Review by Fiona Duncan, published 1st February 2005.
Just as in summer our thoughts turn to the seaside and sunny, spacious hotels filled with light, so in winter we dream of long walks and old-fashioned comforts; of squashy sofas and good books; a stack of crumpets in front of a crackling log fire; snug bedrooms, farmhouse kitchens and traditional English food. You might think that Britain is stuffed with hotels where one can play out this winter fantasy, but in reality they are increasingly hard to find. I can think of many erstwhile cosy, traditional inns that have had recent makeovers and now proudly feature the word ‘stylish’ in their brochures.
They are cool and attractive, homes-from-home for urban dwellers who no longer drink in the local pub but zinc and beech wood bars, but, though they still have open fires and original features they’re just not cosy any more. The hotels described here are my pick of genuinely cosy winter retreats. They include a fine example of that dying breed, the traditional English inn serving traditional English food, as well as snug cottages, a London bolthole, some converted railway carriages and a fine windmill. Though they cater for different tastes, they are all places where it’s a pleasure to come in from the cold.
The Bark House, OakfordbridgeTucked away in the valley of the Exe, one of the prettiest in the county, this is everyone’s idea of a Devon hideaway, smothered in wistaria, with views across fields to the river and the thickly wooded hillside beyond. Spend the day walking on Exmoor, returning in time for afternoon tea in front of the fire in the homely little sitting room. Proprietor Alastair Kameen will have baked a cake, perhaps lemon drizzle or rich chocolate, and some shortbread. “Everything that’s gooey and sticky and bad for you is made by Alastair” says his partner Justine Hill. “I’m in charge of the healthy options”. Alastair also cooks dinner, locally sourced, which he serves in the low-beamed, candlelit dining room, and then it’s time to tuck up in one of five comfortable bedrooms, some of which face the road – fairly busy by day but quiet at night. You will wake to a serious treat: the award-winning breakfast menu lists the provenance of every item, even the tea, and features three types of muesli, made by Justine, seasonal fruit compotes, local organic sausages, bacon and eggs and a wide range of home-made preserves as well as bread.
Oakfordbridge, Devon (01398 351236; www.barkhouse.co.uk). Doubles from £85 per night including breakfast.At the Sign of the Angel, LacockLacock and the Sign of the Angel go hand-in-hand: the ‘perfect’ English village (almost entirely in the preserving hands of the National Trust) and the epitome of the medieval English inn – half-timbered without; great log fires, oak panelling, beamed ceilings, polished antiques and splendid old beds within. It’s certainly not stylish (with the exception of one bedroom decorated in contemporary shades of beige and cream specially to appeal to younger guests), and it certainly is cosy. Very little has changed since the Levis family came here in 1953. Daughter Lorna and her husband George Hardy, once a farmer, are now in charge, and while the bedrooms have all been refreshed and updated, they remain prettily old fashioned and full of character. One has a four-poster, another the vast Brunel bed, made for the engineer when he worked in Spain. One bathroom has panelling that once adorned Lord Rothschild’s dressing room, another, on the ground floor, has a hip bath, a pretty Victorian grate and lace curtains at the window. The quiet oak-panelled resident’s lounge (the Angel is emphatically a hotel, not a pub) on the first floor is just the place to curl up with a good book. There’s a roaring fire, with the date 1639 inscribed on the chimneybreast, and two enormous square leather armchairs. How ever did they get up the twisting, creaky staircase? “With difficulty”, says George. No change to the resolutely English menu either: this is one of the few places where a traditional roast is offered in the evening, as well as old timers such as junket and prunes for breakfast, plus, of course, a huge cooked meal should you want it. Lorna and George are the chefs, helped by friendly, chatty local waitresses who know each other well, adding to the feeling that staying at the Angel is a bit like standing on a rock in a rushing river.
