Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th December 2010.
Few, if any, of this country’s prime cities have at their heart anywhere as cosy, clubby and individual as Oxford’s Old Parsonage hotel.
Oxford is lucky – up to a point. With the look and feel of a well-worn Cotswold manor house, the Old Parsonage has both history and character. The Russian-red walls of its raised, open-plan restaurant and bar are hung with arresting portraits from the Bloomsbury era, part of the owner’s extensive private collection; a fire burns constantly in the hearth and there’s an umbrella-strewn terrace for summer; and a pleasant air of conviviality, tinged with a whiff of louche, among the students, parents, academics and visitors who make up the clientele.
Centrally located at the end of St Giles, with its proper old pubs and emerald-green college quads accessed by tiny wooden doors, it’s also just a 10-minute stroll from the Ashmolean, as glittering a jewel as ever a newly refurbished museum of treasures could be.
Its roots are in the 14th century, when the building that stood here was a hospice next to the church of St Giles (you mustn’t mind church bells: they ring out long and loud on a Sunday). Today’s building, including the front door and the stone-arched hearth, dates from 1660, when an upwardly mobile cook-turned-entrepreneur constructed a private home and lodging house that, in later years, was said to have sheltered Oscar Wilde and saw a splendidly Oxonian succession of owners including a Master in Chancery, two mayors, a wigmaker, a sculptor and a maltster.
In 1979 a modern-day entrepreneur, Jeremy Mogford, who also owns the Old Bank Hotel in Oxford’s High Street and Gee’s Restaurant on Banbury Road, bought and restored it. All well and good. I’ve lunched there several times and once happily helped scoff a god-daughter’s Graduation Tea, always with happy results on the food front, if patchy and occasionally too slow on the service front, but until now I have never stayed.
What a disappointment it turned out to be. I had assumed that the bedrooms would be as enveloping as the ground floor: how wrong I was. After a smooth check-in, including help with car parking (which is necessarily limited here), we were shown up cramped, twisting stairs to one of four “deluxe” bedrooms in the old part of the hotel.
Can you really charge £254.50 at weekends, not including breakfast, for a room just because it’s old? Well yes, apparently you can in Oxford, even when it’s devoid of interest, save a good Oxford scene on the wall, with an obtrusive air-conditioning unit, standard-issue armchairs, repro brown furniture, a bed that shifted every time we brushed against it, a chest of drawers with chipped veneer and drab curtains backed by rather suburban net curtains.
It wasn’t deluxe; it was dull. We almost preferred the small, also dull but smarter standard rooms in the modern wing, but they all need a facelift and they all cried out for some decorative flair.
In the morning, we hurried downstairs to an excellent breakfast that included yogurt and summer fruits served in mini Kilner jars and home-made granola – after which, we wished fervently for a few squashy armchairs in which to devour the Sunday papers.
But we left on a high note: lunch in the velvety room, whose allure should be echoed throughout the hotel, was perfection.
- 1 Banbury Road (01865 310210; www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk). Doubles from £132 per night, excluding breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.
The hotel provides an excellent information pack called Things to Do in Oxford. It also provides a complimentary guide, Isabella Underhill, who is an Oxford resident and art historian, for walking tours of the city which are by all accounts excellent. Also free bikes.
Another excellent guide is Elizabeth Hudson-Evans (07770 882002), who offers two-hour tours that go behind the scenes to colleges and around the Bodleian Library, as well as the most interesting parts of the museums.
Where to eat
My friend Helena Mercer, whose delightfully idiosyncratic fashion emporium, Next to Nothing in Oxford Covered Market (Fourth Avenue) is not to be missed, sites Gino's Spaghetti House (94 Gloucester Green; 01865 794446; www.ginos-oxford.com) as her favourite restaurant: full of Italians, mama's home made pasta, main courses for £5, a map of Italy on the ceiling.