Review by Fiona Duncan, published 28th April 2010.
On the day that the volcano put paid to my attempt to take my mother to Ireland, we swilled about in Bristol airport while I worked out how to make up for her disappointment. After a shopping diversion in Bath (always a good idea to take a captive mother shopping) we headed for a Somerset dower house that I thought might appeal.
Little Barwick House is one of those highly accomplished yet soothing and unpretentious small hotels where stress levels drop to zero and disappointed octogenarians, once installed by the fire with a large gin and the prospect of a half bottle of Givry to go with the duck, are comforted, mollified and altogether pepped up.
Tim Ford's cooking is at the heart of the operation. He and his wife Emma bought the house 10 years ago and their enjoyment in what they do, and the ease with which they do it, generates the calm, contented atmosphere.
"We'd both worked in some pretty serious places," Emma told me, "but for our own enterprise we wanted to offer similar standards without the fuss." The previous incumbents had let things slide and there was much to do – too much, thought Emma. "I looked at the awful decoration and carpet up the side of the baths and baulked. But Tim said it would be fine, and it was."
The listed house is white-painted and early Georgian, with a Victorian addition. There's a huge cedar on the lawn and a working farm behind. In the grounds of adjacent Barwick House, four late 18th-century follies can be reached by public footpath. The tongue-in-cheek Barwick Follies include Jack the Treacle Eater, which immortalises a noted local athlete who trained on a diet of the sticky stuff.
In the comfortable sitting room we found shelves of books and family photographs and other guests studying the menu. "This is my first outing since the baby was born," said one, tasting freedom with evident relish. "You'll probably fall asleep," Emma told her. "But don't worry, we'll keep poking you."
The air of relaxed helpfulness is extended to Emma's superb wine list, helpfully divided by taste ("aromatic, medium and fruity", "oak-aged dryish", "soft mellow and fuller reds" and so on) and to her helpers in the dining room, who wear their own skirts and tops as they serve Tim's appropriately uncomplicated, enjoyable, locally renowned food. Melting beef with onion confit for me, free-range duck with wild mushroom risotto for Mum.
We slept well, in deliciously comfortable beds and tranquil domesticated bedrooms. But I'd ditch some of the pine, update the magazines, put the clocks forward and swap the stingy sachets of bath gel and shampoo for bottles. Oh, and I'd tidy up the elegant but poorly painted landing windows, too (minor, but it bugged me every time I passed). Otherwise: an absolute haven, from volcanic ash and everything else.
- Barwick, near Yeovil (01935 423902; www.littlebarwick.co.uk). Doubles from £220 per night, including dinner and breakfast. Access difficult for guests with disabilities.