Church Street, Lacock, Wiltshire (01249 730230; www.lacock.co.uk). Doubles from £105 per night including breakfast.The Thatched Cottage, BrockenhurstThough it will be too dainty and tiny for some, no one could deny that this lovingly cared for, family-run restaurant with rooms in the New Forest is cosy – in fact it’s hard to think of five cosier bedrooms anywhere, especially the two with gas log fires in their grates. Two other bedrooms have a canopied and four-poster bed respectively, and they all positively drip with old-world charm: flower stencils on the walls; tea things on little lace-covered tables; ornaments on the mantelpiece; a tray of drinks on the window sill; more lace at the windows; deeply comfortable beds dressed in crisp white linen; beams, low ceilings, and warmth.In the high-ceilinged restaurant, soft classical music plays in the background, clocks tick and Richard Matysik prepares elaborate dishes such as local venison on a tri-coloured vegetable gateaux and cappuccino ice cream parfait in a kitchen open to view. You will be well looked after – invariably a glass of champagne on arrival, plus help with unpacking should you wish it, and breakfast until 11am, in bed if you prefer. Tea is a highlight (the Thatched Cottage began as an award winning tea room) and comes on a silver three-tier stand piled with finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and home-made cakes.
16 Brookley Road, Brockenhurst, Hampshire (01590 623090; www.thatchedcottage.co.uk). Doubles from £90 per night including breakfast.The Old Railway Station, PetworthIf you have ever been lucky enough to travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, you will know what a deliciously cosy experience it is to settle down for the night in your sleeping compartment, a private haven rattling through the night. Though you won’t wake up in the Swiss Alps, the next best thing is to stay at the Old Railway Station in the South Downs, and book one of three original Pullman carriages – dining rather than sleeping cars – now converted into six charming, original, warm and snug bedrooms, each with a pretty Victorian brass bed, and en-suite bathroom (with baths and power showers). The old station itself (closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s) is a fine clapboard building whose waiting room and ticket office make a fabulous sitting and breakfast room for guests, with a coal fire that’s lit at 6am each morning from October to April. Owner Lou Ripley is responsible for the conversion, which she has carried out with great panache and attention to detail. There are two attractive bedrooms here, but most people head for the three wooden carriages, Flora (the best preserved, with lovely marquetry), Alicante and Mimosa, parked in the sidings. Breakfast – Champagne if you wish – can be served in the carriage or, in clement weather, on the sleepy station platform overlooking the grassy track and old brick bridge. An enchanting place.
Petworth, West Sussex (01798 342346; www.old-station.co.uk). Doubles from £72 per night including breakfast.L’Hotel, LondonLittle more than a designer shopping bag’s swing from Harrods and Harvey Nicholls, this Parisian-style bolthole has much to recommend it. One of the first upmarket small hotels to emerge in the capital (over 20 years ago) L’Hotel contrives to be intimate and tasteful without going over the top, making it a home-from-home for its many regular guests, warmly welcomed by manager Isobel Murphy. The eleven comfortable, small-scale rooms and one suite, some of which are interconnecting, are decorated in restful tones of beige and cream, with padded fabric on the walls and thick sweeping curtains, backed by wooden shutters or roller blinds. The most popular rooms have fireplaces, though safety regulations prevent them from being lit. Rather than the usual symphonies in marble, bathrooms have a country feel, and the naïve paintings on the walls somehow add to the atmosphere of a French hotel. As for breakfast, it’s served either in your room or in the basement bistro, Le Metro, and includes delicious breads and pastries from the hotel’s own bakery. Surely the cosiest restaurant in Knightsbridge, decorated in warm shades of red, plum, and terracotta, its seating combines sofas, banquettes, chairs at wooden-topped tables and bar stools at the brown marble bar. There’s always a comforting buzz here, and at lunchtime the cheese soufflé and a glass of wine make the perfect midday break for serious shoppers. Baby sister of the elegant Capital Hotel next door, l’Hotel is a haven, especially for ladies who shop and lunch.
28 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, SW3 (020 7589 6286; www.lhotel.co.uk). Doubles from £125 per night including breakfast.
