Review by Fiona Duncan, published 28th December 2010.
"Well, there are no dolphins here, that's for sure. But we do have otters," said the delightful Jenny, encouragingly.
Dolphins? The reason I've made a beeline for this Cotswold hotel is because it's the sister property to the Cary Arms on the Devon coast, a place I fell in love with. Jenny used to work there and remembered that I'd had the luck to spot dolphins in the bay.
The marvellous Cary Arms is the first; this one, in the Cotswolds, is the second. I'm not entirely sure why they chose it. There's no doubting the attractiveness of the setting, on the River Windrush, close to the ruins of the 15th-century Minster Lovell Hall, nor ye olde pedigree of the Old Swan, a 600-year-old village inn, but the Minster Mill across the road is altogether less alluring: it was a conference and venue centre until de Savary bought it in May, and
it retains something of its earlier incarnation.
Here, the 40 motel-like bedrooms that stretch out behind the old mill have been smartly revamped but the rooms remain tiny, with the narrowest corridor and smallest entrance lobby and doors I've ever come across.
A vet, apparently, originally built the Seventies accommodation block: perhaps he meant it for rabbits. The six river-view rooms are the best, with firepits on their terraces – a nice, typically de Savary touch, like the special meals for dogs and the petting farm for children.
Much better, and more expensive, are the bedrooms in the Swan (though reception, wherever you are staying, is in the Minster Mill, which makes for a confusing start). They've been attractively, if soberly, redecorated, though surely the old regime is responsible for the impossible bath/overhead shower controls which, despite a printed warning, managed to soak not just me but my two friends, Sarah and Lui, as well.
We disappeared into our rooms clothed and dry; and we all emerged into the corridor a few minutes later cursing, laughing and dripping wet.
To me, the Old Swan and the Minster Mill are oddities. Corporate guests come from the latter to dine in the former. On our visit, the draughty dining room was swamped with a big group of them, so the three of us happily relocated to the rather cramped snug for hearty gastro food served on big slate plates.
There's also a welcoming sitting room for residents: as at the Cary Arms, it's another excellent de Savary touch.
A great deal of thought has gone into both properties. The Cary Arms is special but, despite the expenditure of a million pounds, the Old Swan still feels run of the (Minster) Mill.
- School Hill, Minster Lovell, Witney (01993 774441;www.oldswanandminstermill.com).
- Double rooms from £135 per night, including breakfast. Access difficult for guests with disabilities
The hotel has a very well-described three-mile circular walk that takes in The Lamb (01993 703753; www.thelambcrawley.com) at Crawley, a cosy (big fire) and traditional (flagged stone, polished wood floors and oak beams) pub with first-rate food; the end of the walk also passes the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall (www.english-heritage.org.uk).
Visit The Mason's Arms in South Leigh, near Witney (01993 702485), a great favourite of chef Raymond Blanc, who describes it as his all-time favourite pub, adding that "Gerry, the owner, hates vegetarians, hates children, loves cigars. He's a great host. The menu is very Old French – steak, roast duck, dover sole – and the wine list is excellent. There's no better way to spend a winter Sunday afternoon…"
The hotel plans to build a spa next year; in the meantime there is a gym and one relaxing treatment room where the hotel therapist uses the delicious products from Yon-Ka, luxurious and packed with essential oils. Treat yourself to a Yon-Ka facial after your walk.