Review by Fiona Duncan, published 31st August 2008.
Criticising Plumber Manor is a bit like swearing in front of your favourite great-aunt. Unthinkable.
They have much in common, Plumber Manor and the esteemed aunt. She is tweedy and stout, set in her ways, a bit eccentric, and though a little opinionated, a softie at heart. As is Plumber Manor, one of the most endearing hotels to have sprung up in rural England in the past few decades. Beloved by many, it carries on regardless, just like that aunt.
It’s a private hotel in the truest sense. The house, in the same family (Prideaux-Brune) since the 17th century, was turned into a hotel in 1972, with a restaurant at the heart of the operation, by P-B siblings Brian and Richard, and Richard’s wife Alison. Brian is chef, while Richard, front of house, knows many of his guests personally and sets the tone: affable, unflappable and nicely irreverent (it’s best, though, if he likes the cut of your jib). The Daily or Sunday Telegraph appear, unbidden, at every breakfast table.
Plumber Manor sits in secluded grounds, with Dorset fields beyond. The Divelish, a tributary of the Stour, winds through the pretty garden. As for the Jacobean manor itself, there are surprisingly few period features inside, and it’s the informal hall with its piles of logs under the stairs, old croquet mallets and snoozing black labrador in the porch, and the portrait-lined upstairs gallery, that give the best sense of being in the home of a country squire.
The most striking feature of the dining room is the portrait of the brothers’ beautiful grandmother who, by chatting up the guard, would persuade the train from London to make an unscheduled stop near the manor so she could walk home. Across the hall, the bar-cum-sitting room feels more scholastic than country gentry and cries out for sympathetic redecoration. Not that its appearance remotely dampened the convivial atmosphere on our Sunday evening visit (“so why go to the trouble?” Richard would doubtless ask) when it was full of animated, contented guests.
Bedrooms are priced by size. Personally, I’d prefer a smaller, less expensive room in the main house to a large one in the courtyard annexe, because the former gives more of the flavour of a private home. With their pretty, sprigged wallpapers and floral curtains, the bedrooms are best appreciated by great aunts, though even they might do away with our avocado suite, while the crimson carpet, white dressing table, trouser press and floor-standing television were serviceable but terribly dated. As for internet access, you instinctively know better than even to ask.
Do you have a problem with all this? I don’t, especially as the room rates reflect the shortcomings. The enduring charm, the strength (its detractors would say the weakness) of Plumber Manor is that it carries on, year in, year out, just the same, unmoved by praise and criticism alike. Indeed, if you made a rude comment to this favourite aunt, she wouldn’t turn a hair, just wave it aside and “crack on”.
Sturminster Newton (DT10 2AF; 01258 472507; www.plumbermanor.com). Doubles from £120 to £180 per night, including breakfast. Ground floor rooms for guests with disabilities.