The Bell, Skenfrith. Though contemporary and cosy rarely coincide, this is one place that convincingly combines the two. Tucked into the fold of a hill in the Welsh Marches, it has all the ingredients for a winter break that metropolitans could wish for: a huge inglenook, radiating heat, surrounded by sofa, settle and rocking chair; a candlelit, flagstone dining room serving top-notch locally sourced modern British dishes, along with a well-organised wine list (with a generous range of half bottles and wines by the glass); and eight adorable simple-sophisticated bedrooms. Converted in 2001 by Janet and William Hutchings, the formerly run-down inn stands on the Monnow river close to Skelfrith Castle (open daily without charge) in an unchanged village. There are wonderful walks from the door, and a Jersey cream tea on your return. As for those bedrooms, it’s easy to see why Janet says that no one ever emerges for breakfast before nine. Waking under a billowing white duvet, then curling up with a cup of tea on a window seat overlooking the old stone bridge...bliss.
Skenfrith, Monmouthshire (01600 750235; www.skenfrith.co.uk). Doubles from £95 per night including breakfast.Cley Mill, Cley-next-the-SeaIn the late afternoon, when the wind whips across from the sea, there are few greater pleasures than stowing away hats and coats and binoculars (this is bird-watching country, overlooking Cley Bird Sanctuary) and coming home to this ‘real’ windmill. Echoes of children’s adventure stories crowd in as you climb higher and higher in the mill, finally mounting the ladder to the look-out room on the fourth floor. On the inside, everything is just as you might imagine: a lived-in circular sitting room with open fire, comfortable sofas, books, magazines and television, and a little dining room where breakfast and a three-course dinner are eaten communally at a long pine table. There are two circular bedrooms in the tower itself, their bathrooms ingeniously fitted in to challenging nooks and crannies, and other rooms in older parts of the building. All are charming and full of character.
Cley-next-the-Sea, Holt, Norfolk (01263 740209; www.cleymill.co.uk). Doubles from £80 per night including breakfast.Ashfield House, Grassington“We are emphatically a home-from-home, not a hotel”, say the new owners of this stone and slate guesthouse, once miners’ cottages, a peaceful sanctuary at the end of its own yard. And they really mean it. New arrivals often mistake the two warm and welcoming sitting rooms, one with log fire, the other with wood-burning stove, for Joe Azzopardi and Elizabeth Webb’s private quarters, so homely are they, filled with objects d’art and pictures brought back from their travels around the world. On winter evenings they roast chestnuts and marshmallows on the fire and chat to their guests over a drink, before serving a carefully chosen set menu in the pretty dining room. For groups of friends, there’s also an intimate, classical private dining room that sparkles with silver candelabras and cutlery and cut glassware. In the fresh, modestly sized bedrooms you’ll find several types of tea as well as fresh coffee, and fluffy bathrobes in the shower rooms. Beyond the house, insulated from the bustle of the town, is a secretive walled garden.
Summers Fold, Grassington (01756 752584; www.ashfieldhouse.co.uk). Doubles from £80 per night including breakfast.The Mill, MungrisdaleThe millrace still leaps past this 17th century mill cottage tucked below Skiddaw in magnificent open countryside. Inside, all is snug, with fresh flowers, antiques and plenty of books. Drinks are served in front of a roaring log fire, and in the simple dining room, with wheelback chairs and polished wood tables, Elizabeth Quinlan produces her honest, highly regarded five-course dinners and first-rate breakfasts, and still finds time to bake the bread. Wall space everywhere is given over to the results of many years of oil and watercolour collecting by the Quinlans, as well as John Quinlan’s own work. Bedrooms are small and homely; if you need more space, opt for the two that share a sizeable sitting room in the picturesque old mill itself – popular with bridge players, says John.
Mungrisdale, Penrith, Cumbria (017687 79659; www.themillhotel.com). Doubles from £79 per night including breakfast.