Review by Fiona Duncan, published 20th April 2008.
You know those television programmes where a naïve couple throw in the day job to buy a run-down hotel and testing times lie ahead? Many of the hoteliers that I meet would be a programme researcher’s gift, but none more so than the new owners of Bridge House.
All the ingredients are there. Mark and Joanna Donovan had the classic metropolitan life, she in fashion, he in media, both travelling non-stop and coming together “like ships passing in the night”.
Then a baby was on the way, and a weekend cottage in Dorset was being renovated. They would occasionally stay inexpensively at nearby Bridge House and one day the restaurant manager told them that the hotel was for sale.
The rest we know: the lack of experience; the discovery that the place was far more run-down than they had realised; the endless cost projections and juggling of finance; the struggles with staffing; getting used to a rural existence (we are in glorious Hardy country); and last but by no means least, learning to live and work long hours together.
Have they succeeded? That’s the question those programmes pose. Here, I would answer a resounding “yes”. I found a relaxed atmosphere, but attention to detail, high standards and delightful staff.
The charm of the place is intact and it has been freshened and modernised without sacrificing character. Both the trendy and the crumbly will find things to please them here, the sign, for me, of a balanced, rewarding place to stay.
The mission statement says it all: “Our objective has been, from the very beginning, to create a comfortable, country home of a hotel.”
It would be crazy to try to create anything else here. Dating from the 13th century, this former clergy house, complete with priest’s hole and huge inglenook hearths, is the oldest building in Beaminster.
From the cosy bar and sitting room, decorated with a mix of traditional, modish and eclectic touches, the building meanders uphill to a conservatory breakfast room, a walled garden and most of the bedrooms, each appealingly decorated, each different, with new bathrooms and plenty of extra touches. Four lush front rooms face the busy road, while others, fresher in feel, overlook the garden.
But it’s the well-regarded restaurant, now a calm, elegant space with white walls and tablecloths, rattan chairs, flowers and candlelight, that’s at the heart of the operation.
My friend Jane and I swiftly demolished chef Linda Paget’s Winter Menu, wishing we had ordered one each of the divine chocolate fondants to finish. There are plans for a bistro, and a covered courtyard for outside dining, even a little “beach hut” shop for Jo’s fashion finds.
What exactly was Mark’s former media job? Why, he made television programmes about naïve couples who throw in the day job to buy run-down hotels. Is he willing to be the subject of such a programme himself? No way.