published 26th November 2010.
I've passed Barnsdale Lodge a few times on the A606 en route to that sublime hotel, Hambleton Hall, but always dismissed the idea of investigating it. Too close to the road, too bland, probably too corporate. Not for me, I thought, as I whizzed past with my nose in the air.
Don't get me wrong, Barnsdale Lodge is not without it faults (there's a slightly homespun air to it, with evidence of naff doors, worn stair carpets and scuffed paintwork, plus a few less appealing bedrooms) but on the whole it's a lesson in how to make a fairly workaday three-star establishment into somewhere much more interesting. It's comfortable and welcoming, and a place that feels far more intimate than its 40-something rooms imply.
Located on the Exton Park estate of the Earls of Gainsborough, and formerly a farmhouse, it was converted into a hotel in 1989 by one of the family, Thomas Noel. For the past six years it has been run by Ed Burrows. Its rise from ordinary to excellent is well in hand and they've just been granted permission to build 17 eco lodges.
On a damp midweek evening I found a hotel jammed with people enjoying themselves and reckoned that, for the quality of the public rooms and the assiduousness of the service, the room rates were a really good deal.
My room (called the Carter Suite, but in reality, simply a large room) was excellent for the price. Between April and October it costs £150 at weekends; in low season (such as it is now), £130 or £120 during the week (£230 for two nights), including breakfast.
It has Chinese print curtains, pretty eau-de-nil coving around the ceiling and a plethora of early 20th-century French antiques, including a cane bed and distinctive lamps. If it feels a bit like an antique shop it's because the room was created by local emporium, Swans of Oakham.
The bathroom, like the rest in the hotel, is new (though I found the shower-cum-bath much easier to shower in than to lie in) with bathrobes as soft as cotton wool. There's a cafetière, an iPod dock, free Wi-Fi and a multichannel flat-screen television. There's a clock on the desk too… what a pity it told the wrong time; a small detail, but telling.
The ground floor is warm and welcoming, with a long, cosy flagstone hallway complete with original cast-iron stove still in use, a picture-filled, warm red sitting room and a sunny conservatory dining room, prettily decorated (though the twee hearts hanging from the stone wall are a pretty decoration too far in my steely hearted view).
Another dining room has a clubby feel fit for the hotel's aristocratic owner, and a lovely, spacious flower-filled courtyard bordered by bedrooms on three sides.
Some signs of wear and tear – the garish, heartless corridors that smell of bubblegum (soon, in fairness, to be redecorated) – and the annoying proximity of the main road are the only elements that I suspected I would find when I so wrongly used to whizz past, nose in the air.
- The Avenue, Rutland Water, near Oakham (01572 724678;www.barnsdalelodge.co.uk) Doubles from £95, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.
A hidden gem awaits if you walk or cycle (the hotel can provide bikes) into Exton Park from Exton village: on a lake filled with waterlilies and host to many swans is Fort Henry, a magical, mock-Gothic fishing folly built in 1788 for Henry, Earl of Gainsborough: a truly romantic sight. Walking or cycling round Rutland Water, straight from the hotel, is also highly recommended.
What to see
Visit to the two-year-old traditional bakery and shop (01572 812995;www.hambletonbakery.co.uk) that has been a huge success, with outlets in Oakham and Stamford, set up by Tim Hart, owner of Hambleton Hall. You can see the bakers at work kneading the dough and buy the delicious results: fabulous bread, cakes and buns. Also visit Barnsdale Gardens (01572 813200; www.barnsdalegardens.co.uk), a "theme park for gardeners" with 38 individual gardens created by Geoff Hamilton and now run by his son Nick.
Try The Fox and Hounds (01572 812403;www.foxandhoundsrutland.co.uk), in Exton, just down the road from the hotel, a pretty village full of thatched houses. It's a handsome building overlooking the green, with real ales and decent food, including exceptional home-made pizzas (the owner is Italian). Then there's The Horse and Jockey (01572 737335; www.horseandjockeyrutland.co.uk), with open fires, stone floors and good food in the lovely village of Manton on the south shore of Rutland Water.