Review by Fiona Duncan, published 18th November 2010.
The Hand and Flowers sounds as if it should be a pub – but it isn't. It used to be, but five years ago it was transformed into a very good restaurant, with two adjoining cottages farther along the busy main road forming its four-suite accommodation.
The chef-proprietor is Tom Kerridge, who gained a Michelin star within 10 months in a kitchen that was then the size of a large cupboard. These days he has a new, celadon-green kitchen and a brigade of chefs to help create his crayfish Scotch egg, slow-cooked duck breast with duck-fat chips (both made famous on the Great British Menu television programme) and other earthy, deeply satisfying dishes that are also full of imaginative twists, served in a cosy and convivial dining room to which locals, as well as the odd celebrity, flock.
"Sorry about the waiters tonight," we were told, "but they can't concentrate properly – they're cricket-mad and Andrew Strauss [the England captain] is over there."
Talking of celebrities, it was in whitewashed, Gothic-windowed Albion House (now called Shelley Cottages), a few doors along from The Hand and Flowers, that Mary Shelley, just 19 years old and pregnant with her third child, wrote Frankenstein.
Shelley is a woman who makes me feel quite weak. By the time she was 25 she had been ostracised by polite society, written Frankenstein, given birth to four children, and become a widow when her husband, Percy Bysshe, drowned and was burned on a pyre on a Tuscan beach while Byron went for a swim.
Mary and Percy Shelley were also serial house movers who took a stream of lodgings both in England and abroad. How she found the time for anything but packing I don't know.
But in West Street, Marlow, the Shelleys remained for a whole year – before they left, first for London then for the Continent – surrounded by a coterie of literary, liberal types.
And while one might envy them for the place that worldly, commercialised Marlow was in their day ("these woody hills, these sweet green fields and this delightful river") they didn't have the likes of The Hand and Flowers – and we do.
"The waiters can't concentrate – they're Frankenstein mad and Mary Shelley is sitting over there," the waiters might have whispered to us 193 years ago.
If I were Mary Shelley, I'd be nagging Percy to nip along to the Hand at least once a week because, as restaurants go, it rocks, with a great team spirit among the staff and food that really pleases.
I just wish I could say the same for our ground-floor room. On first acquaintance it looked charming, with sitting area, fireplace and private courtyard. But comfortable it certainly was not. The bed, wedged between two walls, was hard to get out of, the high-sided bath hard to get into, the tiled floor too cold, the desk chair too low and the traffic noise was a problem in the morning.
As for the outside hot tub, it was lovely once immersed, but even that was awkward to enter and leave: not ideal in chilly autumn weather.
None of this would have been a problem if the price had reflected the shortcomings. I might just, at a pinch, have been prepared to pay £150; but I thought £190 was too much.
If I had been Mary Shelley, I would have upped sticks and moved lodgings – yet again.
- 126 West Street, Marlow (01628 482277; www.thehandandflowers.co.uk) Doubles from £140 per night, including breakfast. Access difficult for guests with disabilities.
WHAT TO DO
The Thames is 10-15 minutes’ walk away and on a clement day there are few things nicer than a boat trip. There are a several companies that offer them (though they close for the winter). Serene Waters (01628 850936; www.serene-waters.co.uk; bookings from April 1) charges from £50 an hour, which includes a skipper.
LUNCH AND AFTERNOON TEA
A great place for Sunday lunch is The Queens Head (482927;www.marlowslittlesecret.co.uk) in Little Marlow, where you are likely to bump into chefs from all over the area. For an afternoon tea, try the award-winning Danesfield House (891010; www.danesfieldhouse.co.uk) in Marlow, where finger sandwiches and scones come with a spectacular view of the river.
Marlow Common is about a mile from The Hand and Flowers. This time of the year, it is perfect for mushroom foraging and seeing lovely autumn woods. If you are looking for a longer walk, you can walk along the river towards Henley, which is around eight miles.