Review by Fiona Duncan, published 28th December 2008.
For Christophe Brooke, MD of a rapidly expanding niche hotel group specialising in "quirky luxury", there can't have been a more perfectly named place to take under his wing than this one. That's because Brooke has a habit when refurbishing hotels: as soon as he's secured the management contract, he jumps on an aeroplane, flies to India and goes shopping.
How I envy him. Those mysterious, dusty antiques emporiums tucked down alleyways all over India are endlessly absorbing but filled with things that are, for most, too large to accommodate at home. Not for Brooke, with an entire hotel to fill: huge carved beds, wardrobes and mirrors, as well as screens, inlaid furniture, rugs, lanterns and pictures make their way back to England. First they filled the Victoria, a former pub on Norfolk's Holkham estate; then the Bath Arms at Longleat. Last year, they arrived in Pangbourne, and soon they will be unloaded at the Master Builder's in Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, reopening next spring.
As a decorative theme, it works pretty well, particularly in a hotel called The Elephant (a spell as the Copper Inn since 1967 was quickly expunged by Brooke and the original name reinstated). Elephants being, for the purpose, Indian, it's the perfect excuse for an oriental look and elephantine puns (the busy, pub-like bar is called Babar, of course). Elephant room keys, ornaments, logos, postcards and statues proliferate.
Bustling Pangbourne marries proximity to Reading and Heathrow with the peace of the Thames (crossed here by a lovely old toll bridge). Right in the centre, the refurbished Elephant juggles its tripartite role well: corporate groups and wedding parties have a suite of particularly elegant meeting/reception rooms; locals have a buzzing bar and leisure guests have unusual, if sometimes overstuffed, bedrooms at affordable prices.
Mementoes of India can hide a multitude of sins, and in this old Edwardian building they do. Corridors are narrow and confusing, outlooks are fair to middling, the hearth in the bar is an ugly brick affair, and the bar itself is old hat. Does it matter? Not in the least. It's the atmosphere that counts, and there's nothing wrong with that, courtesy of India, a relaxed attitude and a friendly front of house team.
Take the dining room, with its unlovely brick walls and off-the-peg windows. You could rip it down, or you could do what Brooke has: add Persian rugs, painted screens and a huge carved wooden elephant (though personally I don't go for the black tables and chairs – or the curtains).
The food is more than competent (with the exception of breakfast, a disappointment) and the prices reasonable, so who's complaining? Not me. Indeed, for a weekend by the Thames, I thoroughly recommend it. You could even pretend you'd travelled to India.
Church Road, Pangbourne (0118 9842244; www.elephanthotel.co.uk). Doubles from £140 including breakfast. One room for guests with disabilities.