Review by Fiona Duncan, published 17th September 2006.
Here we go again...Stansted Airport. I'm one of those people who need to be stopped from frequent flying, but until that happens, I'm afraid I'm a connoisseur of budget airlines. Tomorrow we're off to stay with friends in Umbria; we shouldn't go, but for 4p return plus airport taxes it's hard to resist.
The snag, as any seasoned low-cost flyer knows, is that the cheapest flights are also the earliest. Check-in is at 5am - do we drive to the airport in the middle of the night and suffer all the next day, or do we blow money on an airport hotel? We're only going for three days... we decide, for once, to blow.
Which hotel? I study a list, and, fond believer that I am, choose a place called Stansted Manor in the hope that it must be just that: an old manor. I imagine something Tudor. Perhaps Elizabeth I slept there. It's not the hotel's fault, I wrongly surmise, that with Stansted Airport just three miles away it's become a travellers' stopover, privately owned but part of the Best Western group, a chain that sets down strict guidelines for any establishment wishing to bear its name.
Well, maybe there was a manor there once; there are certainly extensive grounds, even the hint of an old orchard, but they are unloved. Only when I arrive do I discover that the hotel was built just five years ago. Only five? How astonishing, it looks years older, not 500 years older to be sure, but about 20, stuck somewhere in the 1970s or 80s, complete with patterned carpet, Styrofoam ceilings, shiny faux leather armchairs and Impressionist prints on anodyne walls. Indeed, such little care had gone into the choice of dining-room pictures that it had not one but two copies of Renoir's Girl with a Watering Can, two of Monet's Poppy Field, literally opposite one another, and two of a watery number, I forget which one, by the same artist.
We dine, among these pearls of Impressionist art, entirely alone. "Sorry about that," says the waiter, "it's not usually empty." Before dinner we'd been irritated to find that we had to pay to use the hotel's public computer, and by now I dislike Stansted Manor so much I've lost my appetite. "Could I just have the crayfish salad from the bar menu?" I asked. "Hmm," mused the waiter gravely, "I wouldn't normally say yes, but I'll allow it this time."
Our room is gloomy and smells faintly of cleaning fluid. There's a bag of toiletries and a squirrel on the bed, presumably part of the "upgrade package" which, for an extra £20 (or £30 for the Romance Package) includes such exotic luxuries as bathrobes, fruit, chocolates and a choice of "guest movie or free internet access". Not my idea of romance, and I'm not sure where the squirrel fits in. Why not have a thoughtfully equipped room in the first place and make guests feel good about the hotel?
We sleep fitfully, leave gratefully and arrive at the airport precisely two hours before departure (the hotel offers discounts for parking or a park-and-ride service). We then stand in a queue for as long as it would have taken to drive from our home in London. Next time, that's what we'll do.
Birchanger, near Bishop's Stortford, Essex (01279 859800; www.stanstedmanor-hotel.co.uk). Doubles from £80; breakfast from £6.95.