Review by Fiona Duncan, published 9th September 2007.
It's one of those places, The Bear, that makes me wish I'd lived in earlier, more colourful times, since its history belies the humdrum face it shows to the world today.One of the oldest inns in England, with its roots in the 13th century, it was given by Henry VIII to both Anne of Cleeves and Katherine Parr, visited by Elizabeth I, whose coachman expired here, and used by William III to meet the Commissioners of England in his bedchamber to negotiate his receipt of the English Crown. Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn stayed, too; according to their diaries, they both enjoyed the fish.
Cling to these facts. They'll give a night at The Bear more interest, because today's reality is far more prosaic than its past: even the stuffed brown bear that I used to look out for as I drove past has been brought in for its protection, and now sits behind glass. It was the end of the coaching era that spelled the hotel's steady decline, the nadir of which was its recent spell as a Ramada Inn. But now the rot has stopped.
I was invited to witness The Bear's recent refurbishment and so, for once, turned into the hotel's ample car park instead of rushing past. First pleasant surprise: a large weeping willow beside the briskly flowing water of the little River Dunn, and a tiny green island, surrounded by streams, reached by a wooden bridge. You can have a drink or bar food here, and the main road feels far away.
There are also bedrooms in an annexe overlooking the water, but don't stay in one. They have yet to be refurbished and they must be grim because the receptionist neatly got out of showing me one.
All the other rooms, either in the nicely creaky main building, or in another annexe across the courtyard, have been done up, as has the ground floor. It's all, well, predictable and perfectly pleasant and nothing whatsoever to do with the hotel's rich past.
Chunky handmade wooden furniture in the bar, pastel colours in the dining room, pale bedrooms accented with a vibrant bedcover, armchair or stretch of wallpaper.
Despite the excellent beds, we might have lain awake for hours in the sickly orange glow that leaked through the curtains, courtesy of the floodlights along the front of the building, if we hadn't just eaten and drunk so very well.
The food was the second surprise, and why the dining room was almost empty on a Friday night I can't imagine. There's a chef in the kitchen (Phil Wild by name) who knows what he's doing (and breakfast only reinforced our favourable impressions).
An assiette of langoustines and crab with fennel dressing and duck breast with artichoke purée was particularly good, while from an intelligent wine list we drank a lively Pouilly Fumé and a terrific, complex Argentine Malbec. The bar meals, apparently, are up to the same standard. For the food alone, I'll happily stop at the ancient Bear again.
Charnham Street, Hungerford, Berkshire (01488 682 512; www.thebearhotelhungerford.co.uk)
Doubles from £100 per night; breakfast £9.